From Iceland — A Northern Take on Carnival, Without the Religion

A Northern Take on Carnival, Without the Religion

Published July 28, 2006

A Northern Take on Carnival, Without the Religion

Feel like going on a road trip and listening to pop bands play in front of gregariously drunk locals celebrating their annual holiday by goofing off with grilled hot dogs and taking part in various activities while the police are trying to keep everything under control? Then you should start packing your bags ’cause Iceland’s biggest travel weekend, Verslunarmannahelgin, is only days away.
Verslunarmannahelgin is the merchant’s holiday, always the first Monday in August. Over the past decade, this extended weekend has gained somewhat of a bad reputation as the holiday has been infused with a let’s-party-and-get-wasted-like-hell-has-come-to-earth kind of a feeling all around the country’s outdoor festivals. Even though it is known for heavy drinking, drug use and a time for insane teenage gangs to torment small towns, the festivals of Iceland’s most delirious holidays have their bright moments as well. Families, friends, kids, locals and newcomers try to get along and keep the tradition of a proper day off alive while watching fireworks, singing together and enjoying the outdoor feel. The amazing landscape surrounding many of the festival settings is also an experience in itself.
This national holiday has a long history. The tradition started in the year 1874 when Icelanders celebrated the 1,000-year anniversary of the settlement of Iceland. At that time, the celebration took part in Reykjavík and Þingvellir the first weekend in August. It was a great day for the independence movement, as at Þingvellir, Danish King Kristján IX handed over Iceland’s new constitution in the presence of thousands of Icelanders applauding this event in the country’s history, the first step towards self rule.
Today pop bands have replaced the king and his court, and even though most of the population doesn’t know what started this tradition, and doesn’t really care for that matter, the fanfare is growing in size every year. Witnessing this mayhem is truly an experience and always a good reason to get out of the city for a couple of days. Just remember, the weather can be quite unpredictable so you’d better pack your yellow gumboots and raincoat.
Þjóðhátíð í Vestmannaeyjum
The grandmother of all Icelandic outdoor festivals, Þjóðhátíð in the Westman Islands attracts thousands every year with a big crowd planning their summer around the whole extravaganza. The first one was held in 1874 at the same time the settlement celebration took place on the mainland. The reason for a special festival in the Westman Islands is that local residents couldn’t sail over to celebrate with the rest of the nation due to bad weather and instead of sitting with long faces they decided to have their own little fiesta. Now, 132 years later, the Þjóðhátíð in Eyjar is the biggest national outdoor festival, and things sure have turned around as mainland residents now sail or fly over to the island for partying.
The festival takes place in Herjólfsdalur valley where guests can set up camp surrounded by steep mountains and green fields for the whole weekend. The cream of the Icelandic country ball bands, including Stuðmenn, Á móti sól, Hálft í hvoru, Dans á rósum and Í svörtum fötum are all expected to perform this year, with guests from the city including Dr. Spock, Bubbi, Todmobile, Jet Black Joe and the Westman Islands’ own local band Hoffman. When the bonfire at Fjósaklettur is lit up on Friday night, things start to get serious, and the whole event ends on Sunday evening with the famous “brekkusöngur,” or hill songs, when the whole crowd huddles together to take part in a sing-along.
Þjóðhátíð can be a great fun if you just try to keep away from the war zone the camping site tends to turn into after 2 a.m. when friendly folks become barbarians until they pass out all around the valley.
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Ein með öllu á Akureyri
The town of Akureyri gets quite crowded with ballistic party people when Icelanders from all parts of the country drive north while the Ein með öllu festival takes place. The largest town outside the capital, Akureyri has a lot to offer for visitors. Activities like water skiing, go-karting and a Tivoli, family entertainment, barbeques, parades and fireworks including a line-up of pop-bands like Greifarnir, Apollo, Sálin hans Jóns míns, Land og Synir and Skítamórall are only a fraction of things to see and do. Of course the bars in town all have something planned as well with DJs and rock bands playing until six in the morning. After a wild night the swimming pool in town, one of Iceland’s most beautiful municipal pools, is a popular spot to relax and listen to heroic tales told by fellow festival goers.
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The so-called sobriety-fest in Galtalækur forest with the volcano Hekla dominating the surrounding is a better pick for those seeking a calm atmosphere and cleanliness. Since 1967, this huge outdoor area has been a popular family gathering spot during Verslunarmannahelgin as it is illegal to bring any alcohol into the area. Various entertainers perform all weekend and the programme is suited for small children as well as adults, featuring Stuðmenn with Birgitta Haukdal, Valgeir Guðjóns and Stefán Karl, Paparnir, Skítamórall and Idol-star Snorri Snorrason among many more.
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Neistaflug á Neskaupsstað
The town fair Neistaflug has been held in Neskaupstaður on the east coast every year since 1993. With performers suited for all ages, free entrance to the camping site as well as a location in one of the most beautiful fishing villages in Iceland, Neistaflug draws visitors year after year who just can’t get enough of all this small place has to offer. Gunni and Felix, Birta and Bárður as well as Laddi will attract the young crowd while Skítamórall, Í svörtum fötum and Sálin appeal to those who like to dance through the night.
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Síldarævintýri á Siglufirði
Síldarævintýrið (The Herring Adventure) will be held for the 16th time in the small fishing village Siglufjörður, located on the north coast. The festival draws its name from the big boost in the herring industry during the first decades of the 20th century when the town’s population multiplied in number and became the economic force of the country. Therefore, it is highly appropriate to have a herring-salting exhibition followed by a dance down at the harbour where local accordion players wow the crowd. If, for some reason, you need more than accordion, there are concerts by Geirmundur Valtýsson, Miðaldarmenn, Spútnik, Örvar Kristjáns and Páll Óskar DJing at the central square. Surrounded by towering mountains, many interesting hiking trails in the nearby area are ideal for those who can’t stand the fuss the whole weekend. And, honestly, the Herring Museum is entertaining.
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