Verslunarmannahelgi (“Merchants‘ Weekend”) initially came about because the first Monday in August was designated a statutory holiday for merchants and anyone working in trade in Iceland.
Nowadays, convenience stores, roadside shops and tourist shops pay their staff extra to be able to stay open on that day, so that they can make money out of all those on holiday that weekend. Meanwhile, everybody else is slacking off, because that Monday is simply a bank holiday and the weekend leading up to it is the summer’s biggest camping and festival weekend.
Some of the festivals have been ongoing concerns for decades, like the Þjóðhátíð in Vestmannaeyjar. Technically it started in August 1874 when the islanders had their very own celebration on Iceland’s 1,000 settlement anniversary. After that, they had a celebration every few years in August but since around 1920, they’ve held an annual festival which has grown in numbers and form after outsiders were welcomed to join in. It is now one of the most popular festivals of Verslunarmannahelgi, with tickets to the festival selling out weeks prior. Transport to and from the island during the festival week is also usually fully booked long in advance. So, word of warning, if you want to explore Vestamanneyjar because of the islands’ beautiful landscape and extraordinary history (you know that it almost exploded in an eruption 40 years ago and over 5,000 islanders had to flee to the mainland in a matter of hours, right? See issue #9) the Merchants’ Weekend is NOT the best time to go. But if you want to spend the weekend sleeping in a tent, munching on smoked puffin and dried fish, enjoying outdoors concerts with up to 10,000 drunk Icelanders of all ages, with bonfires and extravagant fireworks, then you should have made arrangements thereof sometime in May.
There are loads of other festivals to choose from, though. Most of them have a similar set-up: Out-of-towners fill up the camping sites while local families gather together; people feed on BBQ steaks, hot dogs and ice-cream and entertainments are on offer for the kids during the day and dances or concerts at nights.
This is the weekend when most towns and villages have a little carnival atmosphere as their camping sites fill up with visitors looking for nice weather and a good time. It’s hard to decide which are the most popular festivals because when Icelanders take the road, they tend to just follow the sun.
Swamp soccer, herring adventures
There’s the annual Swamp Soccer tournament in Ísafjörður (www.myrarbolti.com), with several side-events in and around town. Anyone can sign up for the Swamp Soccer, if you’re not a part of a team when you arrive in Ísafjörður, they’ll find you a team or have you and a bunch of other loners form a scrap-team so this is definitely a very welcoming festival. Especially if you don’t mind getting covered in mud.
Ein með öllu (“One with everything”) is a family festival in Akureyri, and the organizers have consciously tried to minimize teenage partying by not allowing people under the age of 18 to stay at the town’s camping sites without a custodian. There’s plenty of leisure activities on offer during the day, such as mini-golf, sailing, water games, street performers, yoga, picnics and a marketplace. Various musicians and DJs then perform in the evenings at the town’s bars and clubs.
The Herring Adventure in Siglufjörður pays nostalgic tribute to the golden age of herring fishing, when everybody who possibly could tried to get rich from the massive demand for salted herring abroad (and the massive supply of unsalted herring swimming about in the ocean). Apart from reenacting some of the old herring processing and relishing in the various cooking methods of herring and other fish, the organizers concentrate on art and culture as well.
Sæludagar í Vatnaskógi is quite different from the other festivals as it’s a family festival organized by the Icelandic YMCA and YWCA societies. Obviously no drinking is allowed there and as Vatnaskógur is a location for children’s summer camps, there’s a lot of physical activities that everyone can join in on. There are also church services, quizzes, singing and dancing.
SÁÁ (National Centre of Addiction Medicine) holds a Sobriety festival at the camping site in Laugaland in Holt in the south of Iceland. Obviously, no drinking is a allowed and the activities include 12-step meetings, meditation, yoga and all sorts of wellness leisure, as well as the traditional fun games for kids and music gatherings in the evenings.
Neistaflug is the town festival of Neskaupsstaður in the Eastfjords. It’s the typical family festival with sports events, singing competition between neighbourhoods, an angling contest, outdoors performances and concerts at night with bonfires and fireworks.
But if you’re stuck in Reykjavík (or just not very interested in venturing outside of it) during this huge, nationwide weekend break, despair not. Innipúkinn music festival is tailor made for those who don’t fancy lying in a tent or dancing in hiking boots carrying their booze in a backpack. Various music acts perform at a number of smaller venues in Reykjavík where you can sit at tables sipping your drink from a proper glass.