The Ölfusá river gushes down through southern Iceland, from the place where the Hvítá and Sog rivers meet. The rapidly flowing torrent is sped along by springwater tributaries, creating a roaring, tumultuous flow that winds its way circuitously down to the cold south coast, 25 kilometres away.
In days gone by, this wild river prevented fording or crossing by horseback or on foot, and ferries would transport people across to the eastern shore. The first bridge, built in 1891, was ultimately no match for the force of the river, and collapsed in 1944—the struts still protrude from the choppy water. The second was finished two years later, and has fared better.
It’s across this sturdy suspension bridge that we coast into Selfoss on a wintry December day. The town sits halfway down the Ölfusá, cleaved in two by the busy southbound Ring Road that passes through on its way to the black coastline. Seen from the car, Selfoss seems to consist mostly of this single main strip lined with chain stores, banks, a mini mall, some municipal buildings and a KFC. On a road trip to Skógafoss, Dyrhólaey, Jökulsárlón and beyond, Selfoss would flash by without note—a brief interruption in the vast swathes of the southern landscape.
Of course, wherever there are people to be found, there are stories, too. The settlement of Selfoss dates back to the year 1000, when it was founded by Þórir Ásason. By 1900, one hundred people lived there, growing dramatically—by Icelandic standards—to 6,500 by 2011, making it the largest town in rural Southern Iceland by a considerable margin. Amongst other curiosities, there’s a museum dedicated to Bobby Fischer, whose improbable life path brought him here as his final destination.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the rural town of 1900. We cruise around the empty residential streets, eyeing the nondescript houses, then circle back to the large roundabout that seems to be the somewhat unsettled heart of this oddly transient place. The church was built in 1950, with a proudly modern design. Not much about Selfoss suggests its long history.
Hotel Selfoss is a monolithic 139-room block that looks back towards the river the we crossed so easily moments ago. From our bedrooms, we get a pleasantly unencumbered view to the Ölfusá. Large shards of ice float on its surface, coasting along and getting caught in swirling eddies at the crook of a bend in the river. In the background, the mountains are dusted with snow, giving the landscape a frosted, wintry feel. It’s a taste, perhaps, of Selfoss before the bridge.
Room at the inn
The main reason for our trip, however, is to taste something else. Tryggvaskáli is a lauded restaurant located in an 1890 house that was the first hotel in Selfoss. Now a listed building, the interior layout has stayed the same throughout the decades and various uses. It sits just over the roundabout from the hotel on the banks of the river, and something about its placement feels perfect for an inn.
The interior has a convivial atmosphere, with eggshell blue walls, pleasingly creaky floorboards, and lots of little touches that speak to the building’s history. The menu, however, is thoroughly modern. Chef and co-owner Fannar Geir Ólafsson’s style is playfully maximalist, in stark contrast to the predictably traditional dishes served at most rural Icelandic restaurants.
Up to eleven
Many of the dishes on the game menu come with unexpected flourishes and multiple garnishes—the tender slow cooked pork loin embellished with chilli crumble and serrano ham, or the tuna with leek and shallot, but also pear and a cured egg yolk. The beef tenderloin is served with deep fried shiitake mushrooms and mustardy mash that pushes the flavours all the way up to eleven.
We’re treated to a series of intriguing and varied desserts—a herbaceous skyr comes with a twist of lime, the mango creme brulee is crisply tart, and at some point in the series, popping candy is involved. Fannar clearly has fun creating every single dish, and so do we, puzzling over the unexpected flavour combinations and unusual ingredients. Eating at Tryggvaskáli means buckling up for the ride—and being prepared to loosen your belt a notch afterwards.
The next morning, we take a dip in the spa before packing up and hitting the road back to Reykjavík. As we cross the bridge once more, the ice on the river has gotten thicker, and the snow lies a little lower on the mountains. Winter is closing in, but the residents of Selfoss and off-season travellers can always look forward to a long, lingering night in the homely confines of Tryggvaskáli.