We stare into the canyon. The glacial river Jökulsá á Brú roars by Stuðlagil, one of Iceland’s largest collections of basalt columns. A dizzying slope, interwoven with precarious foot trails and rope handholds, invites us for a closer view of the river and basalt. The cold August rain has temporarily abated, giving us slippery access to the trails.
On either side of the canyon, two paths lead to Stuðlagil. We’ve taken the highlands road side, stopping at a busy car-park for a glimpse of the unusual geology. Tourists from Greece, France and Canada utter exclamations of wonder over this extraordinary sight, easy to understand despite language differences. We’re all in awe, our adrenaline coursing fast as the icy water as we angle ourselves for jaw-dropping views of the hexagonal basalt and churning blue.
For scale, we photograph hikers on the far side of the canyon, who’ve walked for a few hours to get an even closer look. They wander above the basalt cliffs, stepping down careful paths to stand close to the water’s edge. A six-year-old darts amongst crowberry bushes and birch scrub above the basalt. Our hearts are in our throats.
Iceland’s east dares you to fall in love with its wild geography and passionate population. Stuðlagil set the tone for our day’s outing. We’re full-throated hearts, aware of our precarity in the midst of nature danger. Wind-whipped from our first encounter, we leave the highlands for city life. Our next stop is the newly opened Vök geothermal spa.
Vök’s architecture is a discrete grass-roofed concrete structure, half-buried in the hill alongside Urriðavatn. In Icelandic history, the lake raised suspicion for housing a sea monster, since ice would not form in this location over the winter. Nowadays, it’s understood the lack of ice is due to the lake’s geothermal hotspot. Vök capitalizes on this wellspring, offering an outdoor spa with multiple heated pools that stretch into the lake’s body. One can soak in 40-degree hot water with a hand lazily dipping into the 5-degree lake lapping the hotpot’s lip.
As we enter the facilities, we’re offered to create our own infusion with local Icelandic herbs harvested from Lagarfljót’s ultimate organic farm, Vallanes. We heap birch leaves, thyme, and chamomile into cups and pour over hot water, carrying our treat into the change rooms and beyond to the hotpots. We’re warmed inside and out.
With a glacial river and geothermal wellness fuelling our cores, we’re ready to make friends. Our eyes are wide and our hearts full to bursting as we set off to explore the arts and culinary offerings of Egilsstaðir and Seyðisfjörður in east Iceland.
In Egilsstaðir, the regional art house Sláturhúsið converted an old slaughterhouse into a maze of arts-enabling rooms. Sláturhúsið’s director, Kristín Amalía Atladóttir, shows us around the facilities, which include two exhibition rooms, a music-recording studio, an apartment for visiting artists, and a future podcast studio. They have begun construction on a black box theatre, too, which will cement Sláturhúsið as the performing arts centre of the east.
Next door, Tehúsið is cosiness incarnate. A teahouse with delectable vegan treats and a few rooms functioning as a hostel, Tehúsið’s purveyor is Halldór Warén. Also the former manager of Sláturhúsið, Halldór is similarly making arts dreams for the region come true as he arranges concerts for touring musicians.
Dreams at the end of the rainbow
To the east of Egilsstaðir lays an artsy haven nestled in the crook of an east fjord. The town of Seyðisfjörður splays before us as we descend the mountain. It’s home to the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art, the LungA Art Festival, and the LungA School for arts practitioners.
As we approach, we spot the Smyril passenger ferry in the harbour. The town bustles with passengers about to cross the North Atlantic, eagerly snapping photos of the rainbow walkway leading up to the town’srobin’s-egg blue church. An actual rainbow paints the sky over the town, too, as we step into beloved sushi restaurant Norð Austur.
We receive a warm greeting from Jim van Woensel, our Norð Austur host. Originally from the Netherlands, he spends months every year in this Icelandic home-away-from-home working at Norð Austur. Though a nationally celebrated sushi restaurant, Jim will test the vegetarian menu on us this evening. The menu is scheduled to launch next year.
We chat with Jim between courses, enthusing about Seyðisfjörður’s anything-is-possible mentality and the heart-stopping yuzu liqueur. Seyðisfjörður’s rainbow has made it onto the plate, too, with a flower-garnished wakame salad and maki rolled with avocado, shiitake, and sweet egg. One of the finest restaurants in all of Iceland, Norð Austur ups the cool caché of Seyðisfjörður.
Our final stop is Sirkus. Though new to east Iceland, Sirkus is the stuff of Icelandic lore. The bar was a mainstay in Reykjavík social life until it closed in 2007. The following year for the Frieze Arts Fair, Icelandic art collective Kling og Bang set up a temporary commemoration of Sirkus by erecting it in London. News of Sirkus’ return to Iceland, this time in the cool kids’ capital of Seyðisfjörður, has prompted talk of pilgrimage to the beloved bar.
One of the instigators of Sirkus-Eastfjords, Philippe Clause hugs us as we enter the bar. As a practicing visual artist, Philippe’s entrepreneurship has led him to design clothing and sample plants to make local scents. He is also envisioning the old bookshop as a future artist residency and studio gallery. He’s the ideal champion for Sirkus’ majestic return.
Sirkus is alive and well in Seyðisfjörður, with every seat in the house occupied. The lights are dim, the bar is well-stocked, and enticing conversation burbles from every corner of the room. We wish there was more time to stay in Seyðisfjörður so we could invite our new friends from Sláturhúsið, Tehúsið, and Norð Austur for drinks. It’s an inspired group inhabiting Iceland’s East region. Our hearts have grown three sizes from our brief but bountiful encounters.
How to get there: Route 1
Distance from Reykjavík: 650 km (if driving the north route), 700 km (if driving the south route)
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