Echoes Of Heritage In Tálknafjörður

Echoes Of Heritage In Tálknafjörður

Photo by
Art Bicnick
Dagný's archives

One of the oldest buildings in the Westfjords continues to thrive as a vibrant cultural hub

With its large rainbow-coloured chimney, Cafe Dunhagi stands out against the grey and foggy landscape of Tálknafjörður, a fishing village in the southern Westfjords nicknamed Tálknó by its 300 inhabitants. As one of only two restaurants in the area, it has become a popular spot for locals and visitors alike seeking a quick bite to eat. 

Stepping inside, it immediately becomes clear that Cafe Dunhagi is more than just a place to dine — it is a living testament to the fjord’s vibrant history and culture. Black and white photos on the walls offer glimpses into the hardships faced by the community in days gone by, with adverse conditions and a relentless pursuit of survival. However, the food served at the cafe tells a different story, introducing visitors to the modern face of Iceland.

Back to origins

“This building represents a lot of the cultural affairs that went on in this little town,” says Dagný Alda Steinsdóttir, whose maternal family hails from Tálknafjörður. “I had a company that was pouring concrete tiles, countertops and sinks,” explains Dagný, an architect who lived in the United States for 24 years before returning to her homeland. “I moved it all back to Iceland, along with a 1961 Cadillac convertible. When I came back, I saw this place and it had seen better days. So I decided to open a cute little cafe.” 

The cafe’s season runs May 15 through September 15. “There’s a bird that arrives in spring and departs in fall, the Arctic tern. That’s me. I come in the spring and leave in the fall,” Dagný jokes.

Timeless significance

Dagný is known for her passion for telling stories. At Cafe Dunhagi, she has collected old photos, some of them from her relatives, that guide visitors through the history of this place and its people. “They’re a story of the people that lived in this fjord — what they did, how they survived and what the culture was here at that time,” she says, pausing to share a story behind each photo.

“This building represents a lot of the cultural affairs that went on in this little town.”

Built in 1933, the building is the oldest “félagsheimili” or community centre in the Westfjords. Throughout the years, it has been owned by the town and the women’s association, Kvenfélagið Harpa.

“This building is in every family’s photo album here in the Westfjords. It’s like our Heimaklettur for Westman Islanders,” says Dagný, referencing the highest peak on Iceland’s southern archipelago. “It represents something that created this big cultural affair.” 

When the swim laws were introduced in Iceland, the swimming pool in Tálknafjörður, located right across the street from Cafe Dunhagi, was the first and only one in the southern Westfjords. Swimming lessons became obligatory and a space was needed to accommodate the children. Dagný explains that the government invested in the building that is now Cafe Dunhagi, importing timber all the way from Norway. “It was an enormous task and an enormous building for people that were living basically in turf houses,” she says. “In the springtime, it was a huge event where children from all the fjords would come and stay here. The kids would come on their boats or riding horses. They were in the pool from six in the morning until they had gotten their swim card.” The building provided rooms and an eating area for the visiting children.

Dancing through time

“When the swim meets were over, this house was changed into a big dance hall,” Dagný continues, adding that the building would shake at times. “This is where I learned how to dance when I was in school here,” she admits.

The building holds special memories for many locals who met their partners or got married within its walls. “It’s so nice that buildings like that tell a story and people connect to them. Our goal is to, first and foremost, restore that,” says Dagný. Until recently, the women’s association was responsible for the house’s maintenance. “They would have people over for coffee at certain times like Easter Sundays, but it wasn’t getting much use. It was standing pretty empty in the wintertime because it had no heating,” she shares.

As an architect, Dagný couldn’t help but notice the architectural significance of the building. “Just you look at the chimney outside, it is enormous,” she says. Recently, the government granted funds specifically for the restoration of the chimney.

A fresh beginning

Together with her husband, Dagný bought the building several years ago. “That’s when the real work started,” she shares. “He is a master builder, so he can do all the work. Otherwise, it would be very expensive.” The remoteness from Reykjavík would further complicate logistics and contribute to higher expenses. 

“What I had thought in the beginning was just to open up a cute little cafe. Then slowly I realised that there were not a lot of options here for people that wanted to have a taste of Icelandic food,” Dagný shares. Her approach is to use as many local ingredients as possible. “I stay away from all deep frying. I just try to use fish that is fished here locally. I even have some kids picking grass for me that I use for my salad.”

In recent years, the Tálknafjörður area has become a popular destination for birdwatchers. “We have about 32-33 different types of birds,” says Dagný, pointing at binoculars stacked near the window. “People come here, use the binoculars and watch all this flora and the birds.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Taste of Dunhagi

Giving an insight into what Icelandic cuisine represents today is one of Dagný’s goals. She runs the restaurant and cooks all the food herself. Three other staff members join her in the kitchen during the peak tourist season. “I would say 50% of the people that come here are Icelanders that have never ventured into the southern Westfjords and always wanted to,” she says. “We stay busy. Oh my god, we stay so busy all summer.”

Dagný admits that her cafe doesn’t use any recipes. “If the music is good, I cook good,” she laughs, singing along to Nina Simone while opening one of the freezer drawers. “How can you fail when you have this beautiful fresh fish?”

Her cooking style is rooted in having fun and exploring. “It’s all by memory and trial and error,” she says. “That worked well last time, but I’ll change it a little bit this time. Nothing is the same.” 

“I have a menu, but I’m reluctant to put it out because I want to have the option of changing it. If I have cod on it and I don’t get fresh cod, then I’ve got to change it to another fish that I get fresh,” Dagný explains, emphasising that despite the limited menu, she always strives to accommodate everyone.

“This building is in every family’s photo album here in the Westfjords. It’s like our Heimaklettur for Westman Islanders.”

Every summer, Dagný hosts a cultural event at Cafe Dunhagi. “I have artists coming here – writers, performers, actors, musicians. All the people here can come in here for free and enjoy some of those fantastic authors we have in Iceland.” She dreams of expanding these events further, such as hosting artist residencies or inviting guest chefs. “I see the future there – this place is perfect for accommodating such events and food is a big part of cultural gatherings.”

With Dagný’s passion for storytelling, love for good music and dedication to mindful food, it seems that the future of this historic building is finally in the right hands.

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