The flight over was a short but harrowing experience – 35 minutes after taking off from Reykjavík, we made our descent to Ísafjörður’s airport. If you choose to travel to Ísafjörður this way, I strongly encourage you not to get a window seat: as the plane approaches the runway, the steep and rocky mountain face appears to be within arm’s reach of the window. Not for the faint of heart.
The first impression I got of this town of about 3,200 is that it reminded me of an Appalachian coal town: charming, relaxed streets flanked by old three-story buildings with businesses on the first floor and apartments above, set against a backdrop of mountains. As our flight landed in the early morning, we checked out our prospects for breakfast and chose Gamla Bakaríið (“The Old Bakery”), an old-fashioned bakery distinguished by the presence of a Model-T Ford parked in front. The bakery, which bears the slogan “Gamalt en síungt” (“Old but forever young”), not only features a vast array of traditional Icelandic breads and pastries but also the West Fjörd’s own “hörkubrauð,” a hard, flat bread. We highly recommend buying one of the bakery’s T-shirts (1,250 ISK) as a worthy Icelandic souvenir that thankfully doesn’t feature a single sheep, Viking, or volcano on it.
We checked into Gistiheimli Áslaugar (“Áslaug’s Guesthouse”), and was built as the family house by Áslaug’s grandfather. We were given what Áslaug told us was her old bedroom. “Yeah, I have a lot of good memories from that room,” she told us. “Enjoy it.”
Gistiheimli Áslaugar meets all the needs of the budget traveller. While no rooms have their own bathroom, there are two separate bathrooms and showers, and a large kitchen with a television. A telephone and numerous brochures on things to do in the West Fjörds are in the corridor. Centrally located but set apart from the clamour of weekend revellers, Gistiheimli Áslaugar is probably the best bet for accomodation on a tight budget.
One of the first things we wanted to check out while we were in the area was a one-man re-enactment of the saga of Gísli Súrsson, a 10th century settler who ends up outlawed – that is, being declared a person who could be legally killed by anyone finding him – after he avenges the death of his blood brother. We were impressed that someone should not only choose to perform a saga as a one-man show, but that a character as relatively obscure as Gísli Súrsson—Egill, Njall and Grettir are the usual three– should be chosen. Unfortunately, the actor performing the re-enactment, Elfar Logi Hannesson, fell ill and was not able to perform, but we were able to meet him at the café he owns, the cozy midtown internet café Langi Mangi, to talk to him about the play.
The rumours are true: there is a distinct accent in the West Fjörd’s – a sort of nasal twang – and Hannesson’s is very prominent.
Hannesson told us that he was inspired to do a one-man show about Gísli Súrsson after being taught the story in school.
“I wasn’t very good in school, but I really liked this story because we had a good teacher who knew it like the back of his hand. He would perform the story himself, bringing the fights to life. He was definitely speaking our language. Another reason why I wanted to do this character is that he’s from this area. He lived in Haukadal, actually, which is very close by.”
Hannesson has taken his show to local schools as well, but is also interested in bringing comedia del arte – an old Italian comedic theatre – to Iceland.
“It’s a form of theatre that uses a small cast of stock characters,” Hannesson explains. “But I think it could be translated into Icelandic culture well.”
Hannesson had to cut the interview short because he had to drive a couple of tourists to the airport, but for more on his work, go to www.comedia.is
There’s more to the West Fjörds than Ísafjörður, so on the following day, we managed to convince a pair of friends we hadn’t seen in a few years to take us with them on their way to Bólungarvík. Although only about half and hour away, you pretty much enter a different world once you get outside of Ísafjörður.
The car wound across a steep mountain face and rounded into Hnífdal. This small village is entirely residential. We drove past it in the middle of the day and found it completely deserted: everyone in Hnífdal was either at work or school in neighbouring towns, and many of the houses looked abandoned. Adding to the ghost town vibe was our driver, who told us there had been an avalanche here recently that flattened two houses.
“In the old days,” he added, “they had to wait until spring to dig people out.”
Avalanches and landslides are definitely a big concern in the West Fjörds, and we drove past numerous roadside steel nets suspended from poles and corrugated walls fashioned into a zig-zag pattern. Above them, waterfalls poured down the mountains from the cloudlines.
Before long, we arrived in Bólungarvík. This picturesque little town is well situated on a wide expanse of flat land beneath mountains kept relatively far back from the town itself. There’s some excellent hiking around town, and the sleepy, isolated feel makes it an ideal place to really unwind and forget the rest of the world. Some visitors, in fact, have come here and never left.
Alain Garrabé is one such visitor. Originally from France, Garrabé is a painter who came to Bólungarvík some years to find a place to do his work in peace and has yet to return home. Garrabé lives simply, living mostly off of vegetables planted in his own garden, spending nearly all of his waking hours either reading or painting.
“This is the ideal setting for me,” he said, gesturing to the mountains framed in his living room window, “This whole area gives me inspiration.”
That inspiration is certainly evident in his work. Garrabé takes the geometric patterns of the mountains and shoreline he sees every day, breaks their angles down into their simplest forms, and then extrapolates more intricate patterns from these forms. The result is a lot like looking at the world through a strangely-cut quarz crystal. The titles for the paintings are usually just a description of the colour scheme, as in “Green-Yellow-Blue.”
Living simply is probably the best Garrabé will be able to do for a while, as he has a strict set of principles when it comes to marketing himself (he doesn’t) and pricing his works.
“I don’t have a card,” he explained, “and I’m not one of these who throw themselves at the media,” telling us he had once had a bad interview experience and was reluctant to try it again – we were only talking to him because he was a friend of our driver. “I price my paintings on what I need to live on. Whatever the galleries want to add, I don’t worry about it. Just so long as I have enough to stay here, I’m happy.”
Garrabé’s newest project incorporates items he finds on the beach with his paintings and our slightly reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s chaotic multi-media works like “Canyon.”
Seeing us to the door, Garrabé told us that he plans on having an exhibition in Reykjavík this August, although he wasn’t exactly sure where or when.
Across the bay from Bólungarvík is a maritime museum Ósvör, which is actually a replica of an old fishing station that used to be on the same location over a hundred years ago. As we were the only visitors, we took our time exploring the three turf, timber and stone houses. The first was actually a drying shed – strips of dried haddock hung from the rack alongside catfish and shark. It was the first time I noticed that catfish have eerily-humanlike molars, which explains their Icelandic name, steinbítur (stone-biter).
The second was an empty stone hut with a pebble floor and stairs leading up to a bare, tiny attic. Slightly more interesting was the neighbouring hut, which had a table covered with hooks, harpoon heads, and the inflated, dried skin of a puffer fish. Nets and pulleys were hung from the wall. Just standing there and imagining living in there is enough to make you feel the onset of a cold coming.
Upon heading back into Ísafjörður, the driver suddenly stopped the car and handed me a pair of binoculars.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing at a patch of nothing. I look closer and saw a small pond, with a few small black things swimming around on it while arctic terns swooped and dove overhead.
“I don’t know what they’re called in English,” said the driver, “but in Icelandic they’re called lummur.”
I looked through the binoculars at the pond and saw three loons swimming in it. Although we were too far away to hear them, I watched one open its beak and let loose with a prolonged cry. I’ve heard the loon before, and it’s a truly ghostlike sound. I hadn’t seen one of these anywhere near Reykjavík, and it made me feel sad that we were leaving for Reykjavík the next day.
The whole of the West Fjörds is remote, and there are countless remote corners within it. Even after multiple visits, you probably still won’t get to see it all, and though you’ll return to the capital with a small feeling of regret for not having stayed long enough, at least you can count on your next visit to be just as worthwhile is the one before.