Akureyri may be the capital of the north, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to see in north-central Iceland. On the contrary, if you drive up the west coast of Eyjafjörður, you’ll encounter quite a lot of natural beauty, culminating in the town of Siglufjörður, with its tumultuous and rage-inducing history.
A little background: Siglufjörður was pretty much like any other fishing village in Iceland until huge stocks of herring were discovered in its vicinity in the early 20th century. This sparked a boom time for the town, which swelled to about 3.000 permanent inhabitants and saw hundreds of ships from all over Europe docking in its port. Herring speculators—entrepreneurs who established businesses in the town—were revered by the people who fished, canned, pressed, ground and shipped the fruits of their labours overseas. Everything was chugging nicely along until the herring stocks dried up in 1969, at which point the speculators fled town, the ships stopped coming, and Siglufjörður essentially collapsed upon itself. Today, barely 1.500 people call the town their home.
What makes this history even sadder is the fact that the speculators didn’t exactly leave town poor. One story recounts how one herring speculator, many years after leaving behind a load of unpaid workers, was still rich enough to be able to settle salary debts out of his own wallet, if one of his former employees happened to bump into him on the streets of Reykjavík. The leftist in me naturally wondered why dude didn’t just settle his unpaid salary debts all in one go—why did you need to physically find him on the street in order to get paid for the work you did? Funny how Iceland’s rich really haven’t changed their behaviour since.
In any event, Siglufjörður today is actually a gorgeous little town, and the star attraction—the Herring Era Museum—is a lot more fascinating than it might sound. There are three buildings, each painstakingly recreated to period detail. The main building, for example, featured the living quarters of the herring workers, brought vividly to life by countless personal touches—old calendars still hang on the walls, bottles of cologne and booze from the time are here, the bunks are still made up with straw-stuffed mattresses, pantyhose from the period hang from twine, and so forth. You could spend literally hours wandering around in this place and still not catch every little thing. It really brought the era to life. The other two buildings similarly recreated the fishing ports and the herring factories respectively.
You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy the Herring Era Museum, although history buffs were surely have a field day at this place. Rather, this is the place to go to see Iceland’s recent past come to living, breathing life, and it may just give you a deeper understanding of the country as a whole.
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