Did you know that eastern Iceland kicks ass? Sea monsters! Trees! Reindeer burgers! What’s not to love? And you don’t have to spend all day driving to get here either. Grapevine photographer, Hvalreki, and I boarded an early flight and flew to Egilsstaðir in just 55 minutes. We arrived on the morning of the first snow of the season and were met at the airport by the Director of Business Development, Sports and Culture for Egilsstaðir, Þórarinn Egill Sveinsson.
Egilsstaðir is the largest settlement in Austurland, located at the crossroads of the Ring Road (Route 1) and access routes to the eastern fjords. Driving through the different residential streets we observe how the slower pace of things makes for a relaxed family friendly atmosphere. Townspeople were out and about in cocoons of squeaky, colourful winter coats and parents pulled kids down the side of the road on sleds. The mayor was up on a ladder hanging Christmas lights from the roof of his house and waved to us as we drove by. Þórarinn tells us the community is quite proud of its small businesses, low unemployment rate (3%), and flourishing arts and sports programmes.
Egilsstaðir became a municipality in 1987 and is like a teenager stuck in puberty, waiting for a growth spurt and not fully developed. Business parks sprawl out unpredictably, and there is no decipherable layout to the place. As we wind our way back through some neighbourhoods toward downtown, Þórarinn talks about the farming history of Egilsstaðir (which takes its name from the Egilsstaðir farm). Farms in the area provide many local restaurants with produce and meat for their menus, like meat from the reindeer that live in Austurland.
According to Hvalreki, who lived in the area some years ago, the N1 gas station has the best reindeer burger in town. For 1500 ISK you can eat such a burger prepared with a tasty béarnaise sauce, and served with a mountainous side of fries. I ate one, Hvalreki ate two. They were delish.
Bellies full of reindeer meat, we hit up Sláturhúsið Cultural Centre (Sláturhúsið means slaughterhouse) to meet with director, Halldór Waren. Sláturhúsið is a labyrinth of old meat lockers, freezers, and renovated spaces of all sizes and shapes. Halldór said his mission is to provide the community with as many opportunities to create and experience the arts as possible. The Sláturhúsið had 11.000 visitors last year and hosts a theatre festival, movie screenings, houses three artists in residence, a 140 person theatre, a college run radio station, recording studio, and endless exhibition space. Icelandic musicians play here regularly, too: ADHD, Mugison, and Lay Low each played concerts in the theatre recently. Keep tabs on Sláturhúsið at www.slaturhusid.is, and make sure to check their schedule when planning a trip to the region.
Macy’s Is Everywhere
Hvalreki and I are both Americans and since it was the day after Thanksgiving we decided to observe Black Friday, the US’ biggest shopping day of the year. Hvalreki suggested we go to Macy’s…but not THAT Macy’s. Some years back, as an ode to the commercialism that is slowly taking over Icelandic landscapes, artists Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades created a Macy’s department store facade and erected the structure two kilometres down a snowy horse trail. In the spirit of the day, we travelled the short trip there. It was ironic, it was Black Friday and we saw the sunset behind Macy’s.
The temperature was rapidly dropping so we sought refuge in the elegant and charming Egilsstaðir Guesthouse, located on Egilsstaðir farm. Many rooms overlook lake Lögurinn where lucky guests might spot the sea monster which is said to have inhabited the lake for centuries. Old phonographs, elegant light fixtures, and a wooden spiral staircase add to the character to this historic property; it was a cosy oasis in the middle of the snow covered town.
After a restful night of sleep, I awoke to the cool morning light casting pinks and oranges on the hills across the glassy lake where a group of ducks paddled around quacking near the frosty shore grass. Andrew Wyeth himself could not have painted a more contemplative and serene landscape.
Interesting facts about Egilsstaðir
-Population: 2,265 people; 1 sea monster; 1 Olympic silver medallist
-Lagarfljót is the third largest lake in Iceland and home to the aforementioned sea monster, which has allegedly been around for hundreds of years. Don’t worry, though, the monster hasn’t been spotted since 1987.
-Olympians live here! Local resident, Vilhjálmur Einarsson, won the silver medal for the triple jump at the 1956 Olympic games.
-It is an 8–9 hour drive from Reykjavík to Egillstaðir, but just 55 minutes to fly.
-The recently constructed, much-disputed Kárahnjúkar Dam is located west of town and stands 193 metres tall, 730 metres in length and the largest dam of its kind in Europe.
-Local forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur, is the biggest in Iceland
Air Iceland operates flights to Egilsstaðir and then there is 30 minute drive to Seyðisfjörður.
Book at www.airiceland.is or phone +354-5703000