Nearly 200 kilometres of road lay in front of us. From Reykjavík to Vík í Mýrdal in two days, that was our mission. That’s not at all that much, you might note, but we had to make some stops on the way in order to delve into the towns along the way and get a feel for their lovely people. It all took a while.
We started our journey with rays of warm sunlight, heading southeast on the Ring Road. Not long into the trip, however, we found ourselves in the midst of a snowstorm that forced us to slow down to 20 km/h, since otherwise, our ginormous yellow camper would have blown away like an empty box of Cheerios. Auspicious beginnings indeed!
Þorlákshöfn, our first stop, assaulted our nostrils with its fishy smell as soon as we opened the van doors. We ventured into Skálinn, one of those ubiquitous grill, gas station and general store combos that dot the country. As we discovered on our trip, a place like Skálinn is the epicentre and hot spot of every small town along the south coast. There we interrupted a romantic teenage couple, Snæfríður Sól and Sighvatur Bjarki, during their date-night dinner of burgers and fries in order to press them on the topic du jour: the teacher’s strike (this was back in March). “I don’t enjoy it, it ruins the routine,” said 18-year-old Snæfríður who, we might approvingly note, is an aspiring doctor. “Everybody else is working, so I have nothing to do.” Where does one go in case of a wave of boredom? The local swimming pool is a desirable destination for fun. Unfortunately, we missed the opening hours: it was past five PM.
Although she claimed to love the town she grew up in, Snæfríður said she wasn’t sure she’d be working in Þorlákshöfn for the rest of her life. Apparently, there’s not much of a future for youngsters in the area. “You either drive to Reykjavík or Selfoss for work, or you get a job in a fish factory,” she explained. “Or you become a teacher, and then you can live here. Those are the two main jobs, in fish factories and in schools.”
We then headed to Meitillinn (“The Stead”), a local bar and grill, which Sighvatur Bjarki told us was one of two places to grab a beer on a Friday night.
Once inside, we found fishermen Styrmir Ingi Hauksson and Ágúst Óli Leifsson enjoying a pint and resting after a windy day at sea. They were in town for very pragmatic reasons. “Our boat was sold to a new owner and we came with it,” Ágúst said. He made it sound as if they were cattle, even though he was actually captain of the ship. “If the pay wasn’t so good, I’d be home in the East, where my heart is,” Styrmir admitted, in what we assumed was a poetic reference to his wife and two kids in Breiðdalsvík. The sap had been forced to sacrifice his preferred profession, too: “If I had a choice, I’d go into bodybuilding or something like that,” he confided. We could easily believe it, since he looked like a bicep on two legs. “I used to work out a lot, but I stopped for the sea.”
The sea is what we wanted to see before we pulled out of fishy Þorlákshöfn. So, we took a short walk to the beach, a highly frequented spot when good wind whispers through the bay. “It’s one of the best surfing places in Iceland,” Sighvatur had bragged earlier at Skálinn. The waves were high, too scary for us to get our feet wet. Also, cold.
From Nowhere To Somewhere In Stokkseyri
By the time we reached Eyrarbakki, it was too late to find anyone on the streets, so we abandoned our plan of meeting more locals and chose our first sleeping spot instead: the parking lot of the town’s tiny white church, next to the only restaurant which was, of course, closed. The mercury was well below the freezing point that night, and crunchy snow lay all over the ground outside. Whiskey and beer warmed us up from the inside, and at some point, sleep washed us away.
We awoke the next morning to beautiful sunshine. The day’s warmer forecast had been accurate, which rarely happens in Iceland. The warmth motivated us to explore the town, seeking any kind of entertainment. However, this turned out to be a doomed pursuit.
We passed two deserted hostels (again: it was March), a retirement home and a forsaken gas station. We then gave up and left for Eyrarbakki’s close neighbour, Stokkseyri, heading instantly for the pool. The lovely outdoor facility welcomed our tired, stinky and frozen bodies. Just as we had made ourselves comfortable in the hot tub, a pleasant voice appeared from behind. “Would you like some coffee?” asked the clerk, his demeanour and his coffee refreshing us back into action. After having a blast going down the slide, relaxing in the hot tubs and wrestling in the children’s pool, we started conversing with Þorvaldur Óskar Gunnarsson, the 21-year-old pool clerk-slash-lifesaver who gave us the coffee.
We had gotten the impression that everything was milk and honey in Stokkseyri, but Þorvaldur quickly smashed our idyllic illusions. “These towns mess you up,” he told us. “Ten per cent of the 445 inhabitants are fucked up.” By the tired and lost look of an older gentleman we saw playing a slot machine later, we would get a glimpse of what he might have meant.
As Þorvaldur explained, leaving town is inevitable. There’s no doctor, no pharmacy and no post office in Stokkseyri. He has to travel to nearby Selfoss, if he needs medical help, wants to send a letter or go out for a drink. “When you turn 18 and get to drive a car, freedom follows. You’re isolated in this area and everyone knows everyone,” he complained. “I know everyone in Selfoss by now, so I go to Reykjavík,” he continued, explaining that he even grew out of Selfoss’s bigger shoes. “There you can meet foreigners, people that you don’t know yet.”
Þorvaldur recommended we check out the Viking house in the middle of town, which turned out to be a turf hut, where perhaps a lot of local teenagers have secretly made out. We did not make out, opting instead to carve snow angels in the pristine snowy lawn that surrounded the hut. Our empty stomachs lead us to another Skálinn-type place. The hot dogs didn’t quite make our senses dance, so we decided to fill our bellies with the famous and truly tasty lobster soup at Fjöruborðið.
Everyone Goes To Hella
We didn’t quite believe the GPS when it told us we had arrived in Hella, even though we were in front of a small shopping centre on what looked like the main street of a small village, which starts and ends at a roundabout. But, we were in Hella. We had arrived.
Wanting to avoid a gas station/grill-type experience this time around, we opted to explore the local shopping centre, which serves Hella’s 806 inhabitants.
Our eyes landed on a local, Ómar Ásgeirsson we soon learned, who was right in the middle of closing his bakery for the evening. He thankfully took a pause from his work to sit down and patiently answer our questions about the area.
“Hella is a small and quiet place, it’s close to the countryside and it’s a good place to raise kids,” he told us, outlining the benefits. “You almost don’t bother to lock the house.” That said, it should be added, that with its population of 806, Hella is actually one of the bigger towns in the area, making it THE place to go if you want to grab a beer in those parts. Not only do they have a Vínbúð (the state-run alcohol store), but also a few bars, hotels and decent restaurants.
Ómar doesn’t feel he’s missing out on much, either. “Big cities are good, but you’re isolated there, too,” he said. “If you don’t want to know your neighbour, you don’t have to.” Ómar’s wisdom, we eventually perceived, lay in the realisation that loneliness is more a matter of emotional than of physical distance.
His wisdom also reached to the local river, which we had been planning to drink from. “You’ve got all the farms upland, we don’t know what’s going on there. We fish in the water, we fall in it, it’s no danger, but I wouldn’t drink it,” Ómar stated, chuckling.
Meeting The Potato Kingpin of Þykkvibær
When we pulled into nearby Þykkvibær, the first things we saw were its old farm houses, fronted by black and white photographic signs detailing the way things used to be in the village. While looking at one of these photos, we noticed a farmer doing, well, farmer stuff, and decided to ambush him—and luckily, the overpowering clicking of our camera didn’t stop Birkir Ármannsson from talking to us. We couldn’t have been more lucky, as Birkir gave us a tour of his farm, showing us his potato warehouses (the town is famous for its potatoes), his sheep and even his dad’s sheep.
“Twenty years ago, this was the biggest farm village in Iceland, with 40 farmers,” Birkir said. “We had a bank, a post office and a market then, and now there’s nothing.” His tone was half lament, half cold, hard truth telling. The only building that isn’t a farm is the church in the village centre.
The decrease in the number of farmers was caused partly by the fact that with the help of machinery, local farms are getting bigger and more efficient. As it happened, the middle-aged yet somehow timeless-looking Birkir turned out to be quite the potato kingpin himself. He recently bought another farm lot, and last year his father purchased a bigger potato house as well. “We don’t have workers,” he said. “We’re four people with much to do. I’m busy a lot.” With all those potatoes, 100 horses and 30 sheep, we figured we would be pretty busy too, so we left this man of the land to get back to his important work and continued our journey along the south coast.
By the time we reached Vík, the largest settlement in the southeast, it was pitch black and we were thirsty. We hit closed doors at Halldórskaffi and almost suffered a similar fate in our second attempt, at Suður-Vík, the second bar. The barkeep there told us they were done for the night, despite the fact that at least 15 others were sitting around tables drinking and shouting. On our way out, a man sitting near the door suddenly held us back. “I’m the owner here, and I say you can stay, if you’re drinking,” he intoned. Apparently our eight foreign rosy cheeks looked like they deserved a brief sojourn. And perhaps he also thought we had too many krónur in our pockets. It felt like a typical Icelandic combination of hospitality and insider corruption, but it didn’t concern us much, because the bar was the most happening place we had yet been to on our trip. It had the atmosphere of a mountain ski cabin and was full to the brim of silly shits spilling beer on themselves while crushing cans and dancing around despite the fact that no music was playing.
Our Final Destination
The silliness continued on our way out, when we bumped into two construction workers in their late twenties who were in town to help repair a bridge and who proceeded to trash talk Vík mercilessly. “Vík is a shit hole,” one said. “Nothing at all to do.” We wondered what they would suggest for a good Saturday night. “Hella is the happening place,” the other offered. “That’s where you go for a good drink or a good fight.” It didn’t correspond to what we had experienced in either Vík or Hella, but hell, we figured, to each their own small town fun.
That night’s sleep was short. We were parked between Vík’s iconic church at the top of the hill and the pub farther down it. We endured another night of frozen toes and bellowing snores.
The next morning we headed to—surprise surprise—the local gas station and grill for food and more interviews, since you’re always guaranteed to find both on location. Our victim this time was Þorgeir Guðnason, a confident 17-year-old student who showed lots of love for the small town, even when bluntly pressed to admit that he lives in a remote area. “No, it’s just perfect,” Þorgeir coolly replied. “I love it. Here you can relax and chill. In Reykjavík there’s always panic.”
Þorgeir also professed to enjoy his schooling in Vík, and said he remains in touch with his old schoolmates. “We were eight boys in my class, no girls,” he said. He promptly earned a pitiful look from us, followed by a curious question about the dating situation in the village and if there were any cute girls around. “Some of them are cute, but most of them, well, we’re related,” Þorgeir declared. “Dating is much better in Reykjavík.” We tried more hot dogs, these served by Þorgeir’s twin-brother. They were, by far, the best we had on the trip and bread marked the end of our journey, as we had to head back to lively Reykjavík.
As we drove the same route in reverse, we saw everything we had passed through before with new eyes.
Everyone we interviewed had patiently explained to us, directly or indirectly, that isolation is something that comes from within. It was pleasantly surprising to learn how they wouldn’t trade the calmness of their lives for the fast pace of the city.
While we remain adamant that we couldn’t live in places that small, we still agreed that what we had viewed as deserted, lonely little villages before, now appeared as something else, something that we perhaps couldn’t fully comprehend, but that we could at least respect.
The Authors And Their Idea
The Grapevine Intern Department’s version of the Three Musketeers is probably a bit quirkier than Alexandre Dumas’s trio. Things are bound to get riotous when you have—sharing the lesser workspaces of a small editorial office—a born-and-raised Viennese city girl (Yasmin), a wannabe redneck from North Carolina (Johnny) and a hockey jock-cum-fashionista from the ‘burbs of Montreal (Fred). To spare our other officemates our incessant and oftentimes very stupid banter, we came up with the idea of exploring local ways of life in small towns on Iceland’s southern coast. We only had 60 or so hours, so to make the most of it we borrowed a camper van from the nice folks at Happy Campers.
How to get there