It’s snowing in Hellisheiði. Powdery drifts sweep over the narrow strip of asphalt that cuts through the snow-laden mountains. Like any trip south along Route 1, our journey to Stokkseyri begins with a steady climb over this high plateau that separates the capital region from the low-lying expanses of the coastal south. It’s a white-knuckle stretch of road, no matter how many times I drive it.
By some climatic wizardry there’s neither snow nor storm along Route 38, the road that takes us south of the Ring Road. It’s not the only way to get to Stokkseyri, our target for the day; nor is it the fastest. But we’re in no rush—we’re getting a feel for a corner of the country often skipped on trips along the southern coastline.
Rusty the unfriendly ghost
After rounding the drainage basin of the Ölfusá river and crossing its mouth, we drive through the small seaside town of Eyrarbakki, arriving in Stokkseyri not long later. Grey skies provide a fittingly haunting backdrop for our visit to Draugasetrið, the “Ghost Centre” that occupies the third floor of an old fishing warehouse. The café is a spare, grim chamber overlooking the skerries and jetties that jut into the sea, and Júlía is in character when we arrive. “Me? I’m just the cleaning lady,” she laughs, before assuming a spooking tone: “No, I’m the mother of ghosts.” She warns us about Móri (“Rusty”), a local ghost with a fondness for playing with electricity. He’s been around for 300 years, she tells us: “He’s a funny guy—he hasn’t killed anyone in 250 years.” When I ask if it’s about time for a murder, she reassures me: “No, he’s sort of friendly.” Not wanting to put me at ease, she adds: “But not like Casper.”
Júlía equips us with mp3 players and sends us beyond the black curtains. The museum is a labyrinthine series of rooms marked with numbers, indicating which track to listen to on our headsets. Dioramas in each room depict the stories we hear, and certain steps trigger surprises like a jumping mannequin or shaking ground. They have a certain homemade feel, but the audio stories constitute an impressive archive of well-told Icelandic ghost-lore. We get Rusty’s origin story—he died near Eyrarbakki after a farmer refused him hospitality, and duly began haunting the whole region, eventually cutting off trade. We hear of fishermen’s ghosts, appearing to wives onshore the very moment they drown. We meet the Deacon, one of Iceland’s most famous ghosts, who appears to his lover Guðrún, but cannot pronounce her name because, as a ghoul, he cannot say Guð (“God”).
“Icelandic Wonders” is a sister installation that celebrates elves and aurora. Trolls used to have a place in the exhibition, but their cave was recently renovated into the elf queen’s palace. And I thought the housing market in 101 was ruthless.
After journeying through these parallel worlds, we need some fresh air. One house along the seawall catches my eye: a two-storey building, with triangles and odd shapes pointing every which way. It’s some irony, indeed, that the town’s most modern building is a decaying ruin. I learn later that this house is known as Eymdin (“The Misery”). The owner built the house on the seawall without the proper permits, then disappeared to Thailand. Clambering up the seawall rocks, I peer in to see that the interior was never quite finished. Nevertheless, a grill sits outside, rusting slowly. I hear the Stokkseyringar are looking for an enterprising buyer to put them out of their misery.
Before leaving town, we stop into Fjöruborðið, a seafood restaurant famed for its lobster soup. Árni, the head waiter, speaks the lobster lore as gospel truth: Stokkseyri fishermen wade naked into the sea, swim amongst mermaids to capture langoustines whose raison d’être is to become tasty soup for travelers from near and far. The menu devotes an entire page to this mythology in a four-paragraph paean with phrases that verge on the erotic: “Your greatest desire is to lick on lobster in garlic butter, gulp down the soup that has been lovingly pampered.” The soup is good: tomato-based, with generous, juicy langoustine chunks, and enough bread to sop up the last drops of mermaid-blessed crustacean ambrosia.
We leave feeling completely full. Rusty doesn’t obstruct our homeward journey, and we’re relieved to find that the storm has abated.