With a dying fishing industry, rapidly shrinking population, and the locals’ rumored penchant for the occult, characterizations of this place tend to breed a certain air of melancholy and mystery, which is enough to provoke at least a sense of curiosity in anyone who has the time, the patience, and the will to make the considerable and rather treacherous drive. I was especially enticed by the weekends free rock festival, Aldrei fór ég suður (literally, “I never went south”, a song by Bubbi Morthens), a newly established tradition which offers a veritable smorgasbord of Iceland’s up-and-comers.
Three sore rumps later…
On the way up we take the trip in two stretches; first to Hólmavík, and the next day to Ísafjörður. In all of my excitement to make a quick exodus from Reykjavík I neglect to notice any of the numerous signs saying malbik endar (pavement ends). The drive along Steingrímsfjördur on the approach to Hólmavík would be rather tranquil were it not for the extremely rough roads. Instead it provides a rousing homestretch to what began as a rather tedious drive along Strandir from the ring road. One set of shocks, two cranky passengers, and three sore rumps later we pull into the tiny seaside village of Hólmavík. At first glance the quintessentially Icelandic, brightly colored houses leading down to the waterfront make for a pleasant seascape, but certainly not worth five hours of hard driving. However, pushing into the heart of the village begins to reveal what is actually quite an oddity as far as Icelandic villages go.
Pants from the skin of a dead man…
The biggest draw is the recently opened Exhibition of Witchcraft and Sorcery, and the exhibition’s gruesome show-stopper, the Necropants; a pair of magical skin pants made from the lower half of a dead man (anatomically correct, of course). But all told, the most thrilling part of the witchcraft museum is its turf roof, which, once mounted, provides a stunning view of Hólmavík’s bay. The real treasure of Hólmavík, however, is Sæberg, a house down the street from the museum. Sæberg is Iceland’s answer to Día de los Meurtos, replete with kitsch dioramas of trolls and smurfs in midday activity; a miniature, four-gabled, elfin house; and keeping watch in the farthest corner sits a triple-faced mermonster crudely assembled from snarled tree limbs and a spray-painted buoy.
An obvious labour of love, no detail was spared when it came to the mold-injected hoot owls, no penny was pinched for the disembodied wagon wheels and paginated propeller; this is sheer driftwood delight. As we meander through the empty streets looking for a bite to eat, we encounter only one Hólmvíkingur, a young man on the smallest bicycle I have ever seen. After a few moves on the micro-cycle and a photo op he gives the snack bar at the Esso station a glowing review where I am later treated to one of the best hamburgers this side of the continental divide. All in all, Hólmavík is a humble town with a robust pride for all its superlatives, be it the goriest trousers, tackiest yard art, tastiest burger, or tiniest bike.
And a doorway from the jawbone of a whale
The next day’s drive begins like a car commercial, zooming along curvy roads at (relatively) breakneck speeds, but we soon reach the fjords and the white knuckles come out. This is an unpaved, one-lane, icy deathtrap of a road that lines a succession of towering, hairpin fjords. Upon meeting a large truck or better yet, tour bus, coming in the opposite direction, I jerk the steering wheel to the right and find myself driving on little more than my imagination and the hope that only two wheels need to be in contact with the ground to propel the car forward.
The town of Ísafjörður itself is rather small; on the approach it’s possible to glimpse it all in one glance, but the way it’s situated in the mountains is quite striking as it sits on a spit of land that juts out into the calm waters of Skutulsfjörður. The mountains on all sides are so tall and so steep that it appears as though the town is boxed in by looming walls of ice. At night it’s impossible to see the tops of the mountains which creates an odd sensation of sinking as one gazes upwards.
Ísafjörður is a bit more centralized than your garden-variety Icelandic town. On the main streets, Hafnarstræti and Aðalstræti, you’ll find a great bakery, Gamla Bakaríið; a decent bar, Sjallinn; and a handful of restaurants. Further ahead there’s another weird, modernist, Icelandic church but still more bizarre is the giant whale’s jawbone turned on end which serves as the archway entrance to Jónsgarður, the town’s pretty municipal garden. The garden is filled with people, as is the rest of the town. We have come to Ísafjörður during one of its busiest weekends, Skíðavikan, an annual ski holiday coinciding with the new rock festival.
The Mugiman and Mugilady
The festival is the brainchild of Örn Elías Guðmundsson, the local musical phenom better known as Mugison. Mugison’s industrious spirit has yielded thus far two albums (one now picked up by Rough Trade Records), a whopping persona, a slew of videos, and a sort of verbal branding system wherein his father is Papamug, his girlfriend, Mugilady, his website, mugiweb, then there are his mugimentaries, mugiTV, mugicrew, and the mugimonkey–but more on Mugison and his mugimovement later. The concert is slated to be held in one of Ísafjörður’s many old fish processing plants. Nothing spells c-h-a-r-m like the foul odor of haddock guts from ages gone by, so I am prepared for the worst, but the space is actually quite ordinary, a big room with a stage constructed at one end.
This entire homespun operation is embodied by a woman in an oversized, wooly sweater. She’s down on her hands and knees, finger-painting the concert line-up on big strips of newsprint. As we step further into the room she greets us like old friends. I sit with her briefly and discover she is Mugison’s girlfriend, the Mugilady, in the flesh. I let her know how much I like the latest album, Lonely Mountain, and how very impressive it is that one little Mugison can be so prolific. She assures me that he enjoys a lot of support, and evidences this by showing her paint covered fingers. She also tells me about the packaging of the latest album, which features a piece of thread sewn through each copy. Apparently the whole Mugifamily was gathered into a sweatshop of love to complete the strenuous job of sewing together some 10,000 copies. Late in the show, Mugison finally steps up. The crowd here in Ísafjörður knows him and the anticipation in the room is palpable. Mugi live was a mugispectacle.
Bass and a G-string
The final band was certainly the coup de grace of the night, at least in terms of outright entertainment. Trabant is a techno-cum-performance-art calamity that leaves no room for encores. When they finish, the show is over. Good night nurse! No looking back. Ragnar Kjartansson fronts the group and progresses through various stages of undress as the show pushes on until he stands in all his glory sporting silver underwear, a Dracula cape, and tasseled pasties. Not that anyone notices, but all the while the rest of the band is churning out an ominous groove for Ragnar’s debauchery: before long bassist Viðar has lost his pants, wearing only a red, frilly g-string. Naturally, Ragnar pretends to mount him from behind and matters simply degenerate from there. Scantily clad girls get excited and begin to take the stage in some kind of lemming-effect, not knowing exactly what to do once they make it up there. Mic stands fall and equipment is thrown across the stage; the drummer storms off and Kjartan from Lonesome Traveller flings himself into the chaos. Throughout the entire ordeal Ragnar consistently chanting his mantra, “I’m a little nasty, I’m a nasty little boy.” A cataclysmic ending to a smashing show.