“This building used to be a freezing plant,” Viddi’s mom tells us while pouring us a cup of coffee after we have attended a local art show. Viddi’s parents own the building, which now houses a totally different business than filleting fish.
“There is no room for the fish anymore, the art and culture scene takes up all the space. The next plan is to set up an elf museum downstairs.”
She keeps explaining while showing us pictures of her son’s band with famous rock star Dave Grohl and buddies in the Foo Fighters. “You know, the Foo Fighters came partying here again last year, getting drunk at the Ghost Bar while the Queens of the Stone Age guys were going crazy at the grand piano in the saloon,” she continued and guided us to the Ghost Centre, located on the same floor.
A community where one native has a polar bear in the living room, some have horses in their backyard, and almost everyone knows the Foo Fighters on a first name basis, Stokkseyri is located on the south coast only 45 minutes from Reykjavík. This small village of about 500 people is renowned for its natural beauty, but more impressive are the creative inhabitants living there, inspired by the shore and wildlife in the surrounding area.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything remarkable to happen as we drove past Eyrarbakki, looking at the Westman Islands from afar and wondering what might possibly go on inside the large white building on our right hand, enclosed by high barbed wire fences. As we later learned, it was the prison Litla Hraun, the biggest in the country, housing almost two-thirds of the prisoners in Iceland.
The only things I had planned before the trip were going kayaking with the company Kajakferðir, and eating lobster at the restaurant Við fjöruborðið. I didn’t know much else about the village. Luckily enough, two members of the local garage rock band NilFisk had agreed to fill in the gap by showing us around the area. NilFisk became famous throughout Iceland three years ago after opening up for Foo Fighters at a big concert in Laugardalshöll. At that time, the band had never played in public before. The members just turned 15 and 16 and no one really knew of their existence, except for native inhabitants of Stokkseyri. Then the Foo Fighters overheard something while eating at Við fjöruborðið. Today, they are relatively famous, having been interviewed by all local media, having played all around the country, and having released their first album, Don’t Run After Your Own Apples, last year.
Stokkseyri wasn’t much of a draw for tourists a decade ago. Natives almost entirely depended on the fishing industry, and the 26-metre-high lighthouse Knarrarósviti was really the only attraction for travellers. Times have changed, the fish processing moved to nearby town Þorlákshöfn and with companies like Kajakferðir, Töfragarðurinn, restaurant Við fjöruborðið and all kinds of museums the village is becoming a popular spot for both locals and foreigners arriving by thousands every year to take part in various activities.
The first things to witness while driving the main street in town are all the old and colourful houses typical of small villages in Iceland. A few even have horses feasting on the grass in the backyard. After admiring the architecture of some newly built summerhouses, we hurried to meet my kayak instructor, whose office shares the same building as the community swimming pool.
Instruction was brief. I was told, “You’re not going to fall in the water,” and left to my own devices. “Just pick the boat you like and have fun!” he said, waving me off. So I did. Having never been on a kayak before, I fumbled onto the boat and tried to push it into the water with all proper splashing and stumbling. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for the full tour, which consists of a hardcore two-hour trip around the shore and the lagoons in the surroundings. Instead, I paddled on the pond in the centre of town, safe from all dangers, except the Arctic terns flying around.
After my short kayak experience, we drove to the gas station, got some refreshments and waited for the celebrities of NilFisk to show up. Viddi the guitar player and Svenni the drummer arrived just as I received my coffee and after a brief chat where we learned among other things that the whole band is moving to Denmark in the fall, we headed to the Art and Culture House, (Lista- og menningarverstöðin) a large red building, hard to miss, right across from the gas station.
We started our tour by looking at landscape paintings made by artist Elfar G. Þórðarson, a famous resident of Stokkseyri who owns a large showroom and workshop inside the Culture House. Elfar usually spends most of his time down in the shore painting, the guys explained when I asked if he was somewhere to be found. I had heard of Elfar before and read about a famous painting he made containing all the lighthouses in Iceland.
“That’s just upstairs. Want to take a look?” Svenni asked. We then walked inside a large room where the 30-square-metre painting named “Brennið þið vitar” covers one of the walls. Elfar made the painting in honour of Páll Ísólfsson, a composer who lived in Stokkseyri. To complete the piece, the song “Brennið þið vitar” is playing in the background while small bulbs light up the sites where the lighthouses are located.
Ghosts and Organs
While this murky museum has become a draw, and the neighbouring bar and adjoining ghost museum is just as popular a meeting point for natives as well as foreign rock stars. With no time for a drink, we walked around the museum while listening to ghost stories and getting spooked by some small kid that kept startling us, all part of the show. After 30 minutes inside this haunted place I was glad to walk out to the balconies and see the sun again.
With an incredible view over the shore and the dock I noticed a group of men building, as it seemed, a giant concert stage.
“It is for the annual Dock Festival next weekend,” Viddi said. “Then we have concerts and a lot of happenings down at the dock, attracting visitors from all around the country,” Svenni added and told us that NilFisk will of course make a contribution to the festival by playing some old Beatles songs.
As we stood there enjoying the scenery, artist Ella Rósinkrans waved to us. Ella has her own workshop and gallery in the Culture House and was happy to show us her place.
“An artist is allowed to have a lot of mess,” she told us when we tried to walk through her crowded workshop without breaking anything. The huge gallery, filled with wall sculptures, bowls and vases, all made of glass, were more organized. Afterwards, she invited us to take a look at her apartment, located right above the gallery. “Here I throw the best parties in Stokkseyri, just ask the guys, they should know,” Ella said, smiling, and Viddi and Svenni nodded in agreement.
As I had now noticed, everybody seemed to know Viddi and Svenni in this small friendly village, and, therefore, I was not surprised by the warm welcome when we dropped in at the workshop of local pipe organ constructor Björgvin Tómasson. I had never considered how all these giant organs in the churches are made and the last thing I expected was the fact that they are all custom-built in Stokkseyri, by one and the same man.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It is paradise on earth,” Björgvin said about his hometown, then informed us about his business and points to an organ in the corner. Looking very old, I asked him if it is quite valuable. “You can just imagine. It was made in the year 1754,” he answered and sat down in front of it. “This organ comes from Vienna. Mozart probably played on it while still alive” he continued with a laugh and played us a Mozart song.
Have You Seen a Giraffe Today?
We had now spent a good portion of the day inside the Art and Culture House, and it was time to move on and visit some other sites. With souvenirs in our pockets, we let Björgvin continue with his work and headed to the Hunting Museum. I had noticed the sign: “Have you seen a giraffe today?” when driving into town but didn’t know by then that inside is a whole zoo of mounted animals like mink, antelope, zebra, peacock, a giraffe and a polar bear.
The couple Páll Reynisson and Fríða Magnúsdóttir own the place. The number of animals hanging on the walls is almost overwhelming. I was trying to count them when Páll interrupted my thoughts by pointing to a Ruger Super Redhawk shotgun on the wall. “Here you can see the gun the giraffe was killed with,” he explained and told us that he and his wife had shot almost all the animals inside, except the 30 pieces owned by Icelandic Institute of Natural History.
The place, remarkably enough, is also the couple’s home. Having decorations like these in the living room is probably not a first choice for many people. As for myself, I would probably get a little annoyed having the giraffe watching over me every time I decided to have dinner, but it is an impressive museum all the same.
“Hunting animals has become a lifestyle. The animals basically control everything we do, and now we have to enlarge this place as there is no room fore more,” Páll said, then told us the story about when he shot two lions in Africa on his birthday. By now, the clock was ticking, and we had to say goodbye to Páll and his furry friends to explore a little more before dinner.
As we drove through town to the lighthouse and walked around the area Sveinn og Viddi told us a little about how it is to grow up in Stokkseyri. “We love it here. There are no cops to annoy us and, well, no actual bars either. You have to go to Selfoss for clubbing and many people do, but we just love sitting down in the shore, lighting up campfire and playing the guitar,” Svenni told us. “It is a little bit weird. When I moved over here, at first I couldn’t sleep because of the sea noises. Now, I don’t hear it anymore,” Viddi added.
With that said, the guys had to get ready for work as waiters at Við fjöruborðið, as it happened, our final destination for the evening. The restaurant, with its friendly atmosphere, was the best ending of an eventful day I could have asked for. Everything inside is so simple, the decorations as well as the food. First, you get the traditional soup and then a large pan filled with lobster and all sorts of trimmings, a portion so big the two of us couldn’t even finish it.
After stuffing ourselves, we sat down outside, finished our drinks and relaxed while the sea breeze cooled us down. At the same instant, Viddi and Svenni came walking towards us and told us they had to get the restaurant ready for a big corporate dinner later that same evening. Heading back to our car, we said goodbye to the guys and this friendly village, our day in Stokkseyri was now coming to an end, and theirs was just beginning.
Car provided by Hertz Car Rental, Flugvallarvegi,
101 Reykjavik. Tel: 505 -0600
Mentioned in this article:
Kajakferðir ehf. Tel: 896-5716
Lista- og menningarverstöðin, Hafnargötu 9. Tel: 483-1214
Við fjöruborðið, Eyrarbraut 3A. Tel: 483-1550