I’ve been in Iceland three years, and have published about 250,000 words on the culture and tourism industry here. You name a personality, politician, fjord or puffin, and I figured I’d covered it. As I got ready to leave, though, I looked through my notes and found a few places that I’d never gotten out to. These last few destinations that I’d missed reminded me of everything I love about this island. In fact, I came to the sad realisation that, after 250,000 words, I hadn’t covered that much, and after three years, I was only just catching on to the charm of Iceland.
It all starts in a Toyota Camry, the back seat full of large, menacing Icelanders, and Valdi, lead singer of the Nine Elevens, driving 130 km an hour down a dirt road in the West Fjords towards his home, Ísafjörður. Through miraculous gift of gab, Valdi had recruited us to drive him home and join his Mýrarbolti – or Mud Ball –team for the annual competition in the most remote large town in Iceland. He insisted that Ísafjörður was only five hours away, and that Mýrarbolti was the safest sport in the history of man. So somehow, despite the fact that only minutes before he invited us, he had explained his prodigious achievements in fighting hygiene, among them touring for three weeks wearing the same pair of boots and never taking them off, we had agreed to come along.
Ísafjörður is not five hours from Reykjavík. For a normal driver, in ideal conditions, you’re talking about seven hours. Hence Valdi taking over the wheel in frustration after I had driven the speed limit for the first few hours.
Highway 61, which takes you through the West Fjords is an attraction in and of itself. Somehow always balanced on a mountain’s edge, it lends gorgeous views of a more ancient-looking landscape than you can see in the rest of Iceland.
Driving along at unsuitable speeds, I couldn’t help but point out that this would not be a good road to drive in the dark. Or in rain. Or even cloudy weather. My companions, all native to Reykjavík except Valdi, agreed quickly.
As it happened, we made it to Ísafjörður in a little over five hours, our stomachs wrecked from nerves. Valdi did the only conscientious thing a native of Ísafjörður can do. He brought us straight to the most homey, relaxed, and wholesome fish restaurant in the world, Tjöruhúsið. You can read more about it elsewhere in this issue, but I can only say that, from the moment we walked in and saw the band Lack of Talent hanging from the rafters, while the restaurant owners cleared a spot and served up heaping bowls of plokkfiskur, we knew we’d found happiness. Or four of us had. The heartiest of us, a man who worked fishing boats regularly, was forced to call it an evening, still suffering from motion sickness after Valdi’s driving.
On that first night, Ísafjörður felt like a hippie commune. As a few of us got up to play some songs on the makeshift stage at Tjöruhúsið, the club filled with assorted 20-somethings from around Iceland who had come out to the country to enjoy summer the way it should be. As we went to bed, we were told that the poet Eirikur Norðdahl was hosting an enormous party, and the whole town’s elite would be there. This, it would turn out, is a nightly thing in town. Yes, there is a town in the world where poets are rock stars.
We were in Ísafjörður to compete, though, not to hold conversations with the intelligentsia. For this reason, we passed out just after midnight, woke up early, and set out trying to find liquor, our team’s captain, Valdi, and shoes—yes, we’d forgotten shoes.
Mercifully, it took us longer than expected to round up these items, and we arrived just after the 10 am start time for Mýrarbolti. This meant that our “team” didn’t get to the first match, and substitutes filled in for us. Good substitutes. Who won. It would be our only victory.
Mýrarbolti (a direct translation is swamp ball) is the brain child of some fun-loving Finns, but it has truly found a home in Ísafjörður. I have never seen such a collection of oddballs, all local products, in my life. This is a town where two 19-year-olds were elected to city council after promising to import moose to the area. This is a town where the mayor is highly regarded for his excellent whale jerky, the home not just to Mugison, but to Reykjavík! the Nine Elevens, the President of Iceland, (not the band, but the guy, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson). The City of Reykjavík markets itself as “Pure Energy”. Ísafjörður outdoes Reykjavík not only in the energy department, but also in the more important department of CHANNELING it.
Thus we watched 12 young men dressed in shorts that barely concealed their darkest secrets, screaming “Team Hot Pants” and running into the mud to do battle against more athletic types. We saw various takes on the superhero wardrobe by teams of bold, often straight-faced women. We saw 200 competitors, all one step more absurd than the next, in a town of 5,000.
I should move on to discuss the game itself. Mýrarbolti is soccer, played in mud, sometimes mud of up to two feet thickness. The mud makes players look silly, even the most skilled athlete looks drunk on the field. As for drunks, they too look silly.
So our team prepared for our second game by sipping liquor and enjoying the view on a crisp summer morning. During our first real game, I discovered the reason nobody ever tried to market an alcoholic version of Gatoraid. Running in the mud proved difficult. Running in the mud with stomach turning, and head spinning, proved embarrassing.
I know we lost. I don’t know by how much.
When we finished, a few of us switched to water, and the experience got much more pleasant. Social lubricant isn’t necessity when you’re talking to 12 men in ventilation suits and thong underwear who have spent the night partying with the local poet.
The rest of the games, which lasted another eight hours, passed in a pleasant blur for most of us. Unfortunately, our captain, Valdi, had tempted fate by bragging about how safe Mýrarbolti was, and he broke his leg in an early game. Disturbing as the injury sounds, it seemed fine to those of us who weren’t injured. At day’s end, the visitors from Reykjavík had sworn to return and avenge our many defeats.
There are likely better ways to describe Ísafjörður. I discussed them with Eirikur Norðdahl when he showed up at the competition, and when the evening came, and somehow Norðdahl was going to host another party, and we talked about the lack of pretension, of how overall good humour made Ísafjörður the kind of place to live where you could be proud of your town, and not in the postmodern sense. He also pointed out that Ísafjörður acted a bit like an opiate on people who had spent too much time in the city.
His favourite example was a recent visit from former prime minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson. The conservative politician had taken in too much Ísafjörður air, accosted Norðdahl, told him “You are my children. You are the future of this country,” and then gave him his personal cell phone number, in case anything should come up.
Joining the Masses
We left Ísafjörður on a quiet Sunday morning and set off for the Ring Road for one last trip around Iceland. The bad weather we had feared encountering on Highway 61 greeted us, but driving at the posted speed limit was comfortable enough. In four hours, we were on the road to Akureyri, with bumper to bumper SUV traffic.
For all the travelling done for the Grapevine, I had never set out on a traditional travelling weekend. At such a time, the uniformly single-lane highway slows, as campers, trailers, and enormous tires aren’t great for speed.
We lasted just under an hour on the Ring Road, before pulling off and changing our destination from Mývatn to Siglufjörður.
You won’t likely believe this, but Siglufjörður boasts the best museum in Iceland, and it’s devoted to Iceland’s herring boom. I had heard about the Herring Museum, which is spread out over three buildings and covers everything from boat culture to the industrialisation of Iceland, but to see it was to see a new art form. The flights of fancy in creating this over-the-top museum are jaw-dropping. Were everything not so authentic and respectful to actual history, it would call to mind the grandeur of a Disney exhibit.
A day at the Herring Museum felt like a day engaged in the best kind of novel, in which you learn, live someone else’s life, and eventually step out dazed but more attuned than you were before.
Beyond the Herring Museum, the town offers a Museum of Icelandic Folk Music, which is a more standard, tasteful museum. For my Icelandic travel partner, the Folk Music Museum was fascinating—for someone less connected to the language and who didn’t grow up with Icelandic folk songs being sung to me, it was not quite as impressive.
Even had the Herring Museum not proved so compelling, (I still have the video they showed on the Iceland presentation at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, in which Siglufjörður and its gorgeous herring girls were featured prominently, in my head), the brief journey off the Ring Road offered respite from tourists and travellers. For every kilometre you go from the main road, you seem to reduce traffic by 10%.
When we got back on the Ring Road, life was fine enough. We set out for Mývatn, where we hoped to hit up a pizza stand we used to like, only to find that Mývatn had modernised a little: the pizza stand now holds an enormous, and busy, tourist information centre. Instead, I chewed the world’s worst hot dog, and we made our way off the Ring Road to Dettifoss.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Located an uncomfortable 90-minute drive from Mývatn, but it can be done in any vehicle for a few months in the summer. We drove it in bad weather, in a sedan, and spent two happy hours dazed by the waterfall – much as I’ve written about natural wonders, for something like Dettifoss, description isn’t that necessary. Watching a 100 metre wide waterfall discharge of glacial material at 500 cubic metres a second… it’s like watching God’s truck stop toilet flush.
Popular in the 30s… in Germany
We returned to the Ring Road, through the desert of the Northeast, where, for my first time as a driver, I saw no reindeer. From the desert, we came upon Egilsstaðir, which seems to have doubled in only 12 months, due to the huge amount of money passing through the area for the forthcoming aluminium smelter.
Considering the town was currently hosting protestors from throughout Europe, everybody in the area seemed at ease. When I bought gas, I was briefly confused for someone who was heading to Kárhanjúkar. The question from the brooding local: “Are there going to be any more concerts up there?”
At another brooding local’s suggestion, Grapevine co-editor Sveinn Birkir Björnsson, we chose not to spend the night in Egilsstaðir, but in the nearby forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur. There we found trees. Again, fascinating to my Icelandic companion, who grew up without trees, but not so fascinating, somehow, to Wisconsin-raised me.
A short drive from Hallormsstaðaskógur is Skriðuklaustur, the arts centre created from the one-time home of celebrated Icelandic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson. It is hard to discuss the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute, housed in Skriðklaustur, without blushing. The home was designed by celebrated German architect Johann Höger, in 1939. And it looks… well, it looks like Hitler’s dream bungalow.
If you aren’t wincing yet, then you would if you toured the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute and saw the praise for the writers celebrity in the Nordic countries and especially Germany in the 1930s, “the best-selling author behind Goethe” one sign told guests.
Our tour guide, a robust blonde, was ecstatic about Gunnarsson’s popularity, even today, with German tourists. And she repeatedly offered to give us more information about the writer.
Eventually, it is quite likely that an urbane magazine will stop at this museum and mock it for ignoring history the way it does, and that will be a sad moment. Gunnarsson seems to have been well-intentioned, he left his home to Iceland for use as a hospital, if need be, for example. But it is hard to celebrate an author who made his fortune and reputation telling Germans and Danes to get back to the country and rustic lifestyle in the 1920s and 30s, when we know what that movement was associated with. It is also very difficult to tolerate a museum that ignores a little section in history called the Second World War, all while celebrating the life of a writer who benefited from the attitudes that caused it.
When you add to the museum experience the knowledge that recently, inside Iceland, there has been a right-wing drive to claim Gunnarsson was betrayed and denied a Nobel Prize based on his Nazi sympathies, and not the dated-even-at-its-time quality of his Romantic prose, you may understand why I wouldn’t recommend the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute for those not blessed with a very relaxed temper. You are touring a museum built on lines like the following, from his popular-in-Nazi-Germany book The Good Shepherd: “For it could hardly be the intention of the Creator that the poor beasts which stray into this wilderness and are overlooked at the autumn sheep gathering should be left to their own devices, when he, Benedikt, had passed away? That was inconceivable. For even though sheep are but sheep, they are still creatures of flesh and blood – flesh, blood and soul. Or was Eitil perhaps a soulless being? – Or Leo? – Or Faxe? Was their innocence and trust of lesser value than the fickle faith of human beings? Benedikt shook his head. Whomever might take his place, he could not wish any better companions. Whoever has such friends is not alone in this world.”
Depressed over Gunnarsson’s bad writing and his likely confused good intentions, I decided to finish up my drive around the Ring Road Valdi-style. We made only two more major stops. First, we went to the always shockingly beautiful Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon. I found the chunks of ice calming, the seals playing in the sun picturesque, and the tourists to be a pretty decent bunch. My companion saw only the Arctic Terns, bitter about childhood encounters with the territorial birds.
The drive across Suðurland, a route we at the Grapevine take monthly, yielded a few surprises. Instead of seeing dozens of Toyota Yaris rental cars, we saw dozens of bicyclists, tents and packs carried in saddle bags or bike trailers. In addition to these new tourists who likely connect with Iceland better than the rest, we saw a new group of tourists who take oblivion to a new level. At Skaftafell National Park, the largest park in Europe, we found a women hiking with her attention devoted not to Vatnajokull glacier, but to her glacial white iPod. She was power-walking. A few kilometres later, we saw a similar tourist doing Yoga with a CD player.
We stayed our last night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, the active small town that produced Iceland’s most famous living artist, Erró, and that looks, with its rolling hills and Technicolor green moss, much like the Shire. Kirkjubæjarklaustur is an attraction mainly because of its view of Vatnajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, but for me, as a traveller, I have always been impressed, most of all, with the accommodations in the area – this is easily the least expensive, and most professional place to sleep in Southern Iceland.
Then the trip was over. The drive from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Reykjavík is gentle and unimposing. My last seven hours in the Icelandic countryside were peaceful. I was lucky enough to get sun and warmth when driving past Hveragerði, a favourite local jaunt. And then we were done. My three years, all used up. My girlfriend’s 27 years here, done. It was the worst way to say goodbye to Iceland. Tired, happy, and staring out at the most peaceful landscape in the world.
Mercifully, we hit rain just outside Reykjavík, and we got stuck in a massive traffic jam that reminded us that life in Iceland isn’t always as it is during the holidays.
– Car provided by Hertz Car Rental, Flugvallarvegi, 101 Reykjavík, Tel.: 505-0600, www.hertz.is
– Accommodations provided by Hótel Edda, Tel.: 444-4000, www.hoteledda.is