“Stykkið,” or “the piece” from which Stykkishólmur takes its name, now sits under the largest of three wharves in the small town’s harbour. From where I stand on top of Súgandisey, a tall island bridged with the town’s mainland, I see only the dock’s dark wooden beams reaching down from the platform into the ocean, covering the namesake.
Stykkishólmur was born by that cryptic spot. Since late in the sixteenth century this small village, just north of the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the western fjords, has been a commercial centre and major fishing port for the Breiðafjörður area and, until last year when local company Agustson ehf. moved all its production to Denmark, the country’s biggest distributor of shrimp and shellfish.
At the precipice of Súgandisey, the most magnificent and easily accessible natural lookout I’ve ever mounted, my travel team-of-two and I stand next to a small, orange lighthouse. With our backs to the town, we have a sprawling view of the entire Breiðafjörður fjord, splattered with small islands to which, had it been a few months earlier, we could have sailed and observed a plethora of birdlife. On this November day however, the sky is clear and cold, allowing us not only a far-reaching view north across the inlet, but a worry-free romp in what is usually an area infested with moody arctic tern protecting their nesting young.
The town is glowing in the afternoon sun. To the east is the hospital, joined by the Franciscan nunnery that founded it and which continues to some extent to staff it to this day. West of the hospital and directly ahead is the now obsolete fishprocessing plant formerly used by Agustson ehf., a dark-green boxy building connected to their main offices, a sprawling red wooden house that can be seen from almost anywhere in town. Next door is another processing plant, this one about a hundred years older; Sjávarpakkhúsið, humorously called The Sea Bastard’s Inn in English, is an old fish-packinghouse turned summertime-restaurant (turned summer-home) that, during its short lifetime as an eatery, managed to earn a solid reputation for the best fish-stew in the country. (I must note for objectivity’s sake that my grandfather was co-owner and co-chef at this establishment and that I spent many summers serving this delicious stew.) Finally, just west of that, the sun setting behind it, on the only spot in town that rivals this view, stands the town’s peculiar Library of Water.
As of this moment, we have yet to comprehend the sizeable role that water will play in our days ahead. Apart from the liquor store we noticed driving into town, Stykkishólmur seems like quite a dry place. At this moment, the water spanning this panorama registers as little more than a catalyst for the quaint glow of the sun setting ahead of us.
But this moment has already passed and we are cold and going back to the car. The adventure is just beginning.
Something to Stare At
We park our car beside the Sea Bastard’s Inn, our home for the next two days, and decide to gather provisions for the night from the local shopping centre, a.k.a. Bónus. We walk up towards the aptly named Main Street, passing a red pickup idling in front of the bookstore. The car is full of teenaged boys, and they are all watching us as we pass by. The driver returns from the store carrying a crowbar in one hand. He too is staring. Blatantly.
Here’s the thing about Stykkishólmur. It’s a small town. With a conceitedness that is partial to any small grouping, people here have a thing about staring. My first visit here at the tender age of 15 was burned into my memory forever vis-àvis the most intense staring fit I had had before and have ever encountered since. At the height of summer, the time of year when the town is at its peak occupancy with teens returned home from school and work around the country, I walked up this same street with my visiting American bestfriend at the time, young, naïve and innocently unaware of the ocular assault we were about to experience.
It began thus. Height of summer, young teens flocked home and participating en masse in the social ritual that is “rúnturinn,” or driving repeatedly around the downtown “route.” Walking up this street was like walking the red carpet, but creepier, because everyone was peeping at us from behind a pane of glass whilst moving very slowly past and talking on their cell phones to people in the surrounding cars. It was fifteen minutes of undeserved fame. It was weird.
But we won’t be having any of that today. At this time of year the town seems quite empty, to say the least. Two cars pass us on our way to the store; but the drivers are old and show us only subdued interest. We pass the town’s two restaurants, the old and now abandoned movie theatre, the bank, the insurance company with lace curtains on the second floor and a handful of quaint two-storey houses, and finally come to the town’s shopping centre. A whole five-minute walk.
Unwinding the City Pace
I’m not sure whether the list of utilities this town boasts is commonplace or impressive for a population of 1,100. Here we find the supermarket, pharmacist, liquor store and newly opened hardware shop. Across the street are the police station and the swimming pool. Food, booze and a place to get naked, what more could a small town need? We traipse into Heimahornið, or “the home corner,” the town’s version of the-everything-store, where you can buy, well, just about everything that categorically fits somewhere between dressshirts and Christmas decorations. The store connects to the supermarket Bónus by a yellow glass door. “That’s locked kids,” the storeowner shouts our way when we’ve just found out as much. “Sometimes I don’t bother to unlock it,” she says decidedly without moving from her spot behind the counter. “I just want my customers to myself.” We thank her, take another moment to consider our need for underwear and/or miniature ceramic Santa statues, and make our way out the front door.
Inside Bónus I start to believe the myth that Stykkishólmur breeds basketball star giants when I notice the six-foot-something teen in sweatpants and sneakers stocking the shelves in the freezer section. His enormous limbs as well as a box of some sort of perishable food are blocking the forward motion of a stout middle-aged woman and her yellow cart. He notices this and immediately apologizes but she just laughs and says, “Oh no no dear, I’m not in any hurry.” As I stand amusedly observing this I realize that I have been running around the store in a fit of haste, despite the fact that my two travel mates and I have no engagements for the next four hours. I tell myself that I’m not high-strung, that it’s just the city pace in my bones, and make a silent vow to walk more slowly in this town. At the checkout I see that the young kid behind the counter is not abnormally sized in any way, but is wearing a nametag that read “ananas,” or “pineapple.” I guess everyone has his or her quirks.
The Frosty Night Ahead
Before we knew it night had fallen and we were behind schedule in the progression of events that was to conclude with the Ben Frost concert in the Library of Water at 21:00. We bundled up and set out into the freezing night air.
After stopping at the gas station, we walk alongside the fence of the school track and cut around it in the direction of the swimming pool. In this small strip of land, between a gravel soccer pitch and the track, stands the most beautiful spectator’s box, bright white and strikingly angular; An architectural feat in the most bizarre and unannounced of places. We can now see the blood-red “HOTEL” sign hanging in the black night air, and after passing through the playground of the elementary school, running through some tyres and then literally crawling up the steep hill below the hotel, we feel thoroughly boot-camped and hungry.
The main door is locked and we follow the lights towards a side entrance. Inside, a TV is playing in front of an empty lounge. On a table beside the vending machines is a piece of worn paper directing us to “knock on room 143” if we need service, and at the other end of the lounge we find a door leading to the dismantled lobby, clearly in the midst of major renovation. The scene couldn’t have been any lonelier if I had planned it that way. Yet it was a quaint kind of lonely. I imagined some teenaged kids lying on a hotel bed watching T.V. and thoroughly enjoying their jobs. I didn’t dare disturb them, and we headed for dinner somewhere else.
A Concert in the Castle
“Here I am, living in a glacial-water castle,” explains Guðrún Eva Minervudóttir, the live-in curator of Stykkishólmur’s Library of Water. “I’m pretty sure I have the world’s greatest basement-view,” she adds, laughing. The three of us all nod in agreement. She’s so right it’s not even funny. This silvery palace, sitting even higher than the lighthouse of Súgandisey, has the most impressive outlook of any house I’ve ever visited. The entire fjord is at its mercy. Even from the basement.
The Library, 24 floor-to-ceiling columns of water collected from as many glaciers around Iceland, is a sight in itself. 3 metres high and 30cm in diameter, the columns are lit from each end and clustered around the room. The pillars reflect the light, and in turn each other, and in the dark night they fill the whole room with a hazy, ethereal glow.
Originally built and used as the town’s library, the space was recently renovated and rented out, permanently, by American artist Roni Horn. The project, Guðrún says, was inspired by the unique location and appearance of the house, which Horn visited some years ago. It excels, as Horn was well aware, as a weather observing spot. Thinking back to our visit earlier in the day to the top of Súgandisey, I realize I would have much preferred looking across the fjord from behind these enormous panes of glass.
There’s a light hum emanating from the amp sitting in the midst of the pillars. Beside it, a chair and a table with a guitar and computer. We take a seat on the floor in the opening of the room. All around us, written into the rubbery floor, are weather words, collected from a series of interviews with locals from the Snæfellsnes area. Right now, I’m sitting across from the words “quiet,” and “temperate.” I’m watching the assembled audience of four locals waiting patiently with their blue booties on, like the rest of us, to protect the floor. Along with them, the crew accompanying Frost, Guðrún, and us Grapeviners, attendance hovers around a measly 13.
Ben has been walking in and out of the room for the past couple of minutes, and now suddenly appears again. “Welcome,” he says in Icelandic. “I’m Ben Frost, and I’m going to play something. I’m not quite sure what yet, we will just have to see.”
Emitting from the speakers now is a heavy, scratchy sound that after a few moments, perhaps just by process of osmosis, begins to resemble running water. Ben is sitting at the table staring down at his guitar, and I become wholly sensitive to these four strangers watching him, completely unaware of the ambient rollercoaster they are about to ride.
As the show begins, slowly but surely, people are sinking closer to the rubbery floor, flattening out their bodies against the various adjectives. The first song lasts somewhere between 45-minutes and an hour. It was an experience something akin to being in a trance, sitting so close to this acute, fierce sound, feeling the full vibration of every pulse through the soft floor. Ben has a kind of instinct that manages to continually catch you off guard. His magic lies in dissecting sound, slicing beats open and stretching them from within, then rejuvenating them one tiny piece at a time.
At the end of this first song, two people leave. The rest of us reposition ourselves on the floor. Ben looks stressed. The whole scene is difficultly bare, with a half-empty room and a couple of old folks politely sitting it out. Yet the stark nature is also positively expository for his material which, though ambient and pensive, is also inherently jarring. It’s a unique and rather exciting experience when music demands so intently that you be fully, body and soul, at its mercy. At the end of the concert, Ben admits that he was seriously worried about breaking the columns. “There goes my citizenship application out the window,” he says and laughs. We had all had the same thought. We are still pulsating as we remove our booties and head out into the black night.
The Cautiously Slow End
The next morning finds us bright and early for lunch at Narfeyrarstofa, the town’s premier dining establishment. Co-owner Steinunn greets us with an enthusiastic smile and suggests we try the cod. The centre of the place is littered with music equipment and she tells us that they hosted a celebration for Agustson ehf. last night. When it quickly arrives we find the cod to be veritably delicious, melt-in-your-mouth soft with roasted potatoes and a dark-green salad. The atmosphere of the place, decorated with old photographs of the town and peninsula, only adds to our spiritual comfort, and we delight in chatting with Steinunn, a life-long local, about the various goings-on of this town.
After saying our goodbyes and taking a short compulsory “rúntur” through town, stopping to see the gorgeous white church stellar against the black night, we attempt to drive home but are caught in a storm five-minutes out and sensibly turn around. I insist that we rent a video, one of the activities I remember from my time here, and the night goes accordingly. The next morning we stop for breakfast at the local bakery, Nesbrauð.
Just as I am mulling over how fully-stocked this town is with local comforts, enjoying a nice hot cup of soup, we are assaulted by a little kid who claims to know what we had been talking about in the pool the day before. “I know what you said,” he sneers at me maniacally. I, however, do not. Just as the speed limit jumps to 70 driving out of town, we pass a pair of women power-walking who peer into our car. I think back to all the small, quiet moments that somehow seemed, like so much here, bold and sharp, like a bright white church against a black sky. Like the town’s “piece” itself, the magic of Stykkishólmur is kept modestly covered, un-flaunted to tourists and visitors passing through. You can catch a glimpse of it every so often in the right light or from the right height, but sometimes it’s best to keep things hidden. Sometimes, it’s best to be able to peer
Car provided by Hertz – www.hertz.is