Ísafjörður, Dead Ahead

Ísafjörður, Dead Ahead

Photos by
Julia Staples

A bird slamming into the windshield. That’s my greeting to Ísafjörður.

To be fair, there are signs warning that birds may slam into your windshield just outside Ísafjörður. Just as, for the hour or so of surreal unpaved mountain road driving, there are signs warning that you are approaching extremely blind hills and may smash into oncoming traffic, but there’s only so much you can do with this information.

For the blind hills, you slow down and stand up a little in the seat. You are aided by the rocks and drifts that naturally form on the mountain roads, throwing you and your occupants toward the roof.

For the birds, there’s not much to do.

When I explain on arrival that I’ve collided with the local fauna, I get a small bit of shaming, but mostly that I can’t say what exact type of bird I destroyed.

A local explains that his uncle hit a goose and had the good sense to back up on the cliffside highway, grab the bird, and take it home and cook it.

Another local assures me that I did the right thing. She holds her arms out like they’re locked onto the wheel and acts out the impact:

“If anything gets into the road, drive straight through. A sheep, just go straight through. Tourists swerve and one or two die every year.”

She affects a look of sadness, as though she were looking down at the sheep that has to die. But she acts through again the firm grip one must keep on the wheel to go steady and stay on the road.

Ísafjörður by Julia Staples

Permanent Kreppa

Trouble finds the Westfjords. That’s the impression one gets reading Icelandic history. This is the site of one of the largest migrations away from the island, for example. The Westfjords were the site of the country’s most famous executions for witchcraft and sorcery. In recent history, the Westfjords were hit by two avalanches in 1995 that took 34 lives and devastated the country.

One thing that doesn’t bother the Westfjords, at least not at the moment, is the kreppa, or the Icelandic economic crash.

The reason: they’ve been stuck in an economic meltdown for 20 years.

“We are in a permanent kreppa. Before the kreppa, there was the quota,” my host for my first evening tells me.

The kreppa discussion is always worth having in Iceland, but in Ísafjörður, it is shocking. When my host laughs off the crash, I ask if she means Ísafjörður is immune from economic hardship.

Can you get a loan? I ask.

“We never could get loans here. That was only Reykjavík.”

I ask if perhaps people are leaving Reykjavík for Ísafjörður, coming back home, due to the crash.

“There were no jobs here before, and there are none now.”

It gets worse, actually. For just about any supply, there is a sizeable mark-up, because the economic base in Reykjavik doesn’t trust the rest of Iceland with credit—all major businesses here pay cash up front.

Follow that with the monumental screw: the waters in the ocean surrounding Ísafjörður are teeming with cod and haddock. But due to a unique set of laws, cod, haddock, and everything else not farmed can only be caught by people who have purchased the quota rights, and most of those rights are based in Reykjavík.

There you have life in Ísafjörður. And in most towns outside of Reykjavík.

Drinking and dwelling on it, we all get profound and morose.

I am awakened early the next morning by a phone call from an Icelandic relative in a panic: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will not be loaning Iceland anything, and the country’s descent into economic depression looks as though it will continue. Before I can wipe the blear of a night of boxed wine from my eyes, I’ve agreed to transport someone’s life savings to America.

Ísafjörður by Julia Staples

The Town in the Bubble

And yet, having made that agreement, I can’t help thinking that this morning, things look better. In the light, Ísafjörður is a damn handsome town. For one thing, there has not been much recent building in Ísafjörður, which is somewhat of a blessing. The buildings have all been cared for as though they had to last. Roofs are painted. The very house we’re staying in has a time-worn coat of blue paint faded to a heartbreaking turquoise.

All of us stand on the steps taking in the view. Our street corner seems pulled from a 1950s storybook.

We set out—Ísafjörður is a town you can easily walk. Immediately, we are surrounded by a different class of tourist. Educated, quiet, middle-aged French, Germans and Englishmen are everywhere taking in the sights, speaking snippets of guidebook Icelandic. Being polite and judgmental.

This is the flip side of being kicked in the ass by history—your suffering daily struggle becomes someone else’s quaint weekend.

For a quaint weekend, or longer, Ísafjörður has all the trappings. Its Gamla Bakarí is one of the best bakeries in the country, which is saying something.

Also in the town centre is Iceland’s single coolest sjoppa, or corner store, Hamraborg. There you can grab bulk candy, burgers, pizza, a mandolin, a stage microphone, whatever you need for your night out—it’s a heavily caffeinated modern take on the general store.

Politics aside, there is a dignity and energy to life in Ísafjörður. As an attraction, the town is a pearl.

But for the curious, the politics are incredible.

Take the swimming pool—usually a key attraction in small Icelandic towns. Locals will tell you that there is only one local swimming pool worth attending, the outdoor pool at Suðureyri. To get to Suðureyri, the next town over, you just need to drive through a tunnel—a tunnel that stretches more than ten kilometres and includes a major intersection.

Considering Suðureyri has a population in the hundreds, figuring out the cost per citizen for this public work is mind-boggling. And while the tunnel, which was finished in 1996, makes tourism easy and has improved the quality of life, in the main it has served as a portal for a quiet exodus. Suðureyri got its tunnel as a political gesture in exchange for its fishing quota—the town lost its identity and source of revenue, and it got an exit.

In Ísafjörður, they recommend Suðureyri as a perfect tourist attraction: a quaint fishing village stuck even further back in time than Ísafjörður.

The pool is indeed worth the drive. And the town is pretty. And as we drive to Ísafjörður, past dead and dying arctic tern in the middle of the road, we have already lost our sense of scope and we feel we are heading to a genuine metropolis.

Quota Quota Quota

My friend, an Icelandic fisherman from a family of fishermen, vents on the drive. Quota quota quota. One decision two decades ago destroyed the country. Every village could be feeding itself, building its own microeconomy, but instead Reykjavik swallowed the country. What’s worse, those with the quota borrowed against it. This kreppa, this economic crash, my fisherman friend says all the insane borrowing done by Iceland’s banks was pulled from the way fishing companies leveraged their quotas at 12 times their value.

Everyone in the car jumps in to the discussion: in their childhood, you got fish, good Icelandic fish, five nights a week. It was spectacular. With the quota, fish got too expensive: the whole country had to change their diet.

We are in a jeep full of bitterness heading in to Ísafjörður, until the fisherman who started the complaint makes me pull over.

“You see that. Those little orange boats. Those are somebody’s smart idea to fix the quota. And it only took 20 years.”

We observe eight day-cruiser fishing boats in Ísafjörður’s harbor. They are part of the strandveiðar, or coast fishing, program introduced by Jón Bjarnason and the Left Green party. As long as they use these tiny vessels, local fisherman can now harvest their own shores without the burden of the quota system, with certain restrictions.

Two hours later, with my embittered Icelandic compatriots, we head to Tjöruhúsið to taste the results of this program.

This is one of those things you need context to understand. For the dozens of tourists enjoying simply cooked cod, haddock and flounder alongside potatoes and greens, Tjöruhúsið is just a fish place. Good food in a historic building.

For Icelanders, Tjöruhúsið is a religious experience—not quite Galilee, but close. I have just spent 48 hours with locals discussing economic decline, the loss of a way of life, and, strangely enough, the horrors of having to live without fresh fish.

In a large century-old log cabin, skillets of fish fresh off the local boats sends all of these friends into a bliss not typically associated with food. After an hour of constant eating and laughing, I think some of them might start speaking in tongues.

Every piece of white fish is examined, translated, discussed, and devoured. Then a new plate, a new fish dish, someone trying to remember the last flounder they had. Someone’s mother cooked haddock this way, but not this perfectly.

We stumble out, eventually, into the soft purple of 10 PM on an August night. All the weight has been lifted. There isn’t another word about economics or politics. Equipped with enormous cans of beer, we join the locals for a proper night of revelry until well into the next morning.

Driving back to Reykjavík and what feels like normalcy, down mountain roads flooded and shifting, the whole kreppa seems as constant and impersonal as the mountains we’re driving on. The kreppa is here, and it will be here, and we can see it clearly. And while I loathe and will never forgive the people who have caused so much pain on a nation, and while weeks later my intellect will tell me otherwise, the mood that overcomes me driving on this Icelandic road is one of acceptance, combined with a belief that staying the course is the best possible solution.

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