As most people are aware, a free and independent media is one of the four cornerstones of democracy. Therefore when serious struggles for control of the media occur it is definitely a cause for alarm.

fjölmiðlarWhen the economic meltdown took place in 2008, many of us were shocked to realize that much of the madness and corruption that had led to one of the worst crises in Icelandic history had gone unreported by the press. Why? Because the perpetrators of the meltdown owned all the main media outlets. [An exception was the state broadcaster, which on the other hand was staffed with politically-appointed directors].

When the shock wore off we started to see glimpses of reality through the smoke, and it became clear that there had to be laws in place to ensure the autonomy of the media. New laws were subsequently passed to that end. And we hoped for the best.

Iceland has three main print media: Morgunblaðið, Fréttablaðið and DV. About Morgunblather Morgunblaðið I have written extensively in this space in the past and no need to cover that ground again. If you are interested, you may want to start here.

Fréttablaðið has been owned since the mid-2000s by Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, one of the disgraced moguls who helped push Iceland to the brink of bankruptcy. A part of the 365 Media conglomerate, it was used basically as a PR tool for its owners and an advertising medium for their companies. It is delivered free to all households in the Reykjavík area, and to various locations beyond. After Jón Ásgeir crashed and burned in 2008 he managed somehow to hang on to 365 by putting it into his wife’s name.

Despite its lightweight editorial policy, Fréttablaðið has had some good people on board. They’ve run some very astute editorials, and have one of Iceland’s foremost commentators on board in the form of Halldór Baldursson, the brilliant cartoonist. However, there have always been rumours that the owners have tried to influence how the news has been presented, in particular news of their own misdemeanours.

About a month ago it was announced that a new publisher of Fréttablaðið had been hired. She is one Kristín Þorsteinsdóttir, who had previously been on the board of Fréttablaðið and is a long-time associate of the owners. She was on the PR team at Baugur back in 2007-ish, and after the meltdown became the spokesperson for Iceland Express, which also had connections to Jón Ásgeir & co. A couple of years ago she wrote a hard-hitting op-ed piece in Fréttablaðið in which she attempted to whitewash the perpetrators of the economic crash and urged that investigations by police and the special prosecutor into the meltdown be stopped, among other things.

Two days ago, one of two editors of Fréttablaðið was suddenly fired. The other, Ólafur Stephensen, immediately made himself scarce, only to return with an editorial – his last – in the paper yesterday. In that editorial he insinuated beyond any doubt that Kristín Þorsteinsdóttir had been tightening the screws and that he was no longer permitted editorial autonomy. Predictably, he tendered his resignation later in the day.

So that’s Fréttablaðið, which I think we can now write off completely as anything other than fluff and mindless propaganda. That leaves only DV, which has been one of the very few media trying to engage in any sort of investigative journalism over the last few years. [The others are Kjarninn, which comes out once a week I believe and which is now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and Reykjavík Vikublað, a weekly paper that is little more than a flier, but which nevertheless has been engaging in some very ambitious reporting over the last while.]

Long story short – there has been an incredibly nasty struggle over DV for the last few weeks. It appears to be a hostile takeover-type situation, with an individual who is clearly a frontman for God knows which moneyman, trying hard to gain a controlling share. He now seems to have succeeded, since the people who own World Class, the chain of fitness centres in Reykjavík, just bought a small share, which – if I understand this correctly – will push the controlling share over 50%. DV has been relentless in exposing corruption among the owners of World Class [repeated bankruptcies and write-offs, etc. with them simply starting over with a new kennitala ... long story which I won't get into here] and now the owner of World Class has openly stated that his objective for buying the share is to oust the editor, whom they obviously cannot stand.

In other words, corruption and dirty practices seem to be winning the upper hand, and things appear to be slowly moving back into the pre-meltdown darkness here in the land of the not-so-Nice.

Your thoughts?

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There is a subject close to my heart that I have occasionally considered posting about, and since the discussion has recently arisen on our Facebook page, I figured this was as good a time as any.

vistvæntIt concerns the supposed superiority of Icelandic produce, and this image of Iceland as somehow pure and untainted in all things pertaining to nature and food production. Sadly, this is a misconception. Icelandic poultry is factory farmed under WORSE conditions than in Europe, as Icelandic farmers have not implemented regulations set by EFTA about cage sizes, etc. There are generally three chickens to a space the size of an A4 piece of paper. Consequently salmonella outbreaks are frequent and chicken routinely has to be recalled from supermarket shelves. Chicken farmers will not allow media inside to film or photograph their factories.

Beef and dairy farming is not much better – it has recently come to light that there are farms that completely ignore animal protection laws, treating their livestock very cruelly (neck harnesses that are too low so the animals can never stand up straight, they never see the outside of a cowshed, etc.) and do so with complete impunity. Worse, consumers are unable to boycott those specific farms since all milk goes into one big vat.

Pork farming is horrendous – sows are kept in pens so tight that they can never turn around, can never nuzzle their piglets, etc. Until just a month or two ago, piglets were castrated without anesthesia, which is illegal. Their testes were simply ripped out of the scrotum. Only after a major outcry and public pressure did pork farmers agree to abide by the law and stop this cruel and heartless practice.

As for Icelandic produce, it has also recently come to light that the labelling “vistvænt”, which basically means “eco-friendly”, has been used for over a decade by various vegetable producers to label their products, and is basically meaningless. There has been no supervision of this labelling, so anyone can stick it on their products, whether they use pesticides or whatever else to augment their production. Meanwhile, we consumers have been buying these products in good faith, believing them to be somehow superior to non-labelled products. AND the few struggling organic farmers in Iceland have been trying to compete, while needing to adhere to very stringent regulations, all with the accompanying costs.

Iceland has the same social problems as everywhere else, albeit on a relatively smaller scale, given the size of the population. There are folks here who have no scruples about breaking the law and/or abusing animals if it is for their own financial gain. (Don’t even get me started on the dog breeding. Or the industrial salt that was sold to food production companies for over a decade and used in our food as regular salt. Yes. Industrial salt, the kind you use to melt ice.)

What is perhaps worse is that we consumers do not have a great deal of lee-way when it comes to selecting products that have been organically or ethically produced. Imports of meat are illegal unless retailers apply for exemptions from the government, and there are no organic chicken or pork farms. (Mind you, that is set to change soon, since there has recently been a major awakening in these matters and two women set up an organic chicken farm last spring, with the first chickens due on the market shortly.)

Bottom line is that the supposed superiority of Icelandic produce – with the exception, perhaps, of lamb and fish, is a myth. And of course the stakeholders – food producers, tourism operators - would like nothing more than to keep that under wraps.

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It was the final day of our West Fjords adventure, and guess what happened.

This:

Patreksfjördur fog

After five days of pretty exceptional weather, we woke up to rain and, most annoyingly, FOG. Over there, across the sea, you would normally see mountains. On that day, they were completely obscured.

That threw a bit of a wrench in our plans. You see, we had planned to visit two of the most beautiful sites in the West Fjords – Rauðasandur sands, and the Látrabjarg bird cliff. However, given the weather and the fact that a visit there would not yield any good photographs to share with you all, we decided, after some deliberation, to wimp out and go home.

I hasten to say, though, that had we not lived in Iceland, and had we not been there a couple of times before, we would DEFINITELY not have missed out on going there. In other words, if you’re touring this area in Iceland, GO THERE, whether rain or shine. It will be worth it.

Happily, I had some pictures from earlier visits (as did the West Fjords tourist board, hehe), and the awesome experience of visiting these places for the first time is still fresh in my mind, so at least I can try to convey my enthusiasm about them.

We chose Patreksfjörður as our base camp for this part of our trip, since it’s a good place from which to explore the area. From there it’s about a fifteen-minute drive the turn-off to both of these places.

When you turn off the main road towards Látrabjarg you make another turn to the left to get to Rauðasandur. You pass over a ridge, and then suddenly the vista opens up before you with breathtaking beauty:

Raudasandur Iceland

Rauðasandur literally means “red sand” – a moniker that is pretty self-explanatory.

Raudasandur, Iceland

The red colour comes from scallop shells that have been pulverised into a fine powder and colour this vast stretch of sand. It is a stunning sight, especially in sunshine, when the sand looks like it is glowing.

There is a small community down there, all summer houses, and one cafe that is open during the summer months. Behold the view from their patio:

Raudasandur cafe

The area is filled with history, as well – not all of it as beautiful as the scenery. If you drive to the end of the road, and then hike a short distance along the shore, you come to some ruins that are marked with a plaque. This was the scene of a gruesome double murder back in the early 1800s, where a couple who lived on a duplex farm murdered their respective spouses so they could marry one another. They were later sentenced to death. The man was sent to Norway to be executed, but the woman died in prison in Reykjavík, and was buried in non-consecrated soil on Skólavörðuholt, where Hallgrímskirkja church is today. Her bones were later moved to a proper graveyard. It’s a pretty grim story that is still very much alive in the Icelandic consciousness.

But on to Látrabjarg.

This is actually the westernmost part of Europe. It’s a sheer cliff that rises straight up from the sea around 500 metres, and is teeming with sea birds that lay their eggs there, including puffins. They are so cute, and so amazingly unafraid of people that you can get right up close to them. However, BEWARE. They make their nests in holes near the edge of the cliff, and the ground can crumble out if you step too close, which you absolutely should not do, for VERY OBVIOUS reasons.

Látrabjarg cliff Iceland

I’m personally not very afraid of heights, but I would not even consider going close to the edge of that puppy without crawling there on my stomach and preferably having someone hold onto my legs while I’m there.

I did crawl to the edge on my first visit and got up close and personal with this little guy:

Látrabjarg puffin

I literally could have reached out and touched him.

Bottom line: these two places are absolute musts when you visit the southern part of the West Fjords. You won’t be sorry.

TO SUM UP

Where we stayed: Guesthouse Stekkaból in Patreksfjörður. A lovely place, very welcoming, with lots of special touches like fresh flowers in your room and little design objects everywhere, plus a TV lounge with a very cosy couch and a gorgeous breakfast room with an unhindered view over the fjord and the mountains beyond. No ensuite WC but toilet/shower facilities on each floor.

What we ate: It must be said that Patreksfjörður does not have an abundance of eateries. However, we found the restaurant Heimsendi, which had a pretty enticing menu with both fish and lamb dishes (Icelandic specialties), plus burgers. We both opted for the Bessaborgari burger, which was a very sizeable portion with lots of fries plus a salad. EPI said it was the best burger he’d ever tasted – I wasn’t quite so effusive in my praise, but thought it was very good.

Do not miss: The aforementioned Rauðasandur and Látrabjarg. Also, if you drive about 15 km north to Tálknafjörður (the next fjord) there is an amazing old outdoor hot tub (actually it’s a collection of three shallow tubs) that costs nothing to visit. There is a very rudimentary little change room with no showers that is maintained by the township. A perfect place to unwind and enjoy the fabulous surrounding scenery.

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In which we barrel along on our road trip of the amazing West Fjords. 

Having spent half of Sunday in Ísafjörður we hit the road again, this time due south. We weren’t headed far, only a couple of fjords down to Dýrafjörður – more specifically to Núpur, which for decades was a parsonage and also the site of the regional boarding school, but which is now part of the Farm Holidays collective. The building is owned by the state, but two brothers operate a guest house there during the summer, in the old school.

Núpur has some well-known alumni, including Birgitta Jónsdóttir, MP for the Pirate Party, and Jón Gnarr, who just stepped down as Mayor of Reykjavík today. Hence a sign on one of the (very basic) dorm rooms, that reads: “The Mayoral Suite” – i.e. his old room. Heh.

Núpur sits in a beautiful spot. There is a lovely old church on the site, and it is surrounded by stunning scenery, including massive mountains (like so many other places in the West Fjords), some of which can strike dread in your heart just by looking at them. I am thinking of one in particular that had a large section near the pinnacle that was like a gaping cavity, almost like a monstrous, devouring mouth. I took some photos of that on my zoom lens, but alas, left the cable at home that allows me to transfer pics from my camera to my computer.

One of the special things about Núpur is that the first schoolmaster there was incredibly progressive in his thinking and teaching methods. Among his innovations was to create a botanical garden near the school – by doing so he wanted to prove that you could, indeed, grow trees and flowering plants in a location as barren and harsh as the West Fjords. He also used the garden to teach his pupils, and built a hothouse in it. That garden still exists, and is beautifully maintained. It’s kind of like a Garden of Eden out in the middle of barren tundra, and there’s something really wonderful about it. Last year it received a highly coveted award from an Italian architectural firm for its cultural value in the field of landscape architecture. I read the jury’s assessment (it’s hung up in the school) and it is clear that they were deeply moved and impressed by this feat of cultivation virtually out in the middle of nowhere.

skrúdur botanical garden

poppies in skrúdur

Sadly we had to leave Núpur too soon – I would have liked to have explored the area more, as there were many enticing hiking routes and places to visit, including a farm near the mouth of the fjord that is one of the most remote in Iceland. A woman lives there with her son, and now that he’s about to finish elementary school it seems the road to where they live will not be ploughed in the winters any more, meaning the farm will be isolated from civilization for most of the season. How exactly they plan to deal with that I do not know.

We made one final stop in Dýrafjörður: Simbahöllin café in Þingeyri, a small village on the south side of the fjord. I mentioned on Facebook that it is probably my favourite cafe in Iceland, and someone asked why. It’s hard to say, but I reckon it’s a combination of many things: the great food they serve there, the laid-back atmosphere, the friendly people, the house itself, and the story behind the place. It’s run by a Belgian-Danish couple who met in Reykjavík, travelled to Þingeyri, saw this dilapidated old house, and decided to fix it up and make it into a cafe. I mean, just the fact that people should actually choose to move to a small fishing village in an isolated part of Iceland when most other young people are leaving is something special. But I think it’s the spirit of the place that captivates everyone – it is vaguely bohemian, and just so … perfect.

Simbahöllin Dýrafirdi

Simbahöllin Dýrafirdi

TO SUM UP

Where we stayed: Núpur Guesthouse in Dýrafjörður. Accommodation is in dorm rooms with shared WC and shower, but the guest house provides slippers and a robe for guests so you don’t have to run down the hall nekkid on the way to the loo.

What we ate: Dinner in the Núpur restaurant, which was excellent. There was one fixed main course, and a choice of two starters – we both picked smoked salmon covered with a kind of butter-cognac lining (I don’t know how else to describe it) that tasted vaguely of anisette. Very good. The main course was plaice, pan-fried to perfection. The house white wine was a crisp Italian that went perfectly with the meal.

Don’t miss: Belgian waffles with rhubarb jam and whipped cream at Simbahöllin. DIVINE.

Ísafjordur

We left off last post where EPI and I were driving from Djúpavík to Ísafjörður, via Hólmavík.

We arrived in Ísafjörður pretty late, the drive being quite a distance – all that threading of fjords in and out, back and forth. The area we drove through is known as Djúpið – “the deep” – because it’s made up of the fjords bordering the long fjord known as Ísafjarðardjúp – literally “The ice fjord deep”. It’s very remote, there are only a handful of farms along the way, and no towns. Across the “Djúp” you can see the northernmost part of the West Fjords, including the Drangajökull glacier – all of it pretty snowy still.

Djúpið

On arriving in Ísafjörður we checked into our guest house and then headed out to have something to eat at Tjöruhúsið, arguably THE best restaurant in Iceland. [Really.] Amazingly, among the first people we ran into were a couple that had been with us on the tour in Djúpavík earlier in the day. Distances notwithstanding, it seems that the West Fjords are a pretty small place, after all. Or maybe all roads just lead to Tjöruhúsið.

The following morning we got up early-ish and went for a run before dropping off some books at the local Eymundsson outlet. It was actually closed on Sundays, but I had spoken to the manager before leaving Reykjavík and in true laid-back West Fjords fashion he had told me to just give him a call when we rolled into town and he’d come down and get the books from me. Which is exactly what happened.

I love it when people don’t complicate things.

Before we left Ísafjörður, our hostess, Áslaug, gave us a tour of the place that she and her husband have painstakingly restored to its former glory and now rent out as tourist accommodation. [We stayed in her guest house next door.] It is one of the oldest houses in Iceland, dating back to 1788, and is known as Faktorshús. It was a stunning place, beautifully refurbished. This is what it looks like from the outside:

Faktorshús Ísafjörður

And the inside:

Faktorshús Ísafjörður

The piece de resistance, the apartment upstairs that harks back a couple of centuries, but with all the modern conveniences (kitchen, full bath, TV and DVD, etc.). Seriously, this place was AMAZING. So much history, so much soul, and doesn’t that bed look delicious?

Photo 15.6.2014 14 00 47

TO SUM UP

Where we stayed: Gisting Áslaugar, right off the main street in Ísafjörður. Simple and comfortable, no ensuite bath but wash basin in room. Cooking and laundry facilities, and everything very clean and tidy. This, of course, is not the accommodation referred to above.

What we ate: The seafood buffet at Tjöruhúsið, which is truly one of the best places to eat in all of Iceland. Located in an ancient building reminiscent of a log cabin [actually part of a collection of buildings that are the oldest buildings in Iceland] it is completely unpretentious (read: no need for dressing up), with people seated at communal log tables. The only thing on the menu in the evenings is an all-you-can-eat fish buffet, and believe me, it is fabulous. If you go to Ísafjörður, Tjöruhúsið is the place to go to eat.

Do not miss: The folk museum next to Tjöruhúsið, which has fascinating artefacts and memorabilia testifying to the incredible resilience of the Icelanders in the old days, as they struggled to survive on the edge of the inhabitable world. It is completely captivating.

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Day 3: More on the the enchantment of Djúpavík

June 15, 2014

Day 3 of our stupendous West Fjords excursion, ostensibly undertaken to distribute a book but really mostly just for having a fabulous time in amazing surroundings.  We started the day in Djúpavík, a minuscule town in Strandir, most famous for its humongous abandoned herring factory. Djúpavík is a fascinating place. Its best-known residents are Eva and […]

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Day two: sublime pool, dramatic Djúpavík and a factory that defies all logic

June 15, 2014

Day 2 of our superexcellent West Fjords adventure: We woke up to the sound of birdsong in our lovely, compact cottage in Trékyllisvík. Got up and went for a run along the gravel road (the roads are pretty rudimentary around here), after which we drove the short distance to Krossnes for the express purpose of […]

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Day one of our West Fjords tour: necro pants, scary landscapes and idyllic pastures

June 13, 2014

Day 1 – Thursday, June 12 Our plan was to leave Reykjavík early-ish to get to Strandir, on the West Fjords, as soon as possible. However, since we had to stop to pick up some booze necessary provisions on the way out, it was actually 12.30 pm by the time we were on our way. We drove […]

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We are off to the West Fjords

June 12, 2014

Well as the Germans say, “tomorrow it is so far” – meaning it the time has come for Yours Truly to take off on a road trip to the wonderful West Fjords to drop off books and generally have a marvellous time. If you have not yet explored the West Fjords you are missing out on an […]

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I’m exploring Iceland and you are cordially invited

June 3, 2014

I’m gearing up for the mother of all trips around Iceland this June and July! [Not really.] [The mother bit.] [I am going on a trip, though.] The plan is for me and EPI [husband] to travel the West Fjords first, up along the eastern coast [an area known as Strandir, or "Shores"], then veer […]

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