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 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 Ásbjörn who own and run Hótel Djúpavík, and who also own the big old factory by extension. They have lived there since the mid-1980s, came there from Reykjavík and completely fell for the place, and wound up living and raising their children there. The hotel is a small wonder – it used to be the staff quarters for the women who worked at the factory, and today is like a small, cosy, extremely-laid back country hotel where the dog wanders in and out at will and flakes out on the floor or wherever she feels like it, and the staff basically look and behave like they were born and raised in the place. Which they were not, since most of them are foreign and come to work there in the summers, some of them again and again and again. Like Claus, who is now on his eight summer in the place. It’s an enchanting little community, and anyone who spends any length of time there (even just 24 hours) instinctively feels that there’s something very special about it.

Hotel DjúpavíkIn the morning we had a tour of the factory, the story of which is completely mind-blowing. It was built in the 1930s during the “herring boom” and was an utterly remarkable feat. To wit: there were no roads there at the time, so everything had to be brought over by ship, including boilers and engines and other equipment that weighed, literally, tons. The details of how they put the place together – it is massive, by the way – are incredible, and a testament to the Icelanders’ remarkable resourcefulness, resilience and ambition. They set out to build one of the most state-of-the-art factories in the world in one of the remotest corners of the world – and they succeeded. Alas, the herring boom ended a few years later and the factory was abandoned, with everything in it.

Djúpavík

Just past noon we headed out, destination Ísafjörður. We drove to Hólmavík first to get some gas, and while standing at the pump I noticed something peering up from out of EPI’s pocket: our hotel key from Djúpavík.

Ohnoes!

I quickly called the hotel and explained the situation, offering to put it in the mail the moment I arrived back in Reykjavík. But they wouldn’t hear of it – partly because they only get mail once a week out there. (!) Instead they asked me to drop it off at the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík and someone who was heading their way would take it to them. The museum proprietor would see to that. Now, I haven’t been in Strandir very long, but it seems to me that that’s the mentality there in a nutshell. No problems, just a laid-back approach to life and its various hiccups.

We are currently in Ísafjörður and haven’t done very much, so I’ll save the report about that, including accommodation and other fun stuff, until tomorrow. In the meantime here are a few more pics from Djúpavík:

IMG_0178

The entrance to the art exhibition currently on display inside the factory.

exhibition hall

One of the exhibition halls

Rusty ship Djúpavík

A rusty old ship that used to be the staff quarters when there were so many people working at the factory that there wasn’t enough room in the nearby buildings.

IMG_3232

The back end of the factory, and a view of the waterfall above the town. One of the reasons the factory was built in this spot was because of the close proximity of this water.
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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 visiting the pool.

That’s because the Krossneslaug pool is AWESOME.

It sits right on the shoreline, and when the tide is in and there is a wind the waves crash right over it. I was there once before, back in 1998 or thereabouts, and at that time the road was far worse than it is today and you could drive right down to the shore and park next to the pool. Also, there was no attendant – you just walked right in and paid your admission fee into a kind of piggy bank. Today it’s been ever-so-slightly gentrified – there IS an attendant, from mid-June until the end of August, the whole place has been spruced up a bit, and you can no longer park next to the pool.

But it is still awesome.

Actually, “pool” is probably a bit of a misnomer. The Krossneslaug pool is more like a big hot tub – the temperature is around 37°C or thereabouts. Apparently it heated up considerably a few years ago when they drilled a new hole for getting geothermal water into it – before it was more pool-like temperatures, but now … not so much. So if you go, prepare to just like there and soak and listen to the waves.

Krossnes swimming pool

Having left beautiful Trékyllisvík behind, we headed southward, destination Djúpavík. The way was just as picturesque on the way back as on the way out, though with a slightly different perspective. We came upon this pair, for instance, on a lake up on one of the heaths along the way:

IMG_0144

A follower of our Facebook page mentioned in a comment that we should stop at a place called Gjögur, where there is yet another natural pool down by the shore, and where we should also buy some harðfisk (dried fish). The West Fjords, incidentally, are famous for its excellent harðfisk. There was no question we had to comply, though we decided to give the pool a pass, having just spent an hour soaking at Krossnes. However, when we got there we found Gjögur to be a little bit deserted. Maybe everyone was inside watching the World Cup game.

Gjögur village

Finally we chanced upon a woman who said that, indeed, they had some harðfisk for sale. She took us into a little garage-type place where they had selection of the stuff – catfish and halibut in various sizes and shapes. When it came time to pay, however, we found that in true Icelandic fashion we only had plastic, and in non-true Icelandic fashion they had nothing with which to charge our plastic. No matter – they said we could just transfer the money later, that they trusted us completely, and that in all the time they had been doing this they had only had to call people to remind them to pay up about five times – and every time it was just because people were still travelling “and hadn’t gone home yet so they couldn’t do the transfer.”

That, too, was so quintessentially Icelandic.

After chatting a while about the merits of driftwood (“See this porch? All made out of driftwood. People walk on it, back and forth, day in and day out, and in all these years it’s not even worn – it looks completely new” – and it did) we said our goodbyes and headed out towards Djúpavík, another amazing stop in Strandir, from which I am currently writing this, and which I will tell you more of in due course.

TO SUM UP:

Where we stayed. Hótel Djúpavík. Super friendly, super relaxed – kind of like being at home where everybody just kicks off their shoes and puts up their feet while the dog flops out on the couch in the lounge. It’s in an old house that used to be the staff quarters for the people who worked in the now-abandoned herring factory nearby. The staff is pretty much all foreign, and we talked to this guy who has worked there now every summer for the past eight years. The rooms are quaint and simple – no ensuite toilets, just a wash basin in your room, but everything is tidy and spotless.

What we ate. Soup of the day (bell pepper soup) and pan-fried cod at the hotel restaurant. Both were unpretentious: down-home, honest food.

Do not miss: The tour of the abandoned herring factory next to the hotel. The place is amazing. It was built in the 1930s and at the time was the most state-of-the art factory in Iceland, the largest building in Iceland, and the largest concrete building in Europe. Its construction defies all logic – how they managed to transport all the building materials and equipment weighing many tons, to say nothing of the sheer manpower needed. TRULY MIND-BLOWING.

[ps. more on Djúpavík tomorrow.]

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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

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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

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The ones that got away

May 19, 2014

One of my favourite columnists, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, writes a brilliant piece in Fréttablaðið today called “Á Íslendingaslóðum” which may be loosely translated as “Where the Icelanders Are”. It begins: The old [Icelandic] folk stories tend to begin with a man who is chasing sheep up on some mountain. He gets lost, winds up in a fog and […]

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Why I won’t give a sample of my DNA to Decode Genetics

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Last week I posted a picture on our Facebook page of the contents of an envelope I received from the company Decode Genetics, in which they kindly request that I give them a sample of my DNA. I made some glib remark about swabbing the dog, but didn’t really explain the full story. Basically it is […]

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