mæðgur á ferðalagi: ísafjörður og bolungarvík

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The drive from Patreksfjörður to Ísafjörður was the longest and gravel-iest of the trip. We backtracked east to Flókalundur and then took Route 60 over the mountains. The road is gravel, yes, and there are some mildly terrifying sheer drop-offs and sharp turns, but the weather was splendid and we only met a handful of cars along the way. The scenery was spectacular and had me constantly slowing down (even more, that is; I was already granny driving) and saying “wow!” repeatedly.

I took a few photos from the (stopped – safety first!) car, but none of them do the views justice.

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After a couple hours of dusty driving, we were rewarded by the sight of the Westfjords’ most spectacular waterfall: Dynjandi.

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Dynjandi

Dynjandi (“thundering”) is actually a series of waterfalls, the largest of which is called “Fjallfoss” (“Mountain Falls”). The smaller falls all have names too, but I am too lazy to look them up.

Here’s a charmingly shaky video I took (with my bright pink point-and-shoot camera) that shows what a marvelously beautiful (and windy) day it was:

 

We took a nice long break at Dynjandi, and we were far from alone. That’s the strange thing about driving in the Westfjords; you can drive across the mountains for hours and meet just a few cars along the way, and then all of a sudden at a place like Dynjandi there are dozens of cars that seem to have materialized out of nowhere.

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We continued on past Dynjandi and made it to Þingeyri, where the road is paved once again (my mother was thrilled). From there it was smooth sailing on to Ísafjörður. Well, almost. Just before Ísafjörður you have to drive through Vestfjarðargöng, a long tunnel (about 6 km, I think). After dozens of one-lane bridges, my mom, when she saw the upcoming tunnel, said, “well, as long as it isn’t a one-lane tunnel.” As the sign (which was in Icelandic, of course) came into view, my eyes alighted on the word “einbreið.” “Well, actually, Mom…”

I vaguely recalled having gone through this tunnel back in 2012. Thankfully, heading east, we had the right of way; westbound traffic has to use a series of pull-outs to yield to eastbound traffic.

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Ísafjörður

We arrived in Ísafjörður around dinner time and checked into our AirBNB accommodation (which was incredibly easy to find – such a welcome contrast to our experience in Stykkishólmur). I mentioned to our hosts that we were planning to go to Tjöruhúsið for dinner and they asked if we had a reservation. “Uh… no,” I said, realizing it had never even occurred to me to make a reservation. This is Iceland, after all.

Gurrý immediately offered to call the restaurant for us, and thanks to a last-minute cancelation, she was able to book us a reservation for about ten minutes later.

Dinner at Tjöruhúsið is an experience. Tjöruhúsið and the surrounding buildings are some of the oldest in the country, built by the Danes in the 1700s. The neighboring Turnhús is now home to a museum, and Tjöruhúsið is home to what I think I can safely say is the best seafood restaurant in the country.

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I hesitate to use the word buffet, since it carries such negative connotations, but that’s essentially how dinner was served. The line of people snaked around the long tables and benches that make up the dining room as we all waited our turn for seafood soup and bread. Then it was time for the main course – there were about ten side dishes, ranging from green salad to barley salad to plokkfiskur. And then the main attraction: a dozen gigantic iron skillets, each one filled with mouthwateringly delicious fish – cod, haddock, blue ling, wolffish, catfish, cod cheeks.

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The dining room at Tjöruhúsið consists of just a few long tables, so it’s a communal dining experience. Our nearest tablemates turned out to be a family from Arizona who had just arrived in Iceland that morning. We also sat across from a guy whose two friends’ unfortunate car trouble and subsequent delayed arrival was the reason my mom and I were able to get last-minute reservations. (We expressed our apologies and our hope that the car issue would be quickly resolved, which it was – the friends arrived in time for dinner.)

After a cup of strong coffee (never a good idea at that hour, but hey, when in Iceland) and some Nói Siríus chocolate, we walked back to the car, full and content.

To the several people who recommended Tjöruhúsið – I owe you. Mmm.

After dinner, Mom stayed at the guesthouse while I wandered around town. Peaceful, calm, quiet, illuminated by the late-night sun… the perfect way to explore a new place, if you ask me.

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Gamla Bakaríið

In the morning, we had treats at Gamla Bakaríið (“The Old Bakery”) and wandered around the town a bit. We wanted to go to (what we thought was) the Westfjords shop (where I got my beloved Westfjords t-shirt in 2012 and where we planned to buy souvenirs for family), but since it didn’t open until 1.00, I suggested we drive up to Bolungarvík.

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I had no idea what there was to do or see in Bolungarvík (if anything), but I knew it was just a short drive north of Ísafjörður, so I figured it would be a good way to kill a bit of time. It turned out to be the best little detour of our trip.

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Hólskirkja, Bolungarvík

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You see, when we drove into town, my mom noticed there was a church up on a hill. I drove up there so we could get a closer look and snap a few photos. There also happened to be a home right by the church, and a man outside in the garden. While I was taking photos of the surrounding mountains (and all the rocks that tumbled down the mountainsides last winter), my mom started chatting with the gardener. By the time I walked over there, he was inviting us in to see his house.

He spoke good English, but my Icelandic also helped a bit as he showed us around his house. We learned that he was a tæknifræðingur (which the dictionary defines as a “technologist,” whatever that means), born and raised in Bolungarvík. He lived and worked in Kópavogur for most of his adult life and had also lived in Sweden but moved back to Bolungarvík after retiring. He has a daughter who made the lovely quilt on his bed, and he has a son who lives in Hveragerði but was at Landspítali in Reykjavík after a recent heart attack.

Our new friend Siggi told us that he is 92 years old, and initially I thought have misunderstood him, because he is energetic and youthful and doesn’t look a day over 75 (Seriously, I didn’t believe it until I found this article confirming his age.) Despite his age, he still draws and paints, grows pears, and works in his woodshop. And, apparently, occasionally makes friends with tourists.

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Mamma og Siggi og gjöfin sem hann gaf henni – handsmiðaður diskur

After saying goodbye to Siggi, we drove around the town a bit more. Siggi had recommended that we check out the avalanche barriers. Most towns in the Westfjords are nestled next to incredibly steep mountains, putting them at high risk for avalanches. In fact, 169 people have been killed in snow avalanches in Iceland since the beginning of the 20th century. After avalanches in nearby Suðavík and Flateyri killed 34 people in 1995, the government created a risk assessment process to identify which residential areas were at highest risk. A large portion of Bolungarvík was determined to be a high-risk zone, which prompted the construction of avalanche defense structures between 2008 and 2012. The structures are intended to keep snow from reaching the town and to redirect the flow toward the sea.

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IMG_6184The most fascinating thing is that these structures, while serving a critical defense purpose, double as a recreational space: there are walkways across the dams that provide stunning panoramic views of the surroundings. Apparently the thought was that if the town’s landscape had to be significantly altered in order to impose these safety measures, the least they could do was turn them into something that can enrich people’s lives on a regular basis, not just potentially save their lives some day (not that this is a “just,” but you know).

Oh, and because the Icelanders are a people who greatly value language and names, it should come as no surprise that the town of Bolungarvík held a naming contest when the two dams were erected. The winning names? Vörður and Vaki (Guard and Watchman).

Besides the avalanche barriers, we also saw a woman out for a walk with her child and her cat. Seriously, she was pushing a stroller, and there was a little orange cat following her. We thought it was a coincidence at first, but then noticed that she kept turning around and waiting for the cat to catch up.

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I didn’t want to get too close and be too obvious that I was taking a stalker photo.

Back in Ísafjörður, we were disappointed to learn that the Westfjords shop closed a couple years ago. The woman we spoke to told us that the guy who ran the shop lives in Flateyri and we should just go talk to him, but we were not convinced (our decision may or may not have also had something to do with the fact that we didn’t want to have to drive westbound through the one-lane tunnel).

So we said goodbye to Ísafjörður and continued on our way toward our next destination: Heydalur.

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mæðgur á ferðalagi: heimsókn til ættingja á patró og tálknó

We arrived in Patreksfjörður with the hope of seeing relatives but with no actual plan. It is not really the Icelandic way to plan ahead. I’ve often heard the theory that Icelanders’ inability or unwillingness to plan ahead is tied to the uncertainty of the weather, and that even now, when modern technologies and conveniences can mitigate the harshness of weather to some extent, it’s still in their blood to wait until the last minute. But as the Icelanders say, “þetta reddast,” it will work itself out. And it did.

Our first morning in Patró, we had breakfast at the guesthouse and then set out for a little walking tour of town. We peeked in to Albína, the grocery store where I did the first week of my work experience, and I chatted with Inga, who I worked with in 2012. She was so kind and helpful and remarkably patient with me despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time.

As we walked through town, I pointed out relatives’ homes, my favorite coffee shop, the place where this happened, the place where that happened. Eventually we ended up at our cousin Björg’s home for kaffitími.

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frænkur

Björg is the eldest of my host parents’ four children and she lives on the far end of town with a lovely view of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Coffee was poured, vínarbrauð and kleinur set out, and we started catching up in a blend of Icelandic and English. Names and places and family news swirled through our conversation like milk in our cups of strong Icelandic coffee.

My host mamma Hrafnhildur was out of town, but Sæmundur took a break from his work day to drop by and say hello. When I last saw him, in 2012, my Icelandic was so limited that we could barely communicate. There was definitely a solid language barrier between us. We would chip away at it steadily and eventually managed to make some cracks that let communication shine through, but it was labored. So I cannot adequately explain my joy at discovering that the barrier is all but gone now. From the moment he walked in and began speaking to me, I understood probably 90% of what he said (compared to maybe 10% three years ago), and, what’s more, I could express my own opinions, feelings, and questions with so much more clarity and detail than before.

My mother listened and waited with grace and patience as we chatted in Icelandic. To no one’s great surprise, Sæmundur insisted that she try his harðfiskur (Icelandic dried fish). And to no one’s great surprise, she was not a huge fan (the dog, however, loves it!).

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mamma ekki svo spennt að smakka harðfisk, hundurinn rosa spenntur

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Sæmundur headed back to work and Björg took us to see her sister Jenný on the other side of town (for the sake of perspective, please realize that this means a four-minute drive). Jenný’s daughter Auður was fearlessly friendly in 2012 but not so sure about me this time around. Still, we had a nice visit before Björg drove us back to our guesthouse to rest.

That evening, Björg took us to Tálknafjörður (one town over) to partake of the most beloved of Icelandic pastimes: hot pot sitting. If you follow the main road through Tálknafjörður and continue past the kernel of homes and the school and the swimming pool, you will soon come across a trio of hot pots nestled into the hillside overlooking the fjord. They are natural and rustic (which sometimes means they are rather slimy, but hey, it’s natural slime!) and two of them are painfully hot, but sitting in the not-too-hot pot and watching the sun sparkle on the fjord and dance on the mountains is glorious.

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mjööööög íslenskt að chilla í heitum pott

After a nice long soak, we met the family at a restaurant called Hópinn for a sort of family reunion dinner. We were quite a large group: Mom and I; Björg and her son Stefán; Björg’s daughter Sædís, her boyfriend Davíð, their toddler Sæmundur and newborn baby boy; Jenný and her husband and their daughter Auður; Guðmundur and Eygló and their two youngest daughters, Berglind and Dagbjört; and their second daughter Ástrós was working at the restaurant.

As I was perusing the menu, I noticed that one of the dinner offerings was hrefnusteik (minke whale steak) and I commented that I had never tasted whale. Before I knew it, Guðmundur had convinced Ástrós to bring a sample.

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Sorry, people who walk around Reykjavík in plastic whale suits trying to get people to promise not to eat whale meat – I tasted it, and I liked it. But it was mostly something I felt I had to do once; I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to order a meal of minke whale any time soon.

Anyway, wonderful food and good company. Mom especially enjoyed bright-eyed little Sæmundur, who is two years old and incredibly vocal. He kept pointing to his mamma (Sædís) and saying, “Þetta er mamma mín!” (“That’s my mom!”) I pointed to Sædís and said, “Þetta er mamma þín,” then pointed to my mom and told him, “Og þetta er mamma mín!” “Nei!” he exclaimed emphatically. “Mamma mín!” By the end of the night, I’m pretty sure my mother had learned the word “nei.”

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smá ættarmót

After dinner, Björg drove us back to Patreksfjörður and we dropped by to say goodbye to Sæmundur and thank him for dinner (it was his very generous treat, even though he was working late and couldn’t come). He asked me which way my mom and I were driving to Ísafjörður the following day and pointed out the route with the shortest distance of gravel roads, cautioning me to drive slowly and carefully. And he insisted on paying to fill up our gas tank before we left, despite my protests that it was unnecessary. Sæmundur hasn’t changed much in the past three years as far as I can tell; he still works nonstop (his children say he can never retire because if he does he will die), and he still has a generous spirit.

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The next morning, after we checked out of our guesthouse, we drove over to Björg’s house again. She had offered to drive us to Rauðasandur, one of my absolute favorite places in Iceland. But first we stopped at the pharmacy so I could pick up some earplugs, anticipating another battle against my mother’s snoring that evening. There was exactly one person working at the pharmacy, and about three people ahead of me, so it was a bit of a wait. When it was my turn, I had to ask for earplugs, because I hadn’t seen them anywhere. I didn’t remember the Icelandic word for earplugs, though, which means I outed myself as a foreigner immediately. “Hvaðan ertu?” asked the pharmacist. I told him I was from the States and the conversational floodgates opened. Turns out Ramón (as I should have known when I saw his name tag, not to mention when he started making conversation with a stranger – definitely not an Icelandic trait) is a fellow útlendingur, having moved to Iceland from Spain a number of years ago. We chatted about learning Icelandic and adjusting to life on this weird and beautiful rock. He told me he’d been learning Icelandic for however many years but “byrjaði að lifa á íslensku” (began living in Icelandic) a few years ago. Að lifa á íslensku… what a lovely turn of phrase.

Anyway, eventually I realized that Björg and my mom had been waiting for at least 10 or 15 minutes by now, so I excused myself from the conversation. When I got back in the car, I apologized and explained what had happened. Björg must have assumed that I was flirting with this guy (which I wasn’t, truly) because she immediately said something like, “Því miður er hann hommi… he’s a gay.”

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Rauðasandur single photo

The road to Rauðasandur is one of the more terrifying in the region and I was very happy that I was not driving. We parked by the camping area and took our time meandering over the expansive stretches of sand. Words can’t capture the magic of this place, so I will stop forcing them together and instead let the photos speak for themselves.

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approach to Rauðasandur

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Back in town, we had lunch at Stúkuhúsið, the café where I spent entirely too much time and money in 2012. To my surprise, the owner, Steina, remembered me.

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And sadly it was then time to say goodbye to Patreksfjörður, as we had quite a long stretch of (not always paved) road ahead of us to Ísafjörður.

Our time in Patreksfjörður was filled with family, just as I hoped it would be, and it was filled with little moments of affirmation that I made the right decision in choosing to move to Iceland and study Icelandic.

Language learning can feel like an uphill battle and all it takes is one difficult conversation to make you question your progress. At home, speaking with Ásta and the family, I can tell I’ve improved, but it’s less dramatic because I see them and speak with them every day. Seeing Sæmundur (and my other relatives in Patró and Tálknó) gave me the opportunity to see clearly how far I’ve come. It was a joyful and encouraging discovery.

Before I left Patró three years ago, I told Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur that I hoped to return to Iceland to study the language. Sæmundur was fully supportive of this, and as a parting gift gave me the money to buy the Icelandic-English dictionary I wanted. I hope that seeing how far I’ve come helped him understand how much their investment of time and hospitality has meant to me.

To all our relatives in Patreksfjörður and Tálknafjörður – takk kærlega fyrir okkur!  ❤