The Otherworldly Landscape of Vopnafjörður
Imagine sailing towards a rough coastline and a range of magnificent blue mountains. Not only are you confronted by an utterly foreign and otherworldly landscape but also an otherworldy creature flying over the countryside; a dragon protecting this land of fire and ice. This was the sight facing a seafarer, who sailed to Iceland in ancient times, according to Heimskringla, an Old Norse kings’ saga.
Nowadays, Vopnafjörður stands as a spectacular example of the grand, harsh, but yet beautiful, Icelandic landscape. Fortunately, this magnificent landscape is more welcoming to travellers now, when one certainly does not need to worry about escaping the fire of a dragon, though it would certainly be exciting to catch a glimpse of one.
The dragon is Vopnafjörður’s icon and one of the four so-called landvættir – guardians of Iceland, who are pictured on Iceland’s coat of arms. This ancient, mythical figure leads one to wonder about Vopnafjörður’s nature and history. Its history reaches back 1100 years when the bay was first settled by Viking seafarers from Norway. It derives its name (literally meaning Weapon Fjord) from one of the settlers, who was called Eyvindur vopni. Vopnafjörður also boasts of its own Saga, Vopnfirðinga saga, which is centred around a dispute between local chieftains.
The wide-stretching sandy coastline hosts a myriad of marine life forms and the magnificent cliffs and rocky islets of Vopnafjörður make a superb sight. They culminate in natural wonders such as Skjólfjörur, easily accessible by driving the old highway east of of Vopnafjörður village, which then becomes the high pass of Hellisheiði between Fljótsdalshérað and Vopnafjörður and provides travellers a spectacular view.
The village of Vopnafjörður lies on the small peninsula of Kolbeinstangi, creating a lovely scene with its colourful old wooden houses just by the sea, surrounded by rocky cliffs and islets. It became one of Iceland’s major harbours for commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the last half century, the fishing industry has grown considerably, and is today the largest business sector in the area.
The museum of Kaupvangur is located in the village in a large old wooden house down by the harbour. The museum is in remembrance of the thousands of emigrants who left the region in the great emigration from Iceland to America in the late 19th and early
20th centuries in the wake of the devastating Askja volcanic eruption of 1875. Also in this house, there is a museum commemorating brothers Jón Múli Árnason and Jónas Árnason, who wrote several jazzy musicals in the fifties and sixties, which have become classics of Icelandic popular culture.
One of Iceland’s most renowned novels, Independent People, by the Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness, was greatly influenced by the struggle of poor farmers in the countryside surrounding Vopnafjörður village.
Independent People follows the struggles of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a stubborn sheep farmer and former servant, who lives in poverty with his family in the vast emptiness of the highlands. The story is deep and dramatic, but the prose is nevertheless full of sardonic humour, ensuring a highly entertaining read. It is a favourite of many Icelanders.
The countryside around Vopnafjörður is the childhood home of another big figure of 20th century literature in Iceland, Gunnar Gunnarsson, who grew up on Ljótsstaðir. This most famous Icelandic writer of his generation wrote a lot about the countrylife of Iceland, influenced by the people, nature and culture of the Vopnafjörður area.
Through the large area of untouched landscape surrounding Vopnafjörður Bay, two great salmon rivers leave their mark on the landscape. On the banks of one of them, Selá, one finds a cosy geothermal swimming pool with a nice view over the river. Among other interesting sights inland is the historical farm of Bustarfell, a regional museum where history comes alive through storytelling and workshops each summer. The same family has lived on Bustarfell since 1532 in a large turf farmhouse until 1966. It is one of only a few farmhouses of its kind preserved today.
Vopnafjörður is a interesting site for all those travellers yearning for an experience of the pristine nature of Iceland while soaking in the history of Iceland’s settlement, the Nordic myths and the harsh conditions of life throughout the centuries.