Is Iceland a forgotten country

Iceland's almost forgotten bays: the Westfjords are a myth

The idea of ​​loneliness, of the simple life in extreme surroundings, shapes the self-image of the Icelanders to this day. But almost nobody wants to live like this anymore.

Dynjandi waterfall (the roaring one) in the nature reserve in the Westfjords. Image: imago / McPhoto

Somewhere in the West Fjords, the maze of roads dissolves and there is only one path. The car headlights illuminate rubble and brown tufts of grass, rock edges pierce the snow cover on the steeply sloping slope. The ice crust crunches under the tires. Sheep eyes flash on the edge of the frozen gravel road, reflecting the light like cats. It goes downhill. In the distance, mighty rock walls rise up, angular and pitch black against the midnight blue sky.

At that moment, one remembers Halldór Laxness's sentence: People left the fjords in the west, wrote the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1952, “because they are terrified of the vast landscape of those areas”. And it feels as if the peaks are looking down on the wasteland in the valley and the small cone of headlights that move deeper and deeper into the darkness.

How can you live in these fjords? Many Icelanders ask themselves the same question. People have been moving away since the days of laxness. While Iceland's population has doubled since the 1950s, it has halved in the Westfjords. “Who lives here voluntarily? What can you live on here? How is it even possible to live here !? ”, writes city dweller and writer Huldar Breidfjörd in his novel“ Liebe Isländer ”, which was also published in Germany during the year of the book fair.

He lets his protagonist drive the same road into Ísafjardardjúp. He must have felt the same when the mountains looked down on him and he gave the valley road a voice: “Who do you think you are, Reykjavík lad. Do you think you will pass me !? "

Very deep in Djúp, just before the mountain flank swings up steeply towards a bright glacier tongue, a single, yellow light glows. It is Tordur Halldórsson's house, a flat, angular bungalow with large windows. There are two rows of shoes in the hall. His wife is taking their two children to school in the 400-strong village of Hólmavík on the other side of the Steingrímsfjardarheidi mountain pass. She works there as an educator.

The region: The Westfjords are one of the most remote areas in Iceland. Only a narrow tongue of rock connects the peninsula in the northwest with the rest of the country. If you are lucky you can watch golden eagles or killer whales along the fjords. The many small guest houses along the coast are a good starting point for hikes. Info: www.westfjords.is

The human: Most of the almost 7,000 inhabitants of the fjords live on farms or in villages on the edge of the endless gravel roads that wind along the coast. The population of the fjords has halved since the 1950s. For comparison: the capital Reykjavík has grown more than threefold since then - over 200,000 people currently live there.

The change: The development in the Westfjords is typical for all of Iceland: traditional professions are on the decline, people are moving to the city. The number of workers in agriculture and fishing has fallen by more than 30 percent since the early 1990s. But there are also counter-movements: Many young Icelanders are flirting with the simple life in the country.

If you want to get to know the Westfjords, you have to get to know the people - that was the advice of Huldar's friends in Reykjavík. And Tordur knows everyone here: he's the postman at Ísafjardardjúp. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he drives 280 kilometers to deliver mail to 15 yards. If the weather is good, he takes the little Skoda. When it snows and storms, he switches to the Toyota jeep. But he has already driven the snowmobile to the post office in Reykjanes, 60 kilometers away, to collect the letters. “People rely on me,” says Tordur.

Today is a day for the jeep: minus five degrees, the road is frozen over. Tordur runs his finger over the tablet computer on the kitchen table. The road watch's webcams show black lanes in the snow between the yellow delimitation posts. The system also registers the passages on the road to Hólmavík. Four since midnight. “That was you, my wife, my neighbor and maybe another truck,” says Tordur and grins.

Tordur accelerates the heavy SUV uphill, and you are grateful - just get out of this gloomy valley. In the east the sky is slowly brightening. Clouds obscure the snow-white mountain peaks in the distance, the northernmost flanks of Ísafjardardjúp. Where the north winds strike, the rocks are frozen over, and one turn further down the mountain the snow has already melted. Steaming rivers wind their way down a mountain flank, where green sprouts in the stony wasteland. This is the other face of the Westfjords that has always drawn artists and writers out here. The almost untouched nature. A deserted fjord.

The ferries have disappeared

A concrete block protrudes from the water, the rest of a jetty. Ferries used to connect the farms in the region. “At that time there were still 200 people living on our side of the fjord alone. Today there are still 20, ”says Tordur.

His grandfather bought the farm called Laugaland in 1916, which means “land of hot springs”. Tordur's mother, Ása, still lives in the old farmhouse, which was one of the first stone houses in the area. Until the late industrialization reached Iceland in the 1950s, animals were still standing in the basement in many places to give warmth to the residents. “In winter, the farmers heated with sheep dung and ate what could be fermented,” explains Tordur.

Agriculture without a future

The tolerance and gnarled determination of the people in the country - it has also become a myth through its description in the novels of the national poet Laxness. Except that there are hardly any farmers left in the Westfjords. “A few dozen people still live here. And most of them are older than me, ”says Tordur. He is 53. Tordur himself still has 140 sheep. “Actually more of a lifestyle than profitable agriculture.” He doesn't believe that his children will one day take over. "Agriculture as a livelihood model hardly has a future here." He believes in another way: tourism.

After half an hour's drive, it stops in front of the Hotel Reykjanes. Two long, gray bars, two stories high, with a steaming swimming pool in front of them. The building used to be a school, now the Northern Lights tours for tourist groups start from here. In the parking lot there is a massive petrol tank, a gas pump and a flat metal container with a glazed entrance door - the post office. A supply truck from Reykjavík stops here three times a week and leaves the shipments there.

Tordur puts a dozen letters in the blue post box, an agricultural catalog, a package with the Amazon logo and a large sack of dog food.

Got stuck here

Jón, the owner, walks towards him from the hotel. He has broad shoulders, wears an Adidas shirt and a three-day beard. His hands are rough. "Jón is one of the weird guys who actually moved here," says Tordur with faint irony in his voice. Jón renovated the old school and expanded the swimming pool. It was actually only supposed to be a summer job, as he says, "but I got stuck here."

Seven years ago he quit his job in Reykjavík and moved to the Westfjords. From Iceland's only big city to nowhere. Doesn't that bother him sometimes? Jón raises his eyebrows. “What exactly?” The mountains? Loneliness? Jón shrugs his shoulders, looks over at Tordur. “People think you are alone. But you might meet more people here than in Reykjavík. "

Of course, Reykjavík, with around 200,000 inhabitants, is not nearly as anonymous as the world's major cities. Nevertheless, for many Icelanders, the search for meaning is almost inevitably linked to fleeing the city. At least in my mind. “I was fed up with sitting in cafes and drinking latte macchiato and making caffeine-tuned plans that never came true,” writes writer Huldar Breidfjörd. He now has a summer house in the Westfjords.

Got stuck in the snow

In winter he prefers to stay in Reykjavík. Maybe it's better that way. A few weeks ago, Tordur picked up a couple on Steingrímsfjardarheidi who had gotten stuck with their car in the snow. "In a Fiat over a mountain pass," says Tordur: "You have to be awake and think ahead if you live in the country."

But isn't that a paradox: tourism in a region that lives from loneliness? Tordur brushes the objection aside. “We have to find smart, sustainable solutions,” he says. He himself has already led a horse tour over the glacier. Hiking, kayak tours, “no mass tourism,” he says. Everyone would like the Westfjords to remain a lonely, mystical place.

When he turns back onto the street, he points to a small shed on the edge of the hotel bar. A wide chimney protrudes from the roof: the generator for the courtyards of the fjord. If the power goes out in winter. "There are still overhead lines on the pass, although they regularly collapse under the snow," says Tordur. You can forget about mobile internet in the fjords. Even the cellular network is so weak in some regions that calls cannot get through and text messages reach recipients several hours late.

Since the financial crisis, Talstrasse has only been cleared six days a week. It is often closed on Saturdays in autumn. That doesn't even really save money, as a spokesman for the road service frankly admits - “then we have to clear twice as much snow the next day. But you know, the financial crisis. It probably sounded good to show how tight Iceland is saving. ”And when it's too stormy outside, the road stays tight.

Garbage collection for three weeks

“They laugh at us in Reykjavík,” says Tordur - and he doesn't mean the writers and artists, but the politicians who decide on power lines and road services. The people here feel that they point their fingers at the stubborn farmers in the Westfjords. "That is the reason why nothing is going on here," says Tordur. Nobody really cares about the problems in the region. “People hear 'Westfjords' and think of rural life and beautiful nature.” But not the fact that the garbage collection sometimes only comes every three weeks.

“280 kilometers for a handful of letters!” Rumbles Tordur. Why is he doing this? Why does he drive, even if he has to take the jeep that uses so much fuel that he hardly earns anything anymore? “It means that you can order online at this location yourself. That someone looks after the old farmers and takes care of an errand, ”he says energetically. “I do this because I believe in life in the Westfjords. But we are almost forgotten. "

Then it's long in the jeep. Outside the fjords pass. The sky a troubled sea of ​​clouds. A white chapel with a red roof. Tordur only jumps out briefly to deliver letters. The agriculture catalog for the farmer. Dog food for the single lady who still runs her farm at the age of 83.

150 sheep

An old man with tousled gray hair and a bushy beard invites him in for coffee. “Sigurjón”, he says in greeting and extends his gnarled hand. Sigurjón is now a bit forgetful, says Tordur. A woman helps him around the house and takes care of the animals. “150 sheep,” says Sigurjón, slowly nodding. He only answers some questions with a smile or a wink. How does he deal with loneliness? Smile. Does the landscape, the mountains sometimes depress him? Wink. Doesn't he think he might be better off in town? Smile. Shaking his head.

On the way back, delicate rays of sun break through the gray clouds. Tordur points upwards: a sea eagle circling over the water. It's not difficult to imagine this place without people.

“I thought I don't mind people moving away. But that's not true, ”says Tordur. Does he sometimes think about going away himself? “Yes, at some point I'll leave the Westfjords,” he says. And then there's that mischievous grin again. "But only in a wooden box and feet first."