Attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of land barely 10km wide, the West Fjords are one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and least-visited corners of Iceland – only three percent of all foreign tourists make it out here. This peninsula of 8600 square kilometres, stretching out into the icy waters of the Denmark Strait, with its dramatic fjords cutting deep into its heart, is the result of intense glaciation. Everything here is extreme – from the table mountains that dominate the landscape, plunging precipitously into the Atlantic, to the ferocious storms that have gnawed the coastline into countless craggy inlets. Life up here, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is tough – even in summer, temperatures seldom rise above 10°C, and drifting pack ice is never far from the north coast.
Since flat land is at a premium in this rugged part of the country, towns and villages have grown up on the narrow strip of lowland that separates the mountains from the fjords. Geologically all but cut off from the outside world, the inhabitants of the West Fjords have historically turned to the sea for their livelihood, and today the majority of the seven thousand people who still live here are financially dependent on fishing and its related industries. However, the traditional way of life is changing, and the effects of rural depopulation are being felt in every village as outlying farms are abandoned and dozens of young people choose the bright lights of Reykjavík over a precarious and uncertain future on the very edge of Europe.
The unforgiving geography of the West Fjords makes travel here difficult and convoluted. Many roads are surfaced with gravel, and they’re always potholed and often circuitous. Route 61, for example, wiggles its way exasperatingly round no fewer than seven deeply indented fjords en route to the regional capital, Ísafjörður. Benefiting from a spectacular setting on a narrow spit of land jutting out into Ísafjarðardjúp, the town makes an excellent base from which to explore this 75km-long arm of the Denmark Strait at the heart of the West Fjords, plus Drangajökull, the only glacier in the region, and the outstanding natural beauty of the uninhabited Hornstrandir peninsula, which offers some of the wildest and most rewarding hiking in Iceland. From Ísafjörður, Route 60 weaves its way over mountain tops, round several fjords and past a handful of tiny fishing villages on its way to the ferry port of Brjánslækur, from where a ferry leaves the West Fjords for Flatey and Stykkishólmur. A brooding, lonely peninsula reaches out into the Atlantic from this point, terminating at Látrabjarg, Europe’s most westerly point and one of the world’s greatest bird cliffs, with large numbers of puffins, razorbills and other seabirds; and Breiðavík, one of Iceland’s most stunning beaches, with mile upon mile of deserted golden sand. Nearby Patreksfjörður, the second town of the West Fjords, is the only place in the west of the region with a population big enough for life to go on independently of Ísafjörður.
On the other side of the West Fjords, the eastern Strandir coast, which stretches north from the busy fishing village of Hólmavík, is hard to beat for splendid isolation, its few villages hardly visited by tourists, and with some of the most dramatic, forbidding landscapes this corner of the country has to offer, particularly around the former herring port of Djúpavík.Read More
To Icelanders, Jón Sigurðsson (1811–69) is what Winston Churchill is to the British and George Washington to the Americans. This is the man who, through his tremendous skills of diplomacy, achieved independence from the Danes, who had almost bankrupted Iceland during the time of the Trade Monopoly. Born in Hrafnseyri in 1811, Sigurðsson spent the first 22 years of his life in his native West Fjords, and after completing the entry examination for university study, he left for Copenhagen where he chose history and political science among his subjects. Although a committed student, he never graduated from the university, opting instead to dedicate his life to the Árni Magnússon Institute, then a powerful symbol of the struggle for recognition against the Danes; this institute fought a long battle to have many of Iceland’s most treasured medieval manuscripts, kept in Copenhagen by the Danish authorities, returned home. However, it wasn’t until 1841 that Sigurðsson began his political activities, publishing a magazine in which he put forward historical arguments for Iceland’s right to independence. A prolific writer about Icelandic history, politics and economics, he was later elected to the Icelandic parliament, which regained its powers as a consultative body in 1843 thanks to his agitation. Further reforms followed as a direct consequence of his influence, including the right to free trade in 1854, and eventually, twenty years later, a constitution making Iceland self-governing in home affairs. Sadly, Sigurðsson didn’t live to see Iceland become a sovereign state under the Danish crown on December 1, 1918, nor Iceland gain full independence from Denmark on June 17, 1944, the anniversary of his birth – he died in Copenhagen in 1879, and his body was returned to Reykjavík for a state funeral.
The trolls of Grímsey
The trolls of Grímsey
According to legend, Grímsey was formed when three night trolls tried to separate the West Fjords from the rest of Iceland by digging a channel from Húnaflói bay all the way to Breiðafjörður. As the sun rose, the trolls in the west ran east but were turned to stone in Kollafjörður, whereas the troll in the north jumped over Streingrímsfjörður, landing on a rocky peninsula where she had left her ox. In anger she threw down her shovel, breaking off part of the cliff and creating Grímsey. Locals maintain she, too, was turned to stone, and indeed, a tall rockstack known as Kerling (The Old Woman) stands down by the sea between the swimming pool and Malarhorn cottage, looking out at her island and ox.