Iceland isn’t all reindeer, Reykjavík and Northern Lights. For a nation of just 320,000 people, the creative output of Icelanders is prolific, and in Djúpivogur you see it in microcosm. The town's new "slow" status is bringing out the best in its residents, and with a new flight route opening up the area, it's the perfect place to get to know the Icelandic way of life. Meera Dattani went to find out more.
‘Go slowly’ the guide tells the driver. It’s good advice. Flanked by deep valleys, waterfalls and jutting mountains, the Öxi mountain pass should be savoured on its way to the wilder, rugged East Iceland coast.
We take the southern loop, passing the towering pyramid of Búlandstindur mountain before pulling into Djúpivogur’s harbour at the end of the Búlandsnes peninsula.
On Iceland’s eastern fjords, the fishing village of Djúpivogur is the oldest port in the country. German merchants traded here in the late sixteenth century and, at one point, it was Iceland’s only accessible port to the rest of Europe.
More recently in 2013, Djúpivogur and the wider Djupavogshreppur municipality has become a Cittaslow, or Slow Town, the first and only one in Iceland.
© David Leslie Smith/Shutterstock
What are slow towns?
The Cittaslow movement was started in 1999 in Italy by Paolo Saturnini, former mayor of Chianti. Inspired by the Slow Food movement, brainchild of Carlo Pettrini a decade earlier in 1989, he wanted to approach town development from a quality-of-life perspective.
Other Italian towns followed suit; now there are 208 Cittaslows in 30 countries as varied as South Korea, Poland and Turkey.
What does this mean in Djúpivogur?
Gauti Jóhannesson, Djúpivogur’s mayor for the last four years, is proud of his 460-strong community. “It’s about living slower, leading better-quality lives,” he says. “Other towns in Iceland are seeing populations decrease by around 1.5% but Djúpivogur is up 9%. A quarter [of our residents are] under 17 years old – people want to bring up families here.”
One main pillar of Cittaslow is access to nature, something Djúpivogur has by the bucket-load, with black, light and red sandy beaches, marked hiking trails, protected habitats and bird hides on its doorstep.
A public art sculpture, Eggin í Gleðivík (Eggs at Merry Bay) with 34 over-sized egg sculptures designed by Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson, even celebrates the diversity of birdlife. Papey Island boat trips are popular for its seal and puffin colonies; Djúpivogur even has a protected insect species, the tjarnaklukkan beetle.
How are the locals embracing slow living?
Nature is also the inspiration for Ágústa Margrét Arnardóttir who uses natural materials for the accessories she makes, sold in her shop Arfleifð. “I use by-products from Iceland’s food industry,” she says, “Like this reindeer skin rug. See, the leather is super-soft, the other side suede-like. Look at the marks. They’re scars from the fights between reindeer. The material has a story.”
She also uses fish skin, lamb leather, sealskin, and horsehair. Nothing is wasted. Jón Friðrik Sigurðsson makes jewellery and other items from stones, bones, horns and wood in his open workshop.
Making food from scratch and sourcing from local suppliers is another trademark of Cittaslow.
At Hotel Framtid, run by the same family since 1987, fresh fish from the fjords is always on the menu. Across the waters is Berunes Hostel, the area’s first hostel when it opened in 1973 and the fourth in Iceland, where the proprietors pride themselves on using local suppliers or foraging themselves.
© Oleksandr Lipko/Shutterstock
New producers include Berglind Häsler and Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, who moved from Reykjavík and were attracted by Djúpivogur’s Cittaslow status.
They bought Karlsstaðir farm where they run their Havari food company in a converted cowshed, making Bulsur vegan sausages and oil/additive-free Sveitasnakk swede crisps. They’re also opening a café and music venue on the farm. Slow certainly doesn’t mean inactive.
The Cittaslow logo, an orange snail carrying a village on its shell, is the town’s hallmark of quality.
Small eco-friendly businesses and producers are especially welcome and can become ‘Local Supporters of Cittaslow’, which tells customers that products have been sourced within the community. “We try to keep globalisation at bay,” says Gauti.
“The idea of Cittaslow is to take your time to enjoy life. You know, we recently found a geothermal water source here. Someone installed an old cheese container and now we have a small secret outdoor pool.”
It’d be remiss to disclose the location of this clandestine hot tub. But go to Djúpivogur, and you’re bound to find it. If you take your time.
For more information visit east.is and inspiredbyiceland.com. Explore more of Iceland with the Rough Guide to Iceland. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
Top image: Djupivogur © jo Crebbin/Shutterstock