Witchcraft and Sorcery – Holmavik, Iceland

When I first made it out to Iceland, I was picked up by my hotel for the first night from a transport van, and as soon as our driver started the vehicle, I was introduced to the culture of Iceland. A heavy metal song that I had never heard before started to below out of the speakers as the singer shouted about the importance of thunder. Of course I was curious about what I was listening to, so I looked at the dash and was to the song we were enjoying was called, “The Son of Odin”. At first I thought it was just a silly coincidence, but the more I wandered around Iceland, the more I saw that the people of Iceland still hung on to their Norse roots and there was a lot of evidence about how much their lives were shaped by this mythology. This was not more evident when I made it to the town of Holmavik on the edge of the West Fjords and visited their museum, The Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery.

Of course, being a big fan of fantasy literature and Dungeons and Dragons, this was a must do for me. I will admit that it is not a place fore everybody, and it is a little quirky, but it is really interesting as it explores the use of witchcraft in this corner of Iceland. Grimoires and strange spells were more common in this part of Iceland during the 16th and 17th centuries than you would have suspected. Many of the traditions stemmed back to Norse mythology and what they would do in order to get what they wanted, and this museum went through this history, explaining some of the runes used, the spells performed, and the people burned at the stake during this period.

Like I said, this museum is not for everybody. There is some very explicit sights that can be found there, and it could easily scare younger children. They do not hold anything back as they show sea rats, dead bodies busting through the floor, and a skin suit that was taken from the lower half a dead man and used to gain wealth for the sorcerer who wore it. Each exhibit caused more shock as I went through the museum but it was fascinating what extent people took in order to survive in the harsh conditions of Iceland, and how much they held on to these old traditions in the face of a country that was under the umbrella of Christianity.

If you do find yourself in the West Fjords and wish to see this museum, it is not hard to find. It is off of the main road, Highway 61 when you get into Holmavik which you pretty much have to drive through if you wish to visit the rest of the fjords. It costs about eight U.S. dollars for admittance to the sights. All of the explanations of the pieces are written in Icelandic, but if you ask, the attendant at the museum will give you a book that corresponds with the numbers of each spot and translates it into English for you. It is also connected to a restaurant and a book shop that has a lot of books over the runes you will see and the history of the area. If your stomach can handle it, it is worth a visit, and will change the way that you look at Iceland. Like many of the countries of the world, it will highlight that dark past that is always on the edges of what you see, but can’t really get to the heart of. 

The West Fjords – Iceland

If you want to get off the beaten path and see a lot of what nature has to offer you want to go to Iceland. If you want to get away from the tourists that had the same thought as you did while you are in Iceland, you go to the West Fjords. Geographically, it is the oldest part of the island, but it is the area that is least developed. Because of this fact, many of the tourists don’t want to wander out to this part of the island, and because Icelanders won’t see many tourists there, this is where they like to go to get away from it all for a little while. Either way, it is a great place to visit.

There are a couple of way of getting out to the West Fjords. You can take the highways out of Reykjavik and drive the five hours it takes to the heart of this part of the island, or you can catch the ferry from Stykkisholmur to Brjaenslur and with the driving involved to get to the two ports and the three and a half hour boat trip, it takes just about as long. The big difference is what you expect to do along the way. The ferry is very relaxing, but keeps you far enough away from the islands, so there is not really anything to see; whereas, driving could take a little longer with the stops that you can make along the way. I think that it is best to drive one way, and take the ferry the other way. I like taking the ferry back because the sense of adventure is still with me on the beginning of a trip and I just want the more relaxing approach on the way back.

Driving between the towns in the West Fjords is pretty easy during the summer months. I am told that they get a little more difficult during the winter months because clouds can dip down and cover a lot of them in fog and rough driving conditions, and considering that they are extremely windy, it could make for a white-knuckle drive. Still, anywhere you drive in the West Fjords, you are going to see some amazing scenery, just understand that you will be driving for quite some time in-between places. If you wish to go to any of the many sights that are out this way, the driving conditions can change drastically. The roads to these places are rarely paved and sometimes hug steep cliffs. I would like to say that people take a little more caution on these types of roads, but from my experience this is not always the case. You might want to double you driving time if you are traveling down one of these roads because it always takes longer than what Google Maps says it will take.

The sights are worth the drives though. I know that there was a lot that I missed while I was out there because I only had three short days to explore the West Fjords, but I do think I hit a couple of the highlights. On the western most tip of all of the fjords, there is a cliff that stretches out for fourteen kilometers. There is a path that you can hike along it that allows you to follow the largest bird sanctuary on the island. It is a great place to see puffins even though these are not the only types of birds that can be found out there. When I was there, there was a good amount of tourists, but it did not take long hiking along the trail to put many of them behind, and I was also able to get some good pictures of puffins in the meantime.

There is also Dynjandi, a waterfall that is named after a bridal’s veil, partly because it looks like a bridal veil. This is the easiest of the sights to get to, and there are even tour busses from Isafjordur that will make there way out to it. You can miss the crowds if you make it there early in the day, and it might be a good thing to do because the path that leads to the best viewing spots is a little tricky, and it does not stop these tourists from making the attempt even though many of them probably should not. 

You can also find the largest beach in all of Iceland in West Fjords. It is located at what I consider the best campsite in the West Fjords, but you do not need to camp there to enjoy the beach. It is the only one that I encountered while I was out there that was not made of black sand. Volcanic activity is not as strong in the West Fjords, so the scenery does not always have that ominous look that the other parts of the country might possess. It is fun the walk along this beach on warmer days in Iceland, and there are many spots where you can see clams digging, and seals swimming just off the shore. Beware that the midges are pretty common in the summer at this spot, and you might have to avoid herds of sheep who are also frolicking on the beach.

If you wish for a little civilization, there is a the town of Isafjordur which boast a cultural museum, many fine restaurants, and a micro-brewery. There are some great campsites also in this town as well as comfortable hotels, so it could be a great stop if you want to get out of the camper van for a day. Be warned that cruise ships do make this as part of their stops, so the town can have a influx of people for a little bit while they are docked, but even with this, it still does not feel that crowded if they are there.

Of course there are a lot of other interesting things to do out there, such as visiting the oldest bookstore owned by the same family for over four generations, seeing the hot pots and dipping a toe into the warm water, or checking out Iceland’s oldest steel boat which ran ashore to rust way back in 1986. Around every corner there is always another surprise in this part of Iceland, and if you really want to enjoy the place that Icelanders enjoy than this is the place you want to head to. Just make sure you have a few days to explore because there is a lot to see once you get out there.