The Giant

Lars Olofsson

In the grand scheme of things, Iceland is an adolescent giant having a nap. Occasionally he changes position and in true teenage spirit, he’s easily annoyed and might spew some lava if he wakes. In the end, he always falls back asleep and sometimes it takes centuries for him to wake again. However, that’s in human years. For a giant, it may just be part of the afternoon.

On a freezing, bleak afternoon that seemed to be evening I drove through the pale lands. The shadows reached far across the icy grounds and hardly anything bore any other colours than grey and bright white. Occasionally darker shapes ascended out of the smooth, powdery drifts. Black and rough built of stiffened lava. Barely any other vehicles on the road made for an easy going drive. The car felt as a warm knife cutting through lard, hurtling on the black tarmac. A slight noise from the tires evoked of rain on a tin roof. The sound, the soft landscape and the dull hum from the engine created a journey that soothed a brittle city soul.

Quiet scatterings of wooden buildings clad the archipelago in random expression. The old fishing village Stykkishólmur, made for a peaceful journey’s end. The town seemed shut for hibernation. Perhaps a naive impression. Beneath the bleak surface there are always a wealth of people to warm you with their calm yet eccentric personalities.

One restaurant open for two hours each evening was perfect for an indecisive mind. No options makes an effortless existence. The dish selection was small so the simplicity persisted. Dusk happened too quickly to be noticed and on exiting the restaurant it was darker than expected. The sea disappeared behind a navy shroud and each street light created a refuge from the winter shade.

The laid back, ginger bearded man at the hotel reception offered rum fuelled hot chocolates and enthusiastic conversation. He made the night disappear and sleep was delayed. Eventually, the beds beacon grew too alluring, like a lighthouse that blinded ones eyes with tire.

Something stirred me in the middle of the night. A sense of an electric current streamed through my flesh with strength enough to awaken me. A grainy aura from the clock radio was all that could be made out. The darkness of the night encased like a deep blue cloud. Even though there weren’t any need the curtains were fully drawn. I staggered to the window and quietly drew the curtain to its side and gasped at the sight. Stykkisholmur was green, bright emerald green and the sky were licked by long serpent tongues of northern lights. They playfully teased the few clouds that were drifting across in a colour spiel of deep blue, poisonous green with thin edges of pale, powdery pinks. I grabbed a thick woolen blanket and wore it like cloak, stabbed my boots with bare feet and rushed downstairs as quietly and quickly as possible. No one was awake, it was early morning and as I grabbed the handle of the front door a hum could be heard, amplified by the touch.

The snow gave way beneath the thick soles of my boots with a sound that brought me back to making snowballs as a child, compacting them with my wet woolen mittens into small, dangerous balls. Out there, in front of the hotel, the light strands seemed even fiercer as they disentangled with slow motion strokes.

I marvelled at the display that seemed bespoke. The humming noise was numbing and the biting cold that was slipping in under the blanket was barely noticed. In a daze like trance I tried to reach the lights and touch them. The blanket fell off and I stood there naked. Being Scandinavian this normally doesn't cause any bother but this time it wasn’t even registered. My pale skin seemed to absorb the green light, vibrating with the humming sound that filled everything. I reached further and further, extending my arms on tip toes until I realised I was actually growing. Sounds, similar to the noises from the snow beneath my feet, could be heard from my bones, creaking and cracking as they were growing. The boots grew tighter and tighter until they burst in small, quiet eruptions. I was a green giant stretching my growing arms up to the sky like Jack’s beanstalk. Quivering hands could finally touch the lights and they were sliding and travelling around my fingers like slippery eels, greeting me to their residence. I thought that I would rearrange the stars, but instead decided to take a seven mile step out onto the ocean floor. Bare feet dipped into the salty, calm, cold waters. I waded through the sea until I reached the sleepy village of Hellissandur. I nearly pushed their unmissable antenna over with my casually swinging arm. With clumsy fingers I carefully tried to prop it up. It was only slightly bent at the top, hopefully no one would notice. Standing there the humming grew even stronger as fishes gathered around my feet, nibbling skin with tickling bites. The green light was gleaming, it was everywhere and the cold breeze didn't seem to have any strength. In fact my body was warm and throbbing with the light and the hum. Seals and dolphins arrived, having noticed the commotion. My knees creaked as I squatted and I gasped yet again when dipping my bottom in the cool waters. As I let the dolphins jump across my fingers I heard a slight whisper through the subtle yet powerful noise. Saxholl, the four thousand year old volcano, seemed to want attention. I crawled out of the sea and kneeled on the ground beside it. Resting my ear against the mouth of its crater I tried and make out what it said but it seemed to be Icelandic. The more I tried, the more it seemed to make sense. First only an occasional word but eventually I fully understood.

It whispered stories of long gone people and creatures. Beings that lead hard working lives in the cold climate. Beings that starved and froze and lived at a time when death had a more prominent place in life than now. When boats sailed away and people walked out the door and never came back. When they were surprised that their newborn survived and it hurt as much as it does today when it didn't. Tales of crimes that were never punished, murderers that were never caught and beings that were never understood. Women hiding so many secrets they were consumed by their own lies. Men so caught up in their own pride their desolation affected everyone around them.

It also whispered about laughter and fun, witty jokes and stupid pranks. About anticipation, flirtation, lovemaking and good old sex. And of course love and more love. About hunting, fishing, cooking, feeding, eating good food and drinking and singing songs, creating and playing instruments and dancing in the warm, light summer nights. It told tales of love and thankfulness to your ancestors for what they taught and for what they left for you to figure out.

I placed myself on my back beside the crater and by then I think the antenna was kicked into the ocean. I laid there looking at the stars through the green lights. They also seemed to whisper old tales. So many stories were to be told that they filled the ether. The hum continued to hum. And it always will, long after our planet is engulfed by the sun like a rock in a lava stream.

I woke up from the lushest of dreams and just wanted to go back asleep. I stumbled to the window to check if the lights were truly there. A gloomy, grey reality met my eyes and caused my heart to sink. I went back to bed and fell asleep after a good while thinking about the dream, wishing for it, urging it to come back.

The strange mood persisted after I woke. My sunken heart stayed down and it didn’t make any gestures of ascending. The inevitable journey back solidified its position. Although after leaving, sliding through the beautifully bleak landscape, the scenery seemed to have changed. It had become more vibrant and was bursting with contrast.

The soil was still whispering its stories. The earth and the sky exuberated tales about long gone beings that had tough times and laughter and love.

Days are hurtling past him
like the autumn rain
barely kissing his skin
absorbed by the ground

He tries to catch a drop
on his tongue in vain
the rain keeps him standing watching it spellbound

Lars Olofsson

Searching for Alda in Stykkisholmur

It’s widely believed in Iceland that Nature has a soul, and that soul is deeply rooted in every Icelander’s heart. Across the island, people appear to be continuously inspired by the landscape that they see every day: the green moss, the black sand, the grey stones. As I walk the streets of Iceland’s towns and villages, I picture the people who walk next to me not as what they seem to be, but as people who can transition into another character as the day gets dark. I fancy that everyone has many lives within one, and everyone here does something with his imagination. The longer I stay in Iceland, the more I believe in every tale I was told by the locals. Along the way, I’ve added my own perceptions to these tales, I poured into these stories my own concoction and personal experience. It did not take me long to know that every wild herb has a healing power, every stream can mirror back the depth of your soul, every ‘hidden’ whisper in the dark is a word of love. If only you believe, Iceland can cure you of a broken heart and free you from tormented thoughts.

You see, I am a photographer who has travelled widely across the globe. I always come to a new place with a fresh perspective. Girded with a keen eye for detail and a carefree heart, I have no notion of time. With this unbounded spirit I was in no rush to capture the perfect moment.  When I first came, I spent most of my time walking in the lava fields, listening to the many stories floating in the air about life as a continuous cycle. Like any good story, there were loss, rebirth, separation, healing… If you just listen deeply, the mysteriously-shaped stones can tell you their secrets, the wild flowers will tell you about their magical power, and the wind will point you in the direction where the gray sky suddenly opens up to reveal its new color. And so with just magical Nature as my companion, I roam aimlessly for weeks, passing a never-ending changing landscape - stone towers rising from the sea, glacier lagoon, abandoned houses, tumbling chutes, soothing waterfalls, endless colorful lava fields…. Until I stumbled upon this little village overlooking the broad fjord and something in the air told me to rest my wanderlust for a few days.   The first person I ran into in the village warned me to be careful, ‘don’t venture too far into the water or you might not find your way back.”  He told me the people here believe that there are only two things in the world that cannot be counted: the stars in the sky and the islets in the bay. “Nature is beautiful, but she has her way to fool you,” he affirmed.

For my sojourn, I chose a small red inn close to the harbor. I was immediately attracted to it among the many colorful houses in this fishing town. The innkeeper showed me to my room, a cozy, intimate room with a view on the harbor. With the old wood floor squeaking softly under her feet, the innkeeper told me about the many wonders of her town. She warned me of the fjord howling winds at night, and how it might make me imagine hearing things in the dark. “Old houses tend to sing along with the wind at night, that’s how you get deep dreams in this house”, she said smilingly. Convinced by what I was told, I felt peaceful as the evening slowly fell. That night, Aurora danced across the sky. Seeing her from the window, I quickly ran out of the house and down the harbor. All was quiet as if the whole town suddenly disappeared, and I was the only one left behind. I danced on my feet to rhyme with Aurora soft lights across the sky. I have never seen her more alluring, or beguiling. This was the first moment that I saw Alda. Standing not too far from the lighthouse, she was smiling at me with her hair blowing across her face. Her shiny eyes tenderly held my gaze for a brief moment. The wind from the water was particularly sharp that night, so I looked away quickly to readjust my scarf. When I looked back she was no longer there. I spent the next half an hour looking around, as before all was quiet, there was not a soul in the streets when Aurora quietly faded away. All the houses were dark as though deep in sleep.

That brief encounter haunted me for days to come. I asked the innkeeper the next day about this young girl with green eyes and long, wild hair. “That must be Alda! I see that you fell for her too, you know every man who ever crossed path with her fell in love, but apparently no one has ever won her heart!” I asked where I can find Alda, with a mischievous smile the innkeeper told me: “You don’t find Alda, she finds you!” As I wandered the town searching for traces of Alda, everyone I talked to seemed to have something to say about her, but no one could tell me where she lived or how to find her. The more I heard about her, the more I became intrigued. Apparently Alda has a magical voice. Fishermen could hear her singing even when they were far away in the bay. She moves so quickly on her feet nobody has ever been able to catch up with her. She helps lost souls find their way home. May be because I heard so many stories about her, that night she came to me in my dream. We were silent most of the time as she guided me through a mystical landscape, there were lush fjords, dramatic sea cliffs, and lava caves. All the sceneries, while unknown, looked familiar to me.  As we parted, she sang softly into my ears, she told me there was more to come my way, just have faith in Fate.

Today, as I pack up and continue my trek, my encounter with Alda becomes my most precious possession. I feel very fortunate that our paths have crossed in such a magnificent setting. And I wanted to thank you, dear innkeeper, for providing me a room to rest my head at night, and your charming red house for rocking me into a sweet dream. I know my encounter with Alda would not have occurred if Fate did not have a hand in all this. If nothing else, Iceland has convinced me to let down all my guards, to walk towards uncertainty with a firm belief: between dawn and dust is a long journey, anything can happen.


Written by Anh-Dai Lu, inspired by my stay at Hotel Egilsen in Stykkisholmur, October 2015. 

The Story of the House

Sturla Böðvarsson, the mayor of Stykkisholmur, writes about Egilsens House and the events leading up to the house being restored.

The four-hundred-year development of a settlement built on the Danish tradition

As is written in the 'History of Stykkishómur' by the historians Ólafur Ásgeirsson and Ásgeir Ásgeirsson in 1997, the settlement and development of Stykkishólmur can be traced back to 1596, when the first merchants settled there and started business. From there, cultural influences from Danish, German and Dutch merchants began to take hold. In the beginning, trade was the main source of employment for those who settled in Stykkishólmur. As the merchant business grew the development of “þilskip” (literally “ships with bulkheads”) followed, and the town's base strengthened and broadened, encouraging further development. Through this, Stykkishólmur of course retained its connections to and reliance on Snæfellsnes, settlements around Breiðafjörður and island farming, all of which were a veritable treasure chest for the area.

By 1900, Stykkishólmur was first and foremost a merchant centre, with local offices closely connected to Danish society through business and trade. Stykkishólmur was also the transportation and service centre for the Breiðafjörður area and for Snæfellsnes as a whole. It was the epicentre of West Iceland, being the county seat as well as the area's health care centre for the area, hosting doctors and a pharmacy. All of this led to a rapid development of the the fascinating settlement by the islands, which exported horses, goose down and wool with good economic results. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century—when the Independence Movement began to truly take hold among Icelanders, particularly among supporters of parliamentary president Jón Sigurðsson—the people of Stykkishólmur had developed their homes quite well, especially compared to what was deemed acceptable elsewhere in Iceland at the time. Aesthetically speaking, the town still very much enjoys the fruits of those 19th century developments, as is evident overlooking it. The population of Stykkishólmur in 1900 was at around 300, a remarkable increase from only 100 residents just 50 years prior.

Stykkishólmur’s development in the mid-1970s can be attributed to numerous factors, but mostly to the diversity of services on offer within the community, which had a powerful impact on the surrounding area. In addition, the fishing of scallops and the building of more fishing boats began to take off very successfully. In this way, the town began to grow: the hospital was expanded with a health care centre, more apartments were built, as was a new school, church, sports hall, swimming pool, community centre, play-school, home for the elderly and Hótel Stykkishólmur. Water treatment facilities were also added, providing heat and hot water to local homes. Around this time, a new town council hall was also built.

Town planning and house conservation

Interest in preserving some of Stykkishólmur’s older houses began to really pick up in the 1970s. When the author became mayor, many of the older houses in town were in very bad shape, and there was little upkeep. The amount of resources available to homeowners in the area varied greatly, so many of the older houses went neglected. In 1976, town council began to examine which old houses should be torn down to make way for newer buildings, and to widen the streets and set down pavement. In my first years as mayor I was told: “Show some diligence, because you will be remembered if you let these old houses get torn down.” I was rather alarmed by this, because I had a great interest in preserving and restoring the old houses, which added great charm to the area. 

I thus began to show preservation more attention and was, among other ways, appointed to the The National Architectural Heritage Board, representing The Association of Local Authorities in Iceland. In keeping with this shift in values, the local municipality agreed to restore the apartment house on Aðalgata 2, also known as Egilsens House, and the property was bought with the agreement to restore it. One could say that this agreement marked a milestone in building preservation in Stykkishólmur, and set into motion the preservation of the older houses that give the town its special charm today.

Egilsens House was built in 1867. The owner and builder of the house was Egill Egilsson, son of rector and poet Sveinbjörn Egilsson. Egill was an influential person in Stykkishólmur, as a merchant and a member of parliament, at a time when the time was growing as the epicentre of Breiðafjörður. At the time that the decision to restore the house was made, there was only one person living there—Eyjólfur Bjarnason—who was also the majority owner of the place. When I came to him with plans for restoration, he said that he believed the house was fine the way it was, and he saw no reason to restore it. But I visited him many times, drank coffee with him, spoke with and listened to him. In the end, he signed a contract to let the town buy his share in the house, under numerous conditions, among them a place for him in the local home for the elderly—where he would be provided with “edible Icelandic food”—that he would be allowed to bring his work tools with him for carpentry, and that I would care for his furniture. 

In the wake of this agreement, young and optimistic people took it upon themselves to restore the house. In lieu of pay, they received a share in the ownership of the house. Everyone was encouraged to take part in the house’s restoration. In the end, Stykkishólmur received a special European award for environmentalism and the restoration of older houses.

There is no doubt in my mind that we did well in the restoration of the old homes, with the help of those who showed respect for those who have lived there before, and the new owners have made Egilsen’s House splendid once more. In light of this story it is a pleasure to see that Egilssen’s House is still a part of the restoration of daily life, in its new role as a hotel. The new owners have seen to it that the charm and spirit of the house provides a warm welcome to those who arrive as guests at Hótel Egilsens. 

–Sturla Böðvarsson

The author was mayor of Stykkishólmur 1974 to 1991 and from 2014 to the present. He was the town councilman from 1991 to 1994. He has also served as an MP, a government minister and as the Speaker of Iceland's parliament, Alþingi.