Sunday, February 19, 2017

Vestfirðir, the Icelandic Westfjords

Hey guys!

Today I will be sharing my final post (for now!) in this little series of translations of my friend Sofia's marvelous articles about our time in Iceland. This last one will be about the Westfjords, the region of the country in which our program took place.


Vestfirðir, the Icelandic Westfjords: Discovering Iceland's most remote region through movies and photos

On a map of Iceland, one immediately notices an ample and jagged peninsula that pushes out towards the ocean to the northwest: this is the most remote region of the most remote country in Europe: the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords. Less than two percent of the island's population resides in this mountainous corner more than four hundred kilometers from Reykjavik: only seven thousand people, in fact, live in these quiet valleys, pressed between the mountains and the sea. The lack of work and the politics of centralization of the population in the capital area have, in the course of a century, emptied the little fishing villages of their inhabitants, leaving entire areas uninhabited, like the Hornstrandir Peninsula (now an immense nature reserve). 

The region of the Westfjords is unrepresented in the classic postcard image of Iceland. Firstly, there are no volcanoes; this region is, geologically speaking, the most ancient in Iceland, therefore its volcanic activity is almost zero. Therefore there are no beaches with black sand here, nor are there numerous sources of thermal water as in the rest of the country. Moreover, a little glacier can be found, Drangajökull, which is of dimensions far too modest to compare to the immense icecap of Vatnajökull on the southern coast. 

But above all, one of the biggest differences between the Vestfirðir and the rest of the country is the scarcity of tourists: few, in fact, venture beyond Þjóðvegur 1 or the Ring Road. Therefore reaching the Westfjords means finding oneself in a new dimension, where time passes slower and summer days are even longer and brighter. 

A third of all Iceland's coastline belongs to the Vestfirðir; this trivially means that to cross them it is necessary to patiently accept the infinite curves that wind through the mountains. (Almost) no bridges connect the two shores of a fjord, and automobiles are forced to slowly follow the sinuous and jagged line that is seen on the map. The largest inhabited area, Ísafjörður, is a little village of 3,500 people, which after kilometers of isolated farms, almost looks like a metropolis to visitors' eyes. Among its houses the most ancient wooden habitations of the nation are present. Built in the 1750s as warehouses and commercial hubs by Danish merchants, they have now been transformed into museums. The idea that architecture constructed halfway through the eighteenth century can be considered 'ancient' is enough to make one smile; however, it is necessary to keep in mind that it was certainly not easy to construct buildings resistant to the wind and cold without suitable construction materials (wood, in fact, was imported from the continent). 

To understand the spirit of this reality so far from the bars of Reykjavik and the thermal baths of the south, few mediums are as ideal as cinema. In spite of their remoteness, in spite of their depopulation (or maybe exactly for this reason), the Westfjords are the subject of numerous films of the last twenty years. Every one of them has a different tone; some more sarcastic, some more tragic, telling of the difficulties of life on the edge of the world: the winter isolation, the complex human rapports, the alienation of an everyday life that is always the same. 

Börn náttúrunnar (Children of Nature, candidate for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1991) poetically narrates the flee of an elderly couple from a rest home in the capital, in a search for their youth and their villages already abandoned to the wind and the waves. París norðursins (Paris of the North, 2014) ironically describes the everyday life of a schoolteacher in a little fishing village. Nói albínói (2003), set in the white winter of the north, tells of solitude and the difficulties of adolescence.   Þrestir (Sparrows, 2015, which won the Lessinia Gold Prize at the Lessinia Festival of 2016) mercilessly denounces the alcohol and drug problems unfortunately common in the little communities of the fjords. 

They're difficult stories to listen to, because they're about places where it's difficult to live. However, whoever has traveled in the Vestfirðir can surely recognize the comic irony of their inhabitants, their respect in relations with others, and their sincere hospitality. Whoever has traveled in those valleys, scaling mountain peaks by the sea or walking through quiet villages in the evening will remember them with nostalgia, and recommend north-bound travelers to dedicate a bit of time to the discovery of a seemingly lost world: a world of roads without asphalt and low clouds, little wooden churches and flocks of sheep invading the roadway. A world where, maybe, the real essence of that mysterious and fascinating place called Iceland still lurks. 

Thank you all for reading.
Be back soon!

A map of the Westfjords.
Where the Westfjords are located in Iceland.

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