Tuesday 30th July, 2013. Isafyordur, Westfjords, Iceland.
Isafjordur (population 3,000) is the largest town and regional centre of the Westfjords peninsula in the northwest corner of Iceland. It is located on a narrow sand and gravel hook-shaped spit extending out into Skutulsfjordur, an inlet of the much larger Isafjardardjup. The municipality, known as Isafjardarbaer, also includes the neighbouring villages of Hnifsdalur, Sudureyri, Flateyri and Thingeyri.
The Westfjords were certainly populated at least a 1000 years ago and a small settlement existed in the 19th centrury along the shores of Skutulsfjordur. Little was known about this and other villages until the 17th century when the Westfjords achieved notoriety in Iceland with a number of witch and wizard trials - the last wizards were burnt at the stake in 1656.
A trading post was well established in the late 16th century and in 1602 the Danish, who ruled Iceland at that time, imposed a crippling trade monopoly. It was not until 1786 that isafjordur was granted municipal status and became one of the Iceland's 6 official trading centres. A year later the Danish monopoly on trading was abolished and the town's fishing fleet increased in numbers. Isafjordur was the centre
of the sundried saltfish trade in the 19th century and the Icelandic shrimp industry began here.
The town's population grew in the late 19th century and this was reflected in the building of the church in 1883 and the founding of the regional library in 1889. At the same time improvements were made to the port facilities. These were boom times for the fishing industry and this continued after World War 2 with large trawlers based in the town and the start of commercial whaling in the 1950's.
However, the 1980's saw the beginning of a serious decline in the fishing industry, leading to the closure of many processing plants and a loss of jobs. Smaller fishing boats have now replaced the large trawlers of the 1970's at Isafjordur and several high tech industries relating to fishing have become established in the town. Today's catches are mainly cod, together with considerable landings of haddock and shrimp. The possibility of renewed commercial whaling may bring the Westfjords once again into the world spotlight.
Despite the Westfjords being Iceland's second most sparsely populated region (after the highlands) the port is one of the country's busiest ports of call for
cruise ships in the summer months and other visitors are attracted by the opportunities for hiking and exploring an area of outstanding natural beauty. The cliffs of Latrabjarg in the Westfjords mark the Westernmost point of Europe. This region has continuous daylight in summer from early June until late July (glad we are in an inside cabin).
As we disembarked we noticed that Isafjordur is surrounded by towering, flat-topped mountains on 3 sides. The imposing Eyrarfjall (2398 ft) rises up steeply behind the town and Kirjubolsfjall (2316 ft) dominates the eastern side of the fjord. The fjord remains ice free for most of the year but ice can cause navigation problems early in the year. We walked into the town on a mission to find the tourist information office and a map. The 'capital' of the Westfjords has a post office, banks, hospital, library, supermarkets, a community centre, cinema, swimming pool, sports hall, restaurants and cafes and government offices. It is known throughout Iceland for its cultural activities, and in particular for its drama and music festivals. As we walked into town we passed pretty Icelandic houses and a lovely statue of two fisherman landing a catch. We found
the tourist office in the town centre. Excellent English was spoken and we were told of a nice hike to a local waterfall. We left the tourist office and headed up towards the higher back end of the town and then out into the Icelandic countryside. We had excellent views of the fjord and of the ship anchored offshore.
We walked through a tunnel and then came to some rather strange mounds rising out from the hillside. We found an information board which explained that the residential area of Seljalandshverfi has been under threat from avalanches falling from Seljalandshlio. Apparently, a couple of large avalanches have been recorded in the area and avalanche defenses have been built to protect the local population. The first one was recorded on the river Tungua on the 24th March 1947. It started above the residential area of Seljaad and Seljalandsmuli. The size of this avalanche spanned a couple of hundred metres at an altitude of 75-100 metres above sea level and spread over an area of 100 metres by the River Tungua. Three summerhouses were destroyed and the avalanche damaged the barn and the house at the farm of Seljaland. The next avalanche
280-300 metres wide fell on the 5 March 1954. It went across the road leading to the ski area of Seljalandsdalur and it destroyed one summerhouse and damaged another one. The third avalanche fell on the 5th April 1994. The width of this one was about 450 metres and it stopped at an altitude of 65-90 metres above sea level. Following tragic avalanches on Suoavik and Flateyn in 1995 which claimed 34 lives, the government of Iceland set targets for a constructive build up of avalanche defense structures. A year later the avalanche defense structures were being built at Flateyri and preliminary steps for them were taken in other places in the north of Iceland. The aim of the building of these defensive banks is to ensure, as far as possible, the safety of people against avalanches by re-modelling the landscape to deflect the avalanches away from built up areas and into the sea. We took some photographs of these strange mounds.
We continued our hike until we came to the foot of the waterfall. It was a 5 hour hike to the top so we settled for taking some pictures at the bottom. We retraced our route back
into the town, passing the football ground and a restaurant advertising pizza with Puffin topping (yuk). We took a few snaps of the Festival of the Sea sculpture and the fishing trawlers before heading to the Westfjords Heritage Museum which is located in the port area, and is undoubtedly Isafjordur's greatest attraction. The museum is housed in the Tali Tumhus (c.1780) which is a former warehouse and one of Iceland's oldest houses. It is in the part of town called Neostikaupstadur (the lower village). The museum contained a wide collection of maritime exhibits and explained the role played by fishing and the whaling industry in the town's development.
We returned to the ship for dinner and to enjoy the sail-away from the Westfjords in the perpetual daylight.
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