Iceland’s Western fjords have a reputation as a magical place but it’s not just about the scenery. Behind the beauty there’s a darker story; this wild and remote part of of Iceland has a reputation for magic, witchcraft and sorcery. And arriving in Holmavik late one evening I had the distinct sense it isn’t all just history…
Has Hólmavík cast its spell?
“I think I can see it! The one with the black pointy witches hat.”
No, that’s a actually the village church. But it’s fitting that the church here should look like the sorting hat from Harry Potter. Over the road, the real witches museum resembles more shepherds hut than coven; a timber and driftwood construction, with a stubbly grass roof. It’s closed, so we can’t see what lies within; but is that a pentagram on the lawn? On reflection, it could also be a climbing frame or sculpture. When you enter a village that’s famous for witches, then your expectations are skewed and your imagination can take over.
Are those Satan’s socks or unconventional tree buds?
We aren’t imagining all the socks in the trees. Orange socks, dangling down from every branch. Are they something sinister, or is there a compulsive odd sock pegger-outer on the loose. But then why only orange? Is that the colour of Satan’s socks?
And what is the strange wooden ball buoy with a frown on one side of his face and a toothy smile on the other, loitering down at the harbour. Does its head twist around according to its mood?
On the trail of magic and mackerel
Hólmavík is a tiny fishing village amongst a twisting coastline of peninsulas in the Western Fjords. You might wind up there by accident after visiting the metropolis of Akureyri – Iceland’s second city. Or you might find yourself following the tourist magic trail. After all, it’s Hólmavík’s big claim to fame.
At first sight there’s nothing very magical about this village; the impossibly prosaic N1 garage seems to be it’s defining feature. But around 20 witches were burned at the stake in the Western Fjords and this village commemorates them with strange stories and bizarre pants at the quirky Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.
Witches don’t work nights in Holmavik, but the fish do
And if like us you come at night, there’s still magic to be had. For example there’s something very fishy going on in the harbour. Three fishermen stand in a line; casting quickly, and just as efficiently reeling in their catch. It’s like time has been speeded up; a flick of the hook, a spin of silver, and a wriggling creature dangling from the rod in the endless evening light. I wander over to have a closer look. There are fish everywhere; flapping, jumping about or lying lifelessly in the gutter.
“What kind of fish are they?” I ask.
“Mackerel,” one of the fishermen says gloomily.
“Wow. There’s a lot of them.”
“They are endless.” He agrees. “It’s so tiresome.”
“It’s like work, fishing them all out,” says his companion. “It’s not like it used to be.”
“That’s right. Used to come here with my father when I was a child. We’d wait all day for a catch. And finally, Yes! Now, you get one with every cast.” he says, clearly disgusted at this turn of events.
“But isn’t that a good thing for a fisherman,” I press on, trying to get to the root of this strange story. “Fish jumping onto the line and all that?”
“Not when they do it all the time.”
“And not when they are mackerel. We look down on mackerel in this country.” We all look down at the twenty or so dying fish littering the floor that would fetch a really good price in the other Scandinavian countries.
“What do you do with them. Eat them? Or sell them?” I ask.
“Nothing much. We just give them to the fishing boats for bait.”
As we talk, they hook out another three fish each.
“Want a go?” says one of the men. After my failed angling episode in Eskifjordur, I’d be more than delighted to hook a mackerel. I take the line, chuck it in, and watch a school of fish swarm towards it. Almost immediately, there is a tug. With a few instructions from my new mentor about when to reel in and when to let the fish do the work, I have hooked my first ever mackerel. But he’s right. It was too easy. Over in seconds. I think some of their depression is rubbing off onto me. I feel quite ambivalent about my prize. In fact I’m already looking down on it.
The fish really do jump onto the line
“How many years have you been doing this for?” I ask.
“I’ve been fishing here all my life. But the mackerel only came three years ago. They came overnight, out of nowhere. And now they won’t go away.”
“Are there any other fish here?”
“No. Just these. Apparently some people like them. I only tried one for the first time yesterday,” He pulls a face. “Anyway where are you from?”
“That’s exactly where the fish are from!” he exclaims loudly, as though it were my fault.
I try to wipe fish the blood and gloop from my fingers and hand back the rod. I have just one last question.
“Why do you do it?”
The men look at me, holding their rods still for the first time since we met. They fall silent. Then they shrug. They clearly have no idea. Perhaps Hólmavík has cast a spell on them. I hope I don’t fall under it. I can’t spend the rest of my life with fish gut on my hands.
I beat a retreat to the campsite, past the sock tree, leaving the Museum of Sorcery far behind me, sitting innocuously at the edge of the harbour, just below the sorting hat church. It’s twelve o’ clock. The witching hour. Clearly they do still work nights in Hólmavík.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We’re spending summer 2012 crossing Northern Europe by car and ferry to visit Iceland and The Faroes. We’re exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands on mini biking expeditions, and researching and reporting on other attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families as we tour other parts of the islands by car. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe and onto Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey.
You can follow our progress LIVE on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.