The Slowest Place in Iceland

Elspeth Velten

Hear someone say they’re going to Iceland and you can pretty much assume that they’re hunkering down in Reykjavik—the country’s largest city with easy day trip access to scenic natural attractions and hundreds of tour outfitters to match. Less often you’ll hear of someone tackling the Ring Road, which forms an 828-mile complete circuit around the country’s coast. But you’ll rarely meet someone heading straight for a connecting flight to the region of East Iceland, which lies northeast of Reykjavik and is home to just about 15,000 inhabitants sharing more than 8,700 square miles of land.<br/>
The region’s remote location isn’t the only thing that’s slowing East Iceland’s tourism development down though. The truth is that the people of East Iceland are deliberately taking their time to carefully consider how they’d like to present their home to the world, a process that’s apparent across the region’s attractions, destinations and processes.

The likely leader of what can be recognized as East Iceland’s “slow” movement is Djupivogur, a small coastal town in the East Fjords that became an officially designated “Cittaslow” in 2013. Cittaslow—an Italian movement focused on slow food and living—allows towns across the world with less than 50,000 residents to meet a percentage of certain criteria, like encouraging home composting, providing easily accessible public toilets and conserving historic areas, to become certified within the movement.

In Djupivogur, this translates to a focus on supporting local producers, providing plentiful services to local parents, educating the youth about local history and nature, and a thoughtful use of public space. “In brief, it’s a little bit about being comfortable in your own skin, trying to maybe slow down globalization,” said Gauti Jóhannesson, District Manager of Djupivogur. “Outside in the village there are no global trademarks on display like Coca Cola or anything like that—we try to keep that absolutely to a minimum.”

The town has witnessed that the designation in itself has been a bit of a draw. “I think it’s an ideology that a lot of people can relate to,” Jóhannesson said. “I think uniqueness is pretty much what people are looking for. You want to be able to feel that you really are somewhere else than in your own hometown.”

But Jóhannesson stresses that Djupivogur’s Cittaslow participation is not a marketing tool for tourism, and, in fact, sets strict barriers for many activities that may cause detriment to the environment or community. “Cittaslow is first and foremost aimed at the people living in the communities that are members of Cittaslow and tourism comes after that,” Jóhannesson said. “We had a travel agency interested in ATV tours around the beach. We said no. We have had cruise lines ask us if they can take their own boats to the Island of Papey. And the answer has been no.”

Next on the list of projects in Djupivogur? Things might be speeding up to accommodate the tourism boom elsewhere in Iceland, but Djupivogur will only become more and more slow. The singular gas pump in the center of town is being moved out of the spotlight, as are parking lots mainly used by tourists. “The idea is for us to take the cars out of the town center, so we can still maintain the idea that we live in a small fishing village on the coast in Iceland,” Jóhannesson said. “It used to be that everybody wanted the (gas) pumps to be in the village to attract the through traffic—we’re not looking for that … We’d like to have something here for people to see or do, which makes them want to come to the village on those terms.”

Djupivogur’s confidence and commitment to the “slow” lifestyle is rubbing off on other attractions across the region. In nearby Vallanes, the Modir Jord farm is one of only a few organic farms in Iceland. Husband and wife team Eymundur Magnússon and Eygló Björk Ólafsdóttir focus mostly on growing barley—a grain that was once prevalently grown in the country but more recently had all but disappeared from Icelandic menus. The acreage is crisscrossed by walking and skiing trails and hosts a charming church—an Icelandic specialty—but the real treat here is enjoying a meal in the country’s first house made completely from local Icelandic wood (from the farm itself, of course).

Inside the cozy wood cabin, Ólafsdóttir serves up rustic lunches from farm-fresh (or once farm-fresh, now fermented) produce on picture perfect table settings. A wood stove burns in the background, and snow falls gracefully outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. That rush to get to the next destination evaporates over beet soup, barley bread and sauerkraut.

Further inland from Vallanes, filmmaker Denni Karlsson and historian Arna Björg Bjarnadóttir recently opened the Wilderness Center, a historic home at the edge of Iceland’s highlands that also exhibits the region’s “slow” lifestyle. “Authenticity, adventure and respect for nature are our keywords,” said Karlsson of the couple’s commitment to embracing and presenting the “slow” movement to visitors. The husband and wife team collaborated with organizations like the National Museum of Iceland, the Art Institute of Iceland and the Vatnajökull National Park, to ensure the four-bedroom house—home to a family of 14 siblings during the early 1900s—would be accurately presented to modern day visitors.  

“The Wilderness Center is designed so that guests have to park their cars a little bit away from the buildings,” Karlsson said. “As you cross the old wooden bridge from the parking lot, you walk into the past.”

It took the couple five years to create the restored Icelandic farmstead — the property’s details are meticulous and period-appropriate, down to the shape of the nails used to fasten the local wood planks to the walls in the dormitory accommodations. The original family’s belongings continue to furnish the home and the newly created Icelandic history exhibit that pulls Karlsson and Bjarnadóttir’s respective talents and interests into one comprehensive, detailed and artistic look at the country’s magical history.<br/>
The local tourism board recognizes that East Iceland’s “slow” lifestyle has the potential to be contagious. The region’s stories are being carefully curated by the group as they prepare to welcome the influx of tourists that has already arrived elsewhere in the country. “We have witnessed that other regions in Iceland had no time to prepare,” said Maria Hjalmarsdottir, Project Leader at Promote East Iceland. “It was very important for us to carefully analyze our region’s own lifestyle in order to attract people that want to experience that.”

Since 2014, Hjalmarsdottir has been working methodically with Swedish destination designer Daniel Byström to collect the region’s local stories and attractions and connect them with one strong, central narrative.  “We are working on guidelines on what to do, where to eat, what accommodation type to look for as well how each lifestyle lives in East Iceland,” Hjalmarsdottir said. “We want … clear values and a place people can be proud of and talk easily about to others. By doing that, we have an easier way to fulfill our promises as well.”

“The aim is that we are a top class destination to both visit and live in,” Hjalmarsdottir said. And that commitment to maintaining the local quality of life while fostering a new tourism industry summarizes East Iceland’s slow movement. The region will not change its identity to cater to coming crowds. Local tour companies will not offer activities popular elsewhere in the country that do not already exist within the region’s lifestyle. East Iceland will remain a unique destination… one that’s worth slowing down and pulling over for.

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