The French Village in Iceland

Steinn Jónasson has spent his adult life in Fáskrúðsfjörður and seen it change from an isolated village to popular tourist destination
  • Steinn Jónasson has spent his adult life in Fáskrúðsfjörðu
    Steinn Jónasson has spent his adult life in Fáskrúðsfjörðu
Friday, 20. November 2015

East-Iceland is a bit of an enigma even to the Icelanders. None of the major Sagas, with all their important locations, memorable fights, and dramas, are set in this part of the country. They have Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoða, of course – but it is considered a minor Saga. Which is one the reason there is little emphasis on the beautiful eastern fjords in the school system.  There are roads leading to the East fjords, but somehow no roads leading away from there – except back home. Until the last two or three decades there didn't seem to be a reason to go there. The East-fjords didn't offer an escape from the Island until the Norrøna started sailing to Seyðisfjörður. You see, the notion of leaving; escaping the confines of an island is quite central to the Icelandic character. The Southwest has an International Airport and some harbors, lots of escape routes.

Ignored by the Icelanders

The East-fjords have been inhabited since the earliest settlement of Iceland – but too remote, too isolated to even be considered attached to the country. For centuries, the whole area seems to have been ignored by the rest. Meanwhile the inhabitants went about their daily life, enjoying the fabulous nature in their part of the country, creating myths and folklore, raising great writers, painters, and musicians, taking care of their wonderful communities and each other.

There have always been villages and hamlets scattered along the east coast, connected by precipitous mountain roads leaving them even isolated from each other during harsh winters.

A prosperous village

Born in Reykjavík and raised in Breiðdalsvík, a tiny hamlet south of Fáskrúðsfjörður, Steinn Jónasson has always lived in East Iceland. As a young man, he moved to Fáskrúðsfjörður to learn the trade of auto mechanic. There he met his wife and settled for life.

"I liked Fáskrúðsfjörður from the very start," says Steinn "Of course it was an isolated community at the time, but that was of no consequence to me as I came from an even smaller community. It didn't feel isolated mainly because the social life was very rich and the economy was booming. We had three fish factories, so there was plenty of work for everyone. We had a drama society, a cinema, a sports hall, a choir, and various other societies. There were frequent get-togethers to celebrate all kinds of moments and to enjoy each other's company. It didn't feel like a community of 700-750 people. It felt much larger. They were good times."

The Aluminum Plant changed everything

Fáskrúsfjörður is still a prosperous village with capelin fishing and processing factories; there is enough work for everyone. When asked if the village has changed since he moved there, Steinn says indeed it has.

"Everything changed when we got the tunnel to Reyðarfjörður. It offered new and different job opportunities with the arrival of the Alcoa aluminum plant. A lot of people in Fáskrúðsfjörður work in Reyðarfjörður and vice versa.

Steinn and his wife both work in Reyðarfjörður. Steinn is the Fire Prevention Inspector for Fjarðarbyggð that covers the area from Mjóifjörður to Stöðvarfjörður. He is one of three Fire Service chiefs with the fire station headquarters located at Reyðarfjörður because of the aluminum plant. "The plant brought immense changes to our community. We now have much more diverse jobs to choose from and to attract young families to the area. As a result, we have had some utility companies moving into the area, and we now have the second largest harbor in Iceland. The two communities now practically function as one."

The small community is good for children

When asked why he joined the Fire Service, Steinn says it was at the Fáskrúðsfjörður Fire Chief's insistence. "He wanted his team to be comprised of craftsmen. I was training as an auto mechanic, and he simply informed me that I was to become a member of the fire service team. In the smaller communities, the fire service is often the craftsman's sideline."

Steinn has four children and says that raising children in a small community in Iceland to be a privilege. With a changing community with more diverse job possibilities, the young are not too eager to move away as they used to be. "In such a small community you never worry about your children. There is always someone keeping an eye on them. Still, they are free to play wherever they like. There is no heavy traffic, and everything is very relaxed. You'll also find that children growing up in small communities tend to find ways to entertain themselves instead of waiting for someone else to entertain them. In Fáskrúðsfjöðrur, they have a well-equipped Sports Hall and a swimming pool, and they run a leisure center."

The French Connection

Fáskrúðsfjörður has an interesting history and a strong link with France. It is a beautiful fjord adorned with the wonderful island, Skrúður. Their pride is the Sandfell laccolith mountain where nothing grows but the gravel is as fine as silk. There are not many of those in Iceland.

An ongoing process is the renovation of the old French Hospital and the French houses. The houses were built during the time (from 1830 until the beginning of the Great War) when hundreds of French fishermen would migrate from France to their operating base in Fáskrúðsfjörður from March through September every year. "Our sister town in France, Gravelines, holds two celebrations each year to commemorate the fishermen," says Steinn. "The former is at the end of February, beginning of March at the time when the fishermen would be leaving for Iceland. The latter is in September when the fishermen would be returning home.

In Fáskrúðsfjörður, we celebrate The French Days in July each year to commemorate the French fishermen's stay in Iceland. We have a museum commemorating the French fishermen and their interaction with the locals and just outside the village is a French cemetery with 49 graves. They all have crucifixes and have been very well maintained. The names of the French fishermen buried there are carved into a rock in the middle of the cemetery."

Pristine and unique

The population, along with Icelandic Heritage Institution and the Municipality of Fjarðarbyggð, of has not only renovated the old French houses but made an effort to renovate all old houses they can get their hands on. As a result, the village is exceptionally beautiful. It is a joy to have a stroll through the village and visit the local café, Café Sumarína and the Kolfreyja gallery (both located in old renovated houses).

You can also take long walks along the pristine beach or go angling down by the harbor. And of course, there are hiking trails all over the mountains and hills, from one fjord to the next. It is like going back in time. And the best part: Fáskrúðsfjörður enjoys mild weather on the whole. Winds, gales, and storms are indeed very rare.