Iceland doesn’t score very high in terms of cityscapes. Granted, there are corners of beauty peppered here and there in Reykjavik but there’s no denying that, besides those exceptions, towns and villages all around this island have a utilitarian air. They were built to answer a function, to solve a need, not to be admired.
The village of Grundarfjörður was, at least from the outset, not that different. There was no promenade by the shore but a harbour where pick-ups and fork-lifts manoeuvred in and out of warehouses. Homes and civic buildings all had a Spartan look; even the café-cum-library boasted a nude concrete floor which, we believed, must’ve been easier to clean than wood or tiles.
Yet Grundarfjörður had an undeniable allure. There was an air of frank no-nonsense, of affable helpfulness. No one, there, had neither time nor the interest for playing politics or to mess about. And there was the landscape. Honestly, you could plop any eyesore in such a location and I’d still stop, awe-struck, in contemplation.
We stayed at a small cluster of homes just outside of town. Our window opened on a panorama of mountains softened by the snow that kept on falling every night, but the real treat lied waiting just past the front door.
Our stay was brief; yet, halfway through it, we’d already gotten the measures of the place: which brand of cheese we liked, how to get the coffee machine to work and, as it’s typical in villages, we begun recognising some of the villagers. The friendly bear-of-a-man who worked as the cashier in the store; the groovy café guy; the farm boys who drove snowmobiles every late afternoon.
Alas, we were to leave soon. On our last evening we stood outside the guesthouse as the sun sunk behind the horizon in an eternal crepuscule, hoping for some clear skies. Initially, though, that did not seem to be the case.
But then, at around midnight, a casual glance out of the window revealed a blanket of stars. We quickly tossed on some layers and braved the -8C armed with tripod and camera. Millions of stars twinkled above us and, before the camera’s lenses, they began their slow dance. A fishing trawler, meanwhile, chugged serenely into port, its mission evidently done.
In spite of being late in the season we had harboured hopes of witnessing the spectacle of the aurora borealis. It was our last night and, if ever it was going to happen, it had to be now. Suddenly and without noise, but for the quacking of two quarrelling ducks in the stream beneath us, a grey band materialised in the sky. It sneaked elegantly across the bay, describing an arc from Kirkjufell to the mountain range to our backs. It looked like a cloud, but stars shone through it. As we weighted options the band became two. And then three, four, like incomprehensibly large amoebas whose Petri dish was the entire celestial vault. As the grey bands went about their business we waited with baited breath.
Then it began. From behind Kirkjufell a faint green curtain appeared. Pulled by an invisible hand along an unseen railing, the curtain worked its way across the fjord and up our heads. There it remained, dancing into the night sky to a rhythm that no one on Earth could hear, for a good ten minutes before it disappeared as gently as it’d arrived. As far as auroras went, we would be told later, this was a pretty weak show and it only left the faintest glow on our photos. But, yet, the sense of child-like wonder, the shiver of excitement at the sight of such a mysterious phenomenon was the best parting gift that Grundarfjörður could give us.