I have been drawn to Vestmannaeyjar ever since I first saw those mysterious island shapes shimmering on the horizon, on my first short trip to Iceland in 2006. It was like a force of nature that couldn’t be denied. I just had to go there.
When I returned in August 2007 for a longer trip with more time to explore, those islands were first on my list. Sailing into Heimaey harbour, through a narrow opening surrounded by a jumbled chain of steep cliffs on one side, and a huge field of intimidating lava flows on the other side is just mind-blowing. But for this trip, I specifically chose to fly in on a small airplane from Reykjavík domestic airport for added excitement. Arriving on Vestmannaeyjar from the air has to be one of the most spectacular flying experiences you can imagine. As the plane approaches, it flies closely over those peaks steeply jutting out of the sea, and circles around them while making sharp turns to decend quickly on the short landing strip before it runs out into the ocean.
I knew straight away that this was one of those places I would want to come back to.
And that it wouldn’t be the last time I visited. It was beautiful beyond belief. I was in a constant state of natural high, and the ridiculous smile it induced never left my face during the 2 days I spent there.
The islands were coughed up from the sea in a series of eruptions from the hotspot that flows underneath, which continues to create more additions at irregular intervals. In 1963 another island, Surtsey, arrived in spectacular fashion, and in 1973 a grassy field on Heimaey erupted out of nowhere and created a whole new mountain. It was still steaming in places when I stood in its crater, and the view from the top of the Eldfell was one of the most awe-inspiring I’ve ever seen.
It was then when I first heard about this music festival, that had just been held a couple of weeks before I visited.
I took a boat trip around the island, and the captain (who also treated his guests on a saxophone solo to demonstrate the incredible accoustics in one of the island’s sea caves) told me all about it. And learned me how to pronounce this bewildering looking word that is the name of the festival: Þjóðhátíð. And the name of the long weekend holiday when it takes place: Verslunarmannahelgi. It’s the weekend before the first Monday in August.
So that was it: I had to come back. I just had to see this fabled Verslunarmannahelgi Þjóðhátíð Vestmannaeyja. By the time I left, I could pronounce the whole thing fluently.
Essential itinerary items
I seriously intended to return the next year, in August 2008. But in the end it didn’t happen, and it wasn’t until June 2014 when I came back to Iceland. I had lured one of my friends into going, and for me there were 2 places that just HAD to be on the itinerary.
2 – Vestmannaeyjar!
Everything else was optional and flexible, and wouldn’t disappoint either.
There is of course no Þjóðhátíð in June, but by then my love for Iceland, that had been smouldering beneath the surface for years, was reignited in a big way.
Back home, I ‘accidently’ stumbled upon Icelandic music on YouTube. I was already a big fan of Sigur Rós, in fact: they were the one reason I visited Iceland in the first place in 2006, and I became curious for more. And I discovered one great song and one great band after another. Then one suggestion mentioned a clip from Þjóðhátíð 2012 – a song called ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’.
Of course I clicked on it… It was the first time I actually saw footage from the festival. It featured people gathered on the hills and in the Herjólfsdalur valley, having a merry time, with lots of bonfires and fireworks. I quite liked the melody of the song too, but it wasn’t until 3 minutes into the video when it really got me, when its dramatic highlight unfolded. The complete mountainside was set on fire with a row of flames along the entire length of the valley. There seemed to be no end to it! At that moment, I must have looked like that stupefied smiley, with eyes popping out and jaw dropping to the floor, as I was struck with complete and utter awe by the sight of it all.
It spoke directly to my volcanic core 😉
The official Þjóðhátíð site described how on Sunday evening, the final day of the festival, people gather and sit on the hillside to sing along with Icelandic folk songs. ‘As midnight approaches, the atmosphere rises to something indescribable and hits its peak when the valley lightens up in visual highlights, an eruption of red torches, representing the islands volcanic flames’.
Then I saw another clip – also from 2012 – filmed by someone on their mobile phone, standing in the middle of it, where this was shown in its full glory – an entire valley with thousands of people, singing their hearts out to ‘Lífið er yndislegt’ – another song I really liked.
I was blown away. I HAD to go there. I had to see this for myself, and immerse myself into this incredible atmosphere.
Last year, in July 2016, I finally had the chance.
I spent the whole week around Þjóðhátíð on Vestmannaeyjar, happily bumbling around the island. I climbed all the kletturs, and the volcanoes, saw the puffin colony at Stórhöfði, and even did a joyful round of running around the island, as I was training for the upcoming Reykjavíkur (quarter) marathon. The weather was gorgeous and the festival was just fantastic.
Þjóðhátíð theme song
Every year, a special theme song is composed for the festival, the so-called Þjóðhátíðarlag. Some are better than others, and over the years some epic classics have emerged and remained. They are all about the enthralling atmosphere, the excitement of being at Þjóðhátíð, and the beauty of the islands. And they all refer to Herjólfsdal at some point. It seems to be an unwritten rule.
The valley of magic
Herjólfsdalur is the location where the festival is held, and it truly is a stunning, magical place. There are lots of spectacular rocks and mountains in Iceland, but Herjólfsdalur is something out of this world indeed. It looks like a giant natural amphitheatre, with stupendous rocks rising up on all sides as you enter the valley. There is something about it that is just beyond words. It is as if there’s an unexplained energy emanating out of it.
I could even sense it from a distance, that first time I saw the shapes of those islands shimmering on the horizon.
The craggy rocks, with boulders defying the law of gravity, the intimidating peaks rising steeply up into the sky. The way the light flows along the hillsides and falls into the natural bowl of the valley. It takes my breath away and makes my heart glow with joy every time I see it. You just never get bored of the views.
The ultimate Þjóðhátíð song
And in 2012 came the song that is probably the most epic Þjóðhátíð theme song of them all. It captures the atmosphere and feeling like no other, and became an instant classic. Ever since, it’s played live on the stroke of midnight, at the culmination of the festival on Sunday night, when the mountainside is set alight. And you will hear it many times throughout the festival. It’s that song that immediately caught my heart.
‘Þar sem hjartað slær’, by Sverrir Bergmann and Fjallabræður.
Þar sem hjartað slær
We light the fires
Where the heart beats
It also has one of those beautiful descriptive word combinations that seem to be so prevalent in Icelandic.
Í fjallasal – in the hall of mountains.
The live version of ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’ they did right after the torches were lit was just out of this world and spine-tinglingly beautiful. It was so intense that I was literally moved to tears, filled with feelings of happiness and euphoria that I was finally there to be overwhelmed by it all.
Sjá, Heimaey og Herjólfsdal
Þar sem hjörtun slá í takt við allt
Where the hearts beat in tune with everything
That song is engrained in my heart forever.
And the guy’s voice is just incredible.
Last year, in 2016, Sverrir Bergman had the honour of composing the Þjóðhátíðarlag again, this time together with Friðrik Dór and the band Albatross. It’s called ‘Ástin á sér stað’, and it features a part where the audience joins in clapping their hands and stamping their feet to the lyrics of the song. When it was played on the Sunday evening of Þjóðhátíð, it actually got registered as a small earthquake by the measuring station in Stórhöfði, on the other side of the island.
The 143th year of Þjóðhátíð
Þjóðhátíð came about by accident in 1874, when the weather was too bad for local residents to sail over from Vestmannaeyjar to the mainland to attend the celebrations of the 1000 year anniversary of Iceland. So they decided to organise their own festival instead, and it has been held every year since then. Even in 1973 – the year of the devastating eruption that created the Eldfell but caused the entire island to evacuate – it went along. Albeit for one day only, for a small audience consisting of those who remained and were cleaning up the aftermath.
Each year, another torch is added for every year the festival has been held. This year there were 143. I checked it personally. When I walked across Herjólfsdalur, I noticed there were numbered papers attached at regular intervals on the fence about a quarter up the hillside, where the fires are lit.
So the row of flames just keeps getting longer!
Sjá(umst) Heimaey og Herjólfsdal 🙂
Ástfangin ég gangi hér
This story was originally published on my own Facebook page, on 11 January 2017.
My story on the official Þjóðhátíð site! 😀
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
Update Þjóðhátíð 2017
So, this year I took part in the blys. I was one in the row of people who light the torches at midnight in Herjólfsdal, on the Sunday evening of Þjóðhátíð. It caused a natural high that lasted throughout the night, like the candles that are lit on the brekkunni after the torches are finished.
This excellent video was taken from near where I stood. It shows the complete row of torches, and a valley full of people singing their hearts out to ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’. Words fail to describe the overwhelming intensity & beauty of it all 😀
I have only one word for it. GeWELDIG!!
The entire row of flames across Herjólfsdalur.
More stories & inspiration
First impressions of Iceland – Blown away big time!
Vestmannaeyjar – A force of nature that can’t be denied
Eyjafjallajökull – The one that rules them all
Northern lights – Energy from out of space pouring in
Ode to the mountains! – The magic of Mount Taranaki
Ástin á sér stað – Þjóðhátíð 2016, with beautiful drone footage of the island and the festival.
Þar sem hjartað slær – The original clip! with that jaw-dropping wall of fire!
Lífið er yndislegt – An entire valley of people singing their hearts out!
My personal recommendations – the best songs and the classics, official and unofficial:
- Þar sem hjartað slær – Sverrir Bergmann og Fjallabræður (2012)
- Ástin á sér stað – Sverrir Bergmann, Friðrik Dór og Albatross (2016)
- Lífið er yndislegt – Land og synir (2001)
- Ég fer á Þjóðhátíð – FM95BLÖ (2015, unoficial)
- Brim og boðaföll – Hreimur (2008)
- La dolce vita – Páll Oskar (2011)
- Síðan hittumst við aftur – Sssól
- Ég stend á skýi – Sssól
- Vor í vaglaskógi – Kaleo (well, not the original, but this is my favourite version)
- Stál og hnífur – Bubbi Morthens
- Hjá þér – Sálin Hans Jóns Míns
- Fram á nótt – Nýdönsk
- Aldrei fór ég suður – Bubbi Morthens
- Svört Sól – Sóldögg
- Popplag í G-dúr – Stuðmenn
… og margir fleiri! 😉
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