Text and photos by Elliott Brandsma. Featured image by Roman Gerasymenko
The secret is out: Iceland is now a popular travel destination for professional and aspiring writers. Whether it’s the nation’s centuries-old stories about Vikings and their rapacious exploits or the compassionate, satirical novels of Halldór Laxness—Iceland’s Nobel laureate in literature—this small Nordic country is a treasure trove for book buffs and word nerds around the world.
Why exactly is Iceland becoming such a haven for the book-obsessed and the poetically-inclined? The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of the top 10 reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand.
1) The Sagas. Acclaimed as masterpieces of medieval European prose and revered by many Icelanders, the Sagas are a group of histories detailing the founding and settlement of Iceland. Some experts have called these tales, which are hundreds of years old, the first great European novels, while some Icelanders believe that these texts are completely factual, describing true events that happened to real people. Regardless of their historical accuracy or inaccuracy, these ancient texts have captivated the imaginations of numerous authors throughout the ages and continue to do so to this day.
2) Almost everyone is a writer. Appreciation for poetry and literature is embedded within Icelandic culture, and many Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lifetime. The Icelandic government also awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working a full-time professional writer a reality for some.
3) The Otherworldly Landscapes. Icelandic nature is breathtaking, beautiful, and inspiring. The island nation has earned the moniker of “The Land of Fire and Ice” for the stark contrast between its volcanic landscapes and its sparkling glacial formations. With a small population of only 320,000, Iceland is also one of the few places left on earth where one can drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone. The countryside is a wonderful place to clear one’s head and brainstorm ideas for a new novel.
4) Icelanders. Though some might seem shy and stoic at first, Icelanders are generally friendly and approachable people with interesting stories to tell. When visiting Iceland, sit in a coffee shop or grab a drink at a local bar, and if you strike up a conversation with one of the locals—you’ll find that they are some of nicest people you’ll ever meet. Who knows? Maybe one of their personal stories or their vast knowledge of Icelandic folklore will inspire your next masterpiece.
5) Coffee Shop Culture. Reykjavík—Iceland’s capital city—is a coffee lover’s dream. The bustling mini-metropolis is full of unique coffee shops, each with their own personalities and patrons. Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in—and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it.
6) The Annual Book Flood! Every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the annual jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. During this exciting time of year, publishers release hundreds of new titles on the market, and Icelandic authors give readings at bookstores and literary museums across the city to advertise their latest masterpiece. This tradition celebrates literacy and puts a much-deserved spotlight on literature for several months of the year.
7) A Network of Libraries. Libraries are not in short supply around Iceland. In fact, Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík is full of libraries, big and small, so residents have cheap and ready access to the printed word, no matter where they live. Well-maintained and stocked with interesting titles from around the world, Icelandic libraries are also used as community centers that regularly host exciting educational events for all ages.
8) Love for Language. Icelanders love their language. Icelandic, a Northern Germanic language spoken by 330,000+, is the closest equivalent to Old Norse—the language of the Vikings—still in use to this day. Icelanders are so protective of their mother tongue that they established a “naming committee” that forbids citizens from giving their children names that don’t adhere to the language’s strict grammatical rules. For foreigners, learning Icelandic presents a formidable challenge, with words like Eyjafjallajökull and þjóðminjasafnið baffling many.
9) Professional Networking is a Cinch. The advantage of being a writer in a small country like Iceland is that professional networking is incredibly simple. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your writing project to fruition. If you move to Iceland, chances are you’ll regularly run into a famous author in the grocery store or walking on the street—you might be smitten and starstruck but, to the locals, it’s no big deal!
10) Halldór Laxness. Awarded literature’s top honor in 1955, Halldór Laxness is the first and only Icelander (to date) to win a Nobel Prize. His novels have been translated into numerous languages, including English, and they remain poignant and relevant years after they were first published. Perhaps his most beloved book, Independent People, a novel about a stubborn farmer who clings to his independence even as his life and family crumble around him, has been lauded by critics across the world and is a must-read for every book lover who visits Iceland.
The 4th annual Iceland Writers Retreat will be held in Reykjavik from April 5-9, 2017.
Words and Photos by Elliott Brandsma.
Iceland’s cool, windy climate has made coffee the beverage of choice for most Reykjavík residents. As a result, the island nation’s bustling capital city boasts a flourishing coffee shop culture, with unique cafés lining seemingly every street in the downtown area. As winter fast approaches, the Iceland Writers Retreat has gathered a list of five cozy coffee joints in Reykjavíkʼs city center, where writers of all tastes, styles, and temperaments can grab a cup-of-joe while typing up their literary masterpieces.
Café Babalú, Skólavörðustígur 22A. Located just down the street from Hallgrímskirkja, the towering church in the center of town, Café Babalú is a quirky two-story coffee house adorned with an eclectic array of furniture and visual art. When the sky is sunny and clear, this casual coffee joint’s balcony becomes the perfect place to enjoy a light lunch, followed by a relaxing afternoon of writing or reading. A hot spot for hipsters, tourists, and locals alike, Café Babalú represents the ideal location for authors who write best in and draw inspiration from unconventional environments.
Reykjavík Roasters, Kárastígur 1. Often named one of Reykjavík’s coolest coffee shops, Reykjavík Roasters is a small, unassuming venue near the center of town with a big reputation for making exceptional lattés, espressos, and hot chocolate. The layout of this hidden gem is clunky and congested, making finding a seat during peak hours difficult, but if you’re lucky enough to secure a table, prepare yourself for one of the most authentic and enjoyable coffee shop experiences in Reykjavík. Reykjavík Roasters attracts a diverse crowd of customers, and its compact, snug atmosphere is perfect for writers who welcome occasional distractions.
Stofan Kaffíhús, Vesturgata 3. Spacious, warm, and comfortable, Stofan Kaffihús—which is located inside a renovated antique store—is a staple in the Reykjavík coffee scene, a café known for its rugged charm, cozy atmosphere and scrumptious deserts. Situated just a block away from the capitalʼs largest library, the laid-back and trendy vibe of this coffee shop makes it a great space to work on a novel, type up an essay, or compose a blog entry. At night it turns into an energetic bar, where local artists, writers, and musicians like to hang out and socialize. Try ordering a piece of Stofan’s rich chocolate cake or scrumptious carrot cake to accompany your afternoon cup of coffee. You wonʼt regret it!
Kaffibrennslan, Laugavegur 21. Conveniently located on Reykjavík’s busiest shopping street, Kaffibrennslan is a lively coffee shop with a wide selection of not only coffees and beverages but also breakfast and lunch options, making it a great spot for authors who prefer starting early in the morning and working into the afternoon. If you enjoy typing in a cozy, more intimate setting, then take your laptop upstairs to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the café’s ground floor. If you are partial to more active environments, the ground level is the best place for writers who draw inspiration from observing others and listening to the pleasant sounds of daily conversation.
Kaffitár, Bankastræti 8. Brightly-decorated and always busy, Kaffitár on Bankastræti is one of Reykjavíkʼs hippest cafés. Closely situated near some of Reykjavík’s trendiest shops and restaurants, this dynamic coffee shop is a suitable destination for writers on-the-go who often have to steal time to work on their projects. Customers of all kinds frequent this recently-rearranged café—students and writers, travelers and professionals, natives and expats—ensuring a unique experience and atmosphere every time you visit. Aside from offering a wide selection of coffees and desserts, Kaffitár also serves delicious teas and light lunch dishes to satisfy those afternoon cravings.