In the thriller Fortitude, gruesome things happen in a small Arctic town. It’s supposed to be located on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago about halfway between the mainland and the North Pole, but is actually filmed in east Iceland.
Partly thanks to spectacular cameos in Game of Thrones and Star Wars, this vast Nordic country with a tiny population of 333,140 has enjoyed a huge influx of tourists in the past five years. Yet very few make it to the remote east, especially in winter, when the temperature drops well below zero, the sun disappears and the mountains are often blanketed in snow.
To my surprise, a lot of locals say this is their favourite time of year and it soon becomes clear why. Dawn isn’t until 8am but lasts for hours, painting the sky in pinks and peaches. Dusk continues the show and when night falls at 3.30pm, there’s a huge moon and the sky is ablaze with stars. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be treated to a glimpse of the northern lights.
Getting here is an adventure in itself. It’s a 50-minute flight in a propeller plane from Reykjavik over acres of icy nothingness, the country’s glacial centre. The only scar on this pristine vista is the black lava from Bardarbunga volcano, which erupted in August 2014. We land in a tiny airport just outside a little town (but big by east Iceland’s standards) called Egilsstadir. This is where most of the Fortitude cast stayed, in the Icelandair Hotel Herad, where they refuelled on reindeer burgers, langoustine bisque and other delicacies in its excellent restaurant.
ICELAND’S LOCH NESS MONSTER
You don’t get crazed polar bears or decapitated huskies in Egilsstadir as you do in Fortitude, but it is said to be home to a giant lake worm – Iceland’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster. The earliest recorded sighting was in 1345 and the most recent was in 2012, when a farmer’s video of the Lagarfljot Wyrm went viral on YouTube (search for “Iceland Lake Monster” to see it).
Most of Fortitude was filmed a short, scenic drive away in Reydarfjordur, which sits on the longest and widest of Iceland’s eastern fjords. The town is functional but the setting is dramatic: surrounded by mountains, which loom over the fjord.
Sofie Grabol poses outside Reydarfjordur’s only bar
Fans of the show will recognise Dennis Quaid’s character’s yellow house, the menacing research centre (actually a school), the neon fox above the town’s only bar and the homely guesthouse Taergesen next door, where Quaid treated locals to a guitar concert one night. Superfans should book a Fortitude tour (at meetthelocals.is), which includes a snoop around an old fish factory still stuffed with scenery and props – including a Norwegian police car and the hot tub where Sofie Grabol defrosted after shooting a scene in the fjord.
Fortitude isn’t the first time Brits have arrived en masse in Reydarfjordur, as its Second World War museum reveals. Iceland was officially neutral during the war, though it declared itself an independent republic in 1944, but British soldiers landed in Reykjavik on 10 May 1940 and established a training camp for 4,000 soldiers in what was then a tiny hamlet. The wartime occupation revolutionised the economy: instead of just fishing, farming and bartering, there were jobs paid in hard currency. Suddenly there were cafés, bookshops, cinemas, dances, even a fish and chip shop in an old fisherman’s hut, which still opens in summer.
SNOWSHOES AND HOT TUBS
East Iceland doesn’t have geysers, lava fields or the big-ticket attractions of the country’s well-trodden Golden Circle, but it does boast a stunning coastline, and the travellers who venture here in winter get it to themselves. The easiest way to see it is in the comfort of an SUV (public transport is nonexistent in these parts). From Reydarfjordur, you can follow the empty coast road round, past more snow-clad peaks and the grave of an ancient witch who is said to protect the fjords, to the town of Eskifjordur, where you’ll find Fortitude’s supermarket and pretty red fisherman’s huts.
The other way to explore is on foot, clad in ski gear to ward off frostbite. The guide on my organised hike, Siggi, has a family-run guesthouse and horse-riding centre (skorrahestar.is) and usually takes groups out in July and August, when the mountains are green. We trekked for three hours over virgin snow and didn’t see another soul. The only sound was the crunch of our snowshoes and the creak of hiking poles. After we’d drunk in the vista at the summit, Siggi produced lunch: bottles of Icelandic pale ale, salami sandwiches and a packet of dried fish – a popular snack here.
Afterwards, I headed to the local hot tub. Every town has a hot tub and heated outdoor pool because swimming – or more accurately soaking – is the country’s favourite hobby. It’s where Icelanders go to gossip and relax. It sounds like a barmy thing to do when it’s minus six and snow is piled high on the poolside… but it’s magical.
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