Curled up on the wide, plush couch at new literary getaway Place to Read Iceland in Akureyri in North Iceland, I fold my dog-eared copy of The Handmaid’s Tale lightly over the blanket in my lap and listen to the wind whistling through the cobbled streets outside. I’m just 100km from the Arctic Circle, and I imagine the weather stirring the firs around Eyjafjörður fjord below and blurring the reflection of surrounding snow-capped mountains on the water’s surface as I reach for my glass of Zinfandel, the flames from the log fire casting long flickering tongues through the wine’s ruby depths.
I can’t help but feel deliciously cosy, which is, of course, what Place to Read Iceland founders Halldór Lárusson and Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir want. Inspired partly by London’s School of Life Reading Retreats and their personal experiences at Britain’s Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, the husband-and-wife team created the “thinking person’s action holiday” — a retreat that offers opportunities to both explore Iceland’s wild landscapes and luxuriate in hours of reading.
They have mixed comfy reading chairs, sofas and lamps picked up at auctions and attics with beautiful Icelandic textiles, ceramics and original artworks to give the exclusive-use house — which encompasses a large kitchen and dining area, a two-bedroom apartment and two one-bedroom apartments — a modern yet homely Nordic feel.
When I’ve finished this novel, I can simply choose from the stacks of books and periodicals in English, Icelandic, French and German arraigned on every available surface. “Today, with all the entertainment and bombardment of information and our busy lives, reading has become such a luxury,” Sigríður, known as Sigga, tells me. “Nothing can happen until you create a place for it. We’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time.”
Sigga says Iceland’s interrelated storytelling traditions and chilly Nordic climate make it the ideal destination for discovering literature, and for being the place to read. When the Vikings first settled the island, entire villages would come together in the Baðstofa, the main dwelling where people ate, slept and worked, to listen to somebody read as the snow fell and wind howled beyond its doors. As a result, sagas are an important part of the country’s cultural inheritance, as is húslestur, or “house reading”, when people gather around a home to listen to someone read aloud.
Centuries after the arrival of those early explorers, the record numbers of well-heeled travellers that continue to flock here, lured by Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes — active volcanoes, inky black lava fields, rugged mountains, burbling mud pits — might see Iceland’s dramatic weather as part of its appeal. But after a day spent battling the elements (or not even daring to brave them), they, too, tend to feel that settling in with a good book is the only thing to do. “There’s something about the darkness and weather here that makes you want to read. I cannot think of anything better than curling up with a good book when it makes no sense to even try to go outside,” says Sigga.
Even in its early stages, Place to Read Iceland inspired literary (and literal) journeys. Sigga and her friends, film producer Guðrún Edda Þórhannesdóttir and experience designer Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir, read A Question of Travel: William Morris in Iceland by Lavinia Greenlaw, before Sigríður and Hlín followed his path across the country on horses while Guðrún worked on a film about the designer.
When the couple started to look for the perfect property to house their vision and guests in 2016, they found it in Akureyri almost immediately.
Built in the 1850s as a residence and apothecary for pharmacist Jóhann Thorarensen by Jón Chr Stephánsson (who Sigga and Halldór discovered was the grandfather of a friend — even in the 19th century, it was a small world) it was recognised as one of Iceland’s most impressive homes, but in the years that followed it had been coated with concrete and started rotting, eventually being abandoned. Minjavernd, a non-profit architectural restoration group, had already jumped in to save the property, and the couple worked with the team to ensure the painstakingly restored house, while true to its original plans, would also be purpose-built for reading holidays.
The location has historically been the preferred residence of Iceland’s most lauded writers and Akureyri has museums dedicated to three of them: Davíð Stefánsson Memorial Museum and writers’ residency, set in his former home; Nonni House, the 1850s childhood home of the writer and Jesuit priest Jón Sveinsson, named for his writing moniker; and 1904 house Sigurhæðir, which accommodates the Memorial Museum of the Reverend Matthías Jochumsson, where office rooms are rented out to scholars and poets.
Now Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri is the capital of the north and a vibrant hub in its own right — even making The Guardian’s list of top global destinations to visit in 2018 — offering lots of cool spots to drink, dine and explore a 10-minute stroll from the house.
The bright yellow two-seater standalone Curry Hut — run for the last 10 years by South Indians Sathiya Moorthy and his wife Jothimani — is an iconic institution, and likely the world’s tiniest, northernmost South Asian restaurant. Sleek, fish-focused restaurant Rub 23 offers dishes with Japanese and American influences, crafted with Icelandic ingredients. Upscale top-floor drinking and dining haunt Strikið offers steaks, seafood and cocktails with views over the fjord.
If you like to shop, Icelandic boutique Geysir, which stocks top international labels and global brands, keeps an outlet here. For a more local experience, tiny design store Sjoppan taps into Akureyri’s culture of shopping through hatches — you stand on the street, choose what you like to buy from a poster on the window, and staff passes it out to you.
Akureyri is also perfectly positioned for exploring North Iceland’s myriad treasures. An hour’s drive away in the scenic Lake Mývatn region, I tour several Game of Thrones locations, including the Fist of the First Men and Jon and Ygritte’s cave, and take a restorative dip in the creamy waters of the local geothermal baths, which I found every bit as special as Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon (without the crowds).
To the north, you’ll find Iceland’s first beer spa and the Tröllaskagi peninsula, famed for fantastic off-piste and heli-skiing. To the south, you can hike and horse-ride visually arresting trails in Iceland’s iconic Kjarnaskogur forest. You can follow dolphins, and humpback, minke and blue whales from wooden boats and schooners from Akureyri or from nearby Húsavík.
On the other side of the fjord, around 15 minutes’ drive from Place to Read Iceland, you’ll find Sigga’s favourite museum Safnasafnið — The Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum. “Its founder Niels is an artist and a curator magician. It showcases well-known international and Icelandic artists, hidden gems of Icelandic folk art, children’s works, and art made by people who suffer from mental health problems…simply anything artistic that fascinates him,” she says.
Sigga (who is also Director of the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Reykjavík) is styling Place to Read Iceland as a hub for art, collating and exhibiting original artworks; many here are available for purchase.
Others, such as the work of the couple’s illustrator friend Rán Flygenring, who has created info-doodles in place of obligatory fire safety notices and appliance instructions, are key to the house’s function. Thanks to Flygenring’s instructional art pieces, I figured out how to work the sauna and hot tub, and kept the toaster at setting 2 because, as her signage clearly states, “anything above…will burn your toast to ashes and set off the smoke alarm!”
Sigga has been working on getting permission to create the second instalment of Place to Read Iceland in a purpose-built house on her family’s 1,700-acre farm Syðri-Hraundalur in Borgarfjörður, in the West of Iceland — a virgin lava field terrain occupied by her horses — in 2019. Here, guests can fish for salmon, take inspiring walks and explore the Snæfellsnes peninsula before retiring to the house for a well-deserved sauna and a good book in the evening.
But for now she’s focusing her energies on developing their first location in Akureyri and looking forward to hosting curated readings by guest writers, writing workshops and writers’ retreats and residencies in the coming months. “There are so many ways to work with books. I’m looking forward to diving in. But I know that it all starts with a place,” she says.
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