I know, this title looks kind of bewildering… It’s Icelandic for ‘Where the heart beats’, the anthemic song of Vestmannaeyjar. The ultimate Þjóðhátíð song that captures the atmosphere of the Iceland National Festival like no other. This is the story about how I accidentally discovered this beautiful island.
A spectacular island and festival
A sense of belonging is defined by many factors, and not necessarily confined to just one place. You can feel a bond with the village you grew up in, the people you love, the city you feel at home… But sometimes you stumble upon a place by sheer coincidence, and you are inexplicably drawn to it – without any previous bonds or logic. It just presents itself, and you feel a sense of belonging. My place is called Heimaey – the Home Island of Vestmannaeyjar.
The mysterious island shapes of Vestmannaeyjar rise like a crown of peaks above the surrounding waters. I saw them shimmering on the horizon during my first short trip to Iceland. They were beckoning me like a fata morgana, and I was immediately drawn to them.
It was like a force of nature that couldn’t be denied. I just had to go there.
Vestmannaeyjar shimmering on the horizon. Those mysterious wisps of fog swirling around the island to the left (Elliðaey) are what is called a dalalæða in Icelandic – a spectacular phenomenon to see!
Arriving on Vestmannaeyjar
Unfortunately at that moment I didn’t have any time left to jump on the ferry and explore those peaky islands. But the next year I returned to Iceland for a longer trip, with more time to explore. And those islands were first on my route.
The ferry crossing to Vestmannaeyjar is breathtaking. Sailing into Heimaey harbour, through a narrow opening surrounded by a jumbled chain of steep cliffs and a huge field of lava flows, is just mind-blowing.
Heimaey harbour entrance.
Exciting plane trip
At that time the fast ferry route from Landeyjahöfn had not yet been established. So I decided to fly in on a small airplane from Reykjavík domestic airport for added excitement. Arriving on Heimaey from the air has got to be one of the most spectacular flying experiences you can imagine. Although it’s not recommended if you have any fear of flying… 😉
As the plane approaches, it flies closely over the jumbled rocks jutting out of the sea, circling around them with sharp turns for a quick descent on the short landing strip – just 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. Vestmannaeyjar is beautiful beyond belief. I was in a constant state of natural high, and the ridiculous smile it induced never left my face during the two days I spent there on my first visit. Over the last 10 years I came back multiple times, and spent longer periods of time on Vestmannaeyjar.
Shaped by volcanic activity
The islands were coughed up from the sea in a series of eruptions from the hotspot that flows underneath. The craggy cliffs on the north side of Heimaey were formed about 40.000 years ago. This chain of jumbled rocks (known as the ‘Norðurklettarnir’) is the oldest part of the archipelago.
The Vestmannaeyjar hotspot continues to create more additions at irregular intervals. In 1963 another island, Surtsey, arrived in a spectacular way during a 4-year long eruption from the bottom of the sea. The next decade a grassy field on Heimaey erupted out of nowhere in 1973, and created a whole new mountain.
It was still steaming in places when I stood in its crater. The view from the top of the Eldfell volcano was one of the most awe-inspiring I’ve ever seen.
The camera just can’t take it all in. It’s spectacular in every direction!
Flowery fields of lupines, with the Eldfell and Helgafell volcanoes looming in the background.
The Vestmannaeyjar Island Festival
It was then when I first heard about the local music festival. It had just been held a couple of weeks before I visited. I went on 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. He learned me how to pronounce this bewildering looking word that is the name of the festival: Þjóðhátíð. And the name of the public 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 Í Vestmannaeyjum. By the time I left, I could pronounce the whole thing fluently.
Þjóðhátíð festival fireworks in Herjólfsdalur.
Essential itinerary items
I seriously intended to return the next year, in August 2008. But in the end it didn’t happen. It wasn’t until June 2014 that I finally came back to Iceland. I had lured one of my friends into going, and for me there were 2 things that just HAD to be on the itinerary.
Everything else was optional and flexible, and wouldn’t disappoint either way.
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.
Translucent midnight dusk at Heimaey harbour. Ljósið er bara ótrúlegt!
Back home, I ‘accidently’ stumbled upon Icelandic music on YouTube. I was already a big fan of Sigur Rós, in fact: they were the main reason why I visited Iceland on a spontaneous whim in the first place. I became curious for more, and I discovered one great song and one great band after another. Then one suggestion mentioned a video from Þjóðhátíð 2012 – a song with the curious title ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’. Of course I clicked on it…
Þjóðhátíð festival videos
It was the first time I actually saw footage from the festival. The clip features people gathering on the hills in Herjólfsdalur valley, having a merry time, with lots of bonfires and fireworks. I immediately liked the melody of the song. But it wasn’t until 3 minutes into the video that it really got me – when its dramatic highlight unfolded.
I thought: ‘What?! is happening here??’ 😳
Blysin – the entire row of flaming torches across Herjólfsdalur.
The whole 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. 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 describes 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 island’s volcanic flames’.
Then I saw another clip, filmed by someone on their mobile phone and standing in the middle of it, showing this spectacle in its full glory. An entire valley with thousands of people, singing their hearts out to ‘Lífið er yndislegt’, another classic festival song.
I was blown away. I just HAD to go there & see it for myself, and immerse myself into this incredible atmosphere.
Natural high on the brekkunni at Þjóðhátíð!
Then I finally had the chance
In July 2016 I spent the entire week around Þjóðhátíð on Vestmannaeyjar, happily bumbling around the island. I climbed all the kletturs, and the volcanoes, and saw the puffin colony at Stórhöfði. I even did a joyful round of running around the island, as I was training for the upcoming Reykjavíkur (quarter) marathon a few weeks later. The weather was surprisingly balmy and the festival was just fantastic.
Þjóðhátíð theme song
Every year, a special theme song is composed for the festival, the so-called Þjóðhátíðarlag. 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 Vestmannaeyjar islands.
And they all refer to Herjólfsdalur at some point. It seems to be an unwritten rule.
Candles on the mountain tops in Herjólfsdalur. So so beautiful…!
The valley of magic
Herjólfsdalur is the location where the festival takes place, and it truly is a stunning, magical place. There are lots of spectacular mountains and valleys 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 those island shapes 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 sparkle with joy every time I look upon it.
You just never get bored of the views!
Heimaklettur – the Home Rock.
The ultimate Þjóðhátíð song
In 2012 came the song that is 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 on fire with that incredible row of torches. You will hear this song many times throughout the festival. It’s the song that immediately caught my heart.
‘Þar sem hjartað slær’, by Sverrir Bergmann and Fjallabræður
Kveikjum eldana – 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 mountain hall of Herjólfdalur – the most beautiful concert hall in the world. 😉
Soul-stirring live version
The live version of ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’ that the band played right after the torches were lit is out of this world and spine-tinglingly beautiful. It was so intense that I was literally moved to tears, filled with feelings of 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.
In 2016 Sverrir Bergman had the honour of composing the Þjóðhátíðarlag again. This time he worked together with Friðrik Dór and the band Albatross. Their song is 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.
When they played it live on the Sunday evening of Þjóðhátíð 2016, it actually got registered as a small earthquake of 1 on the Richter scale by the measuring station at Stórhöfði, on the other side of the island!
Numbered torches along the firezone fence in Herjólfsdalur.
The 143th year of Þjóðhátíð
Þjóðhátíð came about by accident in 1874. 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. Þjóðhátíð í Vestmannaeyjum has been held every year since then.
Even in 1973 – the year of the devastating eruption that created Eldfell but caused the entire island to evacuate – Þjóðhátíð went along. Albeit for one day only, for a small audience consisting of those who remained and were cleaning up the aftermath.
Increasing row of flames
The row of torches at Þjóðhátíð is called the ‘blysin í brekkunni’ in Iceland. Each year, another torch is added for every edition of the festival. In 2016 there were 143 torches. I checked it personally. When I walked across Herjólfsdalur, I saw the numbered papers attached at regular intervals on the fence along 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!
Update Þjóðhátíð 2017
… and 2018, and every year since!
The next year I took part in the blysin. I just had to be in it, and wield a fiery torch myself. I was number 36 in the row of 144 people who lit the torches at midnight in Herjólfsdalur, on the Sunday evening of Þjóðhátíð 2017.
It caused a natural high that lasted throughout the night, like the candles that are lit on the brekkunni after the torches are finished.
View from behind the line of fire.
Kveikjum eldana! Light the fires! 😀
Row of candles above the brekkunni.
The epic anthem and torches
This excellent video below 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. It’s absolutely amazing to watch the brekkusöngur from up there. Spine tingling doesn’t even come close.
I have only one word for it. GeWELDIG!! 😀
Þjóðhátíð festival torches
I’ve been in the torch bearers brigade up on the brekkunni every year since then. In 2023 I celebrated my lustrum and proudly wielded a fiery torch for the 5th time. Seven years on, and the magic still hasn’t faded a bit.
If you want to join in the fun: you can pick up a torch (and a candle) at the start of the evening on Sunday night. It’s a truly unforgettable experience.
@ My story on the official Þjóðhátíð website!
Cancelled for two years in a row
Sadly, Þjóðhátið 2020 was ultimately cancelled due to the Covid-19 corona pandemic, in spite of efforts to organise it on a much smaller scale. For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, Þjóðhátið didn’t happen. Not even the Eldfell eruption could stop the festival from happening in 1973. But this worldwide pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.
Things were looking hopeful for the summer of 2021. Vaccinations were going well and the new festival song, ‘Göngum í takt’ by Hreimur Örn Heimisson, became another classic. Everyone was ready to celebrate. But less than a week before the start, Þjóðhátið was cancelled again, due to increased gathering restrictions in Iceland.
Þjóðhátíð 2020. Three people sat defiantly on the slopes of Herjólfsdalur, in front of an empty stage on the Sunday night… Listening to the Brekkusöngur during the live online broadcast. At that very moment, ‘Takk fyrir mig’ by Ingó Veðurguð echoed through the valley, the Þjóðhátíð festival song of 2020.
Private concert at the amphitheatre
There were no bands in 2020, but in 2021 they performed live in front of an empty valley, for an online TV broadcast. Herjólfsdalur was closed off for the public. So I climbed up via the back route and watched the show from above. I enjoyed a private concert with the puffins and the sheep high up on the Herjólfsdalur ridge. 😉
There should have been 148 torches in 2021. This time, only two torches were lit, amongst 146 candles. One torch for every year the festival didn’t happen, due to Covid. It was an incredible touching and spine-tingling moment to watch this from above, in my private seat on the brekkunni.
While Sverrir Bergman & Albatross performed a very intense and heartfelt version of ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’, as if it was for a valley full of people, I had tears in my eyes all over again.
Takk fyrir mig. Yndislega Eyja, ég kem aftur til þín.
Þjóðhátíð 2021. Two torches were lit, one for each year the festival didn’t happen… The bands played live on stage for an online broadcast on the Sunday evening.
When is the next Þjóðhátíð Festival?
In 2022 Þjóðhátið was finally back on again! Þjóðhátið 2024 is scheduled for Friday 2 August to Sunday 4 August 2024. It will be the 150th anniversary of this amazing festival. Check the official Þjóðhátið website for the latest updates (although most of it is in Icelandic only).
Where is Vestmannaeyjar?
Vestmannaeyjar is a volcanic chain of islands just off the south coast of Iceland, directly across from Eyjafjallajökull. They are also known as the Westman Islands. The main island of Heimaey may look tiny on the map, but there’s a lot of spectacular scenery densely compressed into its 13,4 square kilometres. The ferry to Heimaey departs from Landeyjahöfn harbour and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to Landeyjahöfn near the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the Ring Road.
Do you want to see more of this beautiful island? Read how to travel to Vestmannaeyjar in this article. In the interactive map below you can find several walking tracks around Heimaey. You can zoom in for more details, click on the icons for pictures or go directly to the description of each track.
@ Have you been to the Þjóðhátið festival? Let me know in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you! Your questions, comments and suggestions can also be helpful for other readers. Thank you for sharing.
Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
Singing my little heart out!
More to explore & discover
Candles on mountains – An enchanting ritual of fire
La Palma – Cumbre Vieja Volcano Route
Northern lights – Hunting the elusive Aurora Borealis
Ode to the mountains – The magic of Mount Taranaki
Island hopping on the Aeolian Islands – A volcanic archipelago
© All photos and content on this website are my own, and subject to copyright (unless credited otherwise). Please contact me if you want to use a photo or quote a text from one of my articles. You’re welcome to share a link to my blog articles and photos on social media, with a tag and mention to Wilderness Coffee & Natural High.
Ástin á sér stað
Þjóðhátíð 2016, with beautiful drone footage of the island and the festival in Herjólfsdalur.
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!
Þjóðhátíð festival songs
My personal favourites – the best songs and the classics, official and unofficial:
- Þar sem hjartað slær – Sverrir Bergmann & Fjallabræður (2012)
- Ástin á sér stað – Sverrir Bergmann, Friðrik Dór & Albatross (2016)
- Göngum í takt – Hreimur Örn Heimisson (2021)
- Takk fyrir mig – Ingó Veðurguð (2020)
- Lífið er yndislegt – Land og synir (2001)
- Eyjanótt – Klara Elias (2022)
- Ég fer á Þjóðhátíð – FM95BLÖ (2015, unofficial)
- Komið Að Því – FM95BLÖ (2021, unofficial)
- Þúsund Hjörtu – Emmsjé Gauti (2023)
- Brim og boðaföll – Hreimur (2008)
- La dolce vita – Páll Oskar (2011)
- Á sama tíma á sama stað – Friðrik Dór & Jón Jónsson (2018)
- Stál og hnífur – Bubbi Morthens
- Síðan hittumst við aftur – Sssól
- Ég stend á skýi – Sssól
- Vor í vaglaskógi – Kaleo (well, not the original, but this is my favourite version)
- 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! 😉
Last update: 13 February 2024
First published: 11 January 2017