Last update: 9 January 2021
A spectacular island and festival
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 my story about how I discovered this beautiful island.
Drawn by nature
I have been drawn to Vestmannaeyjar ever since I saw those intriguing island shapes shimmering on the horizon, on my first short trip to Iceland. 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 ‘dalalæða‘ in Icelandic – a spectacular phenomenon to see!
Arriving on Vestmannaeyjar
The next year I returned to Iceland for a longer trip, with more time to explore. And those islands were first on my list. Sailing into Heimaey harbour, through a narrow opening surrounded by a jumbled chain of steep cliffs and a huge field of intimidating lava flows, is just mind-blowing.
Heimaey harbour entrance.
Exciting plane trip
On my first trip I flew in on a small airplane from Reykjavík domestic airport for added excitement. Arriving on Vestmannaeyjar from the air has got to be one of the most spectacular flying experiences you can imagine. As the plane approaches, it flies closely over those jumbled rocks jutting out of the sea, circling around them while making 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. 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.
Jumbled rocks & incredible craggyness.
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. 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 and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to the harbour near Seljalandsfoss on the Ring Road.
Shaped by volcanic activity
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. 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 Eldfell and Helgafell looming in the background.
The Vestmannaeyjar Island Festival
It was then when I first heard about this 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 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.
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 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.
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 in the first place in 2006. 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 called ‘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 featured people gathered on the hills and in the Herjólfsdalur valley, having a merry time, with lots of bonfires and fireworks. I 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.
Blysin – the entire row of flames across Herjólfsdalur.
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. 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 islands volcanic flames’.
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 another classic song, ‘Lífið er yndislegt’. I was blown away. I just HAD to go there & see this for myself, and immerse myself into this incredible atmosphere.
Then I finally had the chance
In July 2016 I spent the whole 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. The weather was great 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.
Candles on the mountain tops. So so beautiful…!
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 those island shapes shimmering on the horizon.
As I gaze upon the Valley of Magic, I shall fear no heights 😉
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 look upon it. You just never get bored of the views.
Heimaklettur – the Home Rock.
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 on fire with that incredible row of torches. 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
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’ they played 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 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 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 they played it live 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.
Numbered torches along the firezone fence in Herjólfsdalur.
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 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.
Increasing row of flames
Each year, another torch is added for every year the festival has been held. In 2016 there were 143. I checked it personally. When I walked across Herjólfsdalur, I saw 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!
My story on the official Þjóðhátíð site! 🙂
Update Þjóðhátíð 2017
… and 2018, and 2019…
So, this year I took part in the blys. I just had to be in it. I was one in the row of 144 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.
Kveikjum eldana! Light the fires 😀
Row of candles above the brekkunni.
View from behind the line of fire.
Video – The epic anthem and torches
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!! 😀
Vestmannaeyjar Þjóðhátíð festival torches
The row is now 146 torches long. In 2019 I was proudly wielding torch number 52.
For those who 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.
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 as well, click on the icons for pictures or go directly to the description of each track.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Is Þjóðhátið 2021 going ahead?
Sadly, Þjóðhátið 2020 was ultimately cancelled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus 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 eruption of Eldfell could stop the festival from going ahead. But this worldwide pandemic has brought everything to a screeching halt.
The next Þjóðhátið festival is scheduled for Friday 30 July to Sunday 1 August 2021.
Check the official Þjóðhátið site for the latest updates (although most of it is in Icelandic only).
Covid travel restrictions Iceland
In these uncertain times, things can change quickly. Procedures are constantly evaluated and updated. For the current situation regarding Covid-19 related travel advice and restrictions in Iceland, see Covid.is (in English).
Takk fyrir mig. Yndislega Eyja, ég kem aftur til þín 🙂
Þjóðhátíð 2020. Three people defiantly sitting on the slopes of Herjólfsdalur, in front of an empty stage on the Sunday night… Listening to the brekkusöngur online live broadcast. At that very moment, they played ‘Takk fyrir mig’ by Ingó Veðurguð, the Þjóðhátíð festival song of 2020.
More to explore & discover
The walking track to Herjólfsdalur – The Valley of Magic
First impressions of Iceland – Blown away big time!
Northern lights – Energy from out of space pouring in
Ode to the mountains – The magic of Mount Taranaki
Vestmannaeyjar walking tracks – The best walks on Heimaey
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)
- Takk fyrir mig – Ingó Veðurguð (2020)
- 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)
- 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! 😉