Electric Motion

iceland green energy

Electric vehicles (EVs) are on the rise in Iceland. In 2021 alone, 58% of all cars sold were EVs; today, more than 13% of the country’s total number of passenger vehicles are at least partly electric. Around the globe, the benefits of electric vehicles are being embraced as both environmentally and financially preferable for consumers […]

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Playing Ball

basketball iceland

“Let’s try to keep the interview as short as possible.” A stressed-out looking man has set a tight timeframe for this interview and hurriedly gestures to Tryggvi Snær Hlinason to have a seat. He’s not a particularly short man, but in this crowd, we all look tiny.Iceland’s national basketball team has just finished warming up […]

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In Focus: Relaxing Legislation on Alcohol Sales

iceland alcohol sales

Visitors to Iceland are often surprised to find that beer and wine are not available for sale in Icelandic grocery stores. For the past century, alcohol has exclusively been available for purchase through the state liquor store, Vínbúðin. The state’s near-monopoly on retail alcohol sales came to an end earlier this year, however: legislation passed on June 15, 2022 allows Icelandic breweries to sell their products directly to customers. Several retailers have begun selling alcohol online as well, and despite the fact it remains illegal, authorities have not stepped in to stop them.

Iceland’s government appears poised to relax legislation on alcohol sales even further, and according to recent polls, a majority of the nation is in favour of the development. The following is a closer look at Iceland’s changing legislation on the sale of alcohol and its potential social and economic impact.

History of liquor sale laws

In the early 20th century, the general opinion in Iceland grew that excessive alcohol consumption was the root of many social ills. The country held a referendum on whether to ban all production, consumption, and import of alcohol and the nation voted in favour. The ban was implemented in 1912 and stayed in place until 1922 when it was partially lifted to allow Iceland to trade salt fish for Spanish wine. (Spanish sailors had complained when their Icelandic counterparts had stopped buying their product in exchange for bacalao.)

That same year, the state liquor store ÁVR was established. The acronym stands for Áfengisverslun ríkisins, or “The State Alcohol Store,” and to this day Icelanders often say they’re on their way to “The State” to pick up some booze. Between 1935 and 1992, ÁVR was not just the only retailer but also the only producer of alcohol in Iceland. From 1922, the alcohol ban was lifted in stages, but beer remained illegal in Iceland until March 1, 1989 – for 74 years in total. Until December 1, 1995, ÁTVR (the T stands for tobacco, which was consolidated with ÁVR in 1961) even had a monopoly on the import and wholesale of alcohol, but from that date importers, producers, and wholesalers holding a special licence issued by the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police were permitted to resell alcohol.

Vínbúðin

From 1922 until very recently, alcoholic beverages in Iceland were only sold through the state-run liquor store Vínbúðin, operated by the State Alcohol and Tobacco Company of Iceland, ÁTVR. There are 50 Vínbúðin stores located across the country, 13 of them in the capital area. They are always closed on Sundays, as well as on most holidays, and the store’s countryside locations often have limited opening hours. The Vínbúðin store in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Southeast Iceland, for example, is open between 2:00 and 6:00 PM most weekdays and for only two hours on Saturdays.

Advertising alcohol is illegal in Iceland, but producers occasionally skirt these laws by advertising low-alcohol versions of their products.

Other legislation governing alcohol sales and consumption is stricter in Iceland than in much of Europe. The legal drinking age in Iceland, for example, is 20. Advertising of alcoholic products is prohibited, though producers do skirt these laws occasionally by advertising the low-alcohol versions of their products.

Online sales begin

In 2020, online craft beer retailer Bjórland, which had been selling wholesale to businesses, began selling craft beer directly to customers. The sales were technically illegal, but the company had found a loophole in the legislation that even MPs had previously pointed out: foreign-based retailers could legally sell alcohol directly to Icelandic customers although Icelandic companies could not. All Bjórland had to do was establish a foreign-based company through which their beers were sold, and the sales became perfectly legal. The following year, Santewines SAS started online sale of wine directly to consumers through a company based in France and other retailers have followed suit, including grocery delivery company Heimkaup, the first grocery chain of sorts to sell alcohol in Iceland.

In response to these developments, ÁTVR called on the Reykjavík District Court to halt online retailers’ sales, asserting that they broke the law that granted the state a monopoly on alcohol sales and had led to financial losses. The court did not comply, and sales have continued. Icelandic authorities have not stepped in to stop them.

In some ways, retailers’ move to sell alcohol online was in direct response to developments in Iceland’s Parliament, where MPs have been drafting bills to legalise online sales of alcohol since at least 2019. The Icelandic government is not able to ban foreign-based retailers from selling their alcoholic wares to Icelandic customers and realised it made little sense to forbid local retailers from doing so as well. In fact, it was joining the EEA that compelled Iceland to privatise its import, export, wholesale, and production monopolies for alcoholic beverages in the 1990s – in an increasingly connected world, Iceland’s government has lessening jurisdiction to maintain protective legislation such as that governing alcohol sales. Iceland’s legislators have been introducing bills aiming to relax alcohol sales since at least 2003, normally suggesting small steps, such as permitting the sale of alcoholic beverages under 22% in stores or permitting private retail of alcohol in specially-licenced stores.

Breweries can sell to customers

Despite remaining in a legal grey area, online sales of alcohol are booming in Iceland. Regulations in other areas have already been relaxed: from July 1, new legislation permitted Icelandic breweries to sell directly to consumers. Ólafur Stephensen, CEO of the Icelandic Federation of Trade, celebrated the change, saying he hoped to see legislation concerning alcohol sales relaxed even further. That particular bill was intended to boost tourism-related business in the countryside but excluded some larger breweries due to their size, as well as distilleries of spirits, which Ólafur believes have just as much a right to sell their product directly to consumers as smaller breweries. 

While business owners and many others in Iceland celebrate the relaxation of legislation governing alcohol sales, dissenting voices have also been heard. Opponents to relaxing the state monopoly on alcohol sales say that making alcohol more easily available will increase rates of alcohol consumption as well as problem drinking, negatively impacting public health and society.

Iceland’s legal drinking age is 20.

Control and consumption

But are there data that show a link between control and consumption? Studies conducted in Canada and the United States have found a correlation between partial or full privatisation of alcohol sales and increased rates of alcohol consumption. In high-income countries like Iceland, where alcohol is a leading risk factor for disease (second only to tobacco), increased consumption would inevitably mean worse public health and higher healthcare expenditure, not to mention social impacts. Besides disease rates, some studies have found relaxed control of alcohol sales and increased alcohol consumption to correlate with increased instances of assault, suicide, and traffic accidents. Other studies have shown that private retailers are less likely to have well-trained staff and less incentive to prevent sales to minors than state-run retailers.

Data are not yet available on whether alcohol consumption has increased in Iceland since online retailers started selling alcoholic beverages. Past data could give some clues: an Icelandic study from the early 2000s showed that adding late-night trading hours was associated with alcohol-related problems. The year the beer ban was lifted, alcohol consumption per capita spiked from 4.5 litres per person (aged 15 and older) to 5.5. However, over the following four years, it dropped steadily and took nine years to rise above 5.5 litres again. The impact on public health over time is not clear, but fears that the ready availability of beer would cause a complete societal breakdown were not realised.

iceland alcohol sales

Do Icelanders have a drinking problem?

While Icelanders themselves will often joke that the nation drinks a lot, the numbers disagree. Data from the European Health Interview Survey published in 2017 showed people in Iceland drank less frequently than their counterparts in other Nordic countries. In a survey of 29 European countries, Iceland had the seventh lowest proportion of people who drink at least once per week, just over 20%. The UK, for comparison, had the highest rate at 52.5% and Denmark came in third place at just over 51%. Iceland also had the fourth lowest rate of heavy episodic drinking (defined as consuming 60 grammes of ethanol on a single occasion).

These figures do not mean that alcoholism and alcohol abuse are a non-issue in Iceland. In a recent interview, Anna Hildar Guðmundsdóttir, director of non-profit addiction resources centre SÁÁ stated that around 20% of the nation struggle with alcohol use. She called the developments in relaxing laws on alcohol sales a “huge change of direction from the government,” implying that it would increase rates of problem drinking and questioned what the government would do to support those who struggle with their alcohol use. Iceland’s chronically underfunded and understaffed healthcare system, where waiting lists for admission to rehab centres are the norm, is ill-equipped to handle additional strain.

The cost of drinking

The question is whether partial privatisation of alcohol sales would in fact increase rates of alcoholism in Iceland. One study linked with the World Health Organisation suggested disincentive alcohol pricing had the widest impact and strongest empirical support among more than 30 policies intended to reduce alcohol consumption. It not only lowered drinking rates, but led to reductions in trauma, social problems, and chronic disease associated with alcohol use. 

 

When buying alcoholic beverages online, customers must use an electronic ID to confirm they are of legal age.

Alcohol prices are certainly a strong disincentive for imbibing in Iceland. According to Eurostat figures from 2020, alcoholic products in Iceland cost more than 2.5 times the EU average. Much of this difference can be attributed to high taxation: according to 2019 figures from Spirits Europe, Icelandic taxes on alcohol were anywhere between 33% and 200% higher than in the EU countries with the highest rates (Finland and Sweden). Partial privatisation of alcohol sales is likely to lower alcohol prices. Santewines’ website already boasts that their prices are as much as 20% lower than Vínbúðin’s. 

Why now? 

Iceland’s government has been discussing abolishing the state monopoly on alcohol sales for years, and even discussing relaxing legislation governing alcohol advertisements. Some of these changes are clearly spurred by the globalised retail environment, which provides Icelanders with access to alcohol from abroad and exposes them to advertisements through foreign media. In such a world, privatised sales of alcohol and legal – though strongly regulated – advertisements could prove a financial boon for the state treasury, now emptier than usual after a two-year pandemic. The question is whether the increased revenue and the economic boost would be offset by higher healthcare and social costs.

Globetrotter

anna moldnúpur

Already suffering from nausea in anticipation of a long voyage at sea, a middle-aged, red-headed Icelandic country woman with a modest suitcase nervously climbed a narrow gangplank in Reykjavik harbour to board the Brúarfoss, an Icelandic passenger and cargo ship. It was a bright, calm evening in mid-July 1946 and Anna – a weaver by […]

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In the Rangers’ Realm

iceland parks

What does a ranger do, exactly? According to the tan and charmingly scruffy specimen sitting opposite me at a cafe in the city centre, just back from the mountains, the title is self-explanatory. “It’s a job in environment protection. That’s what the Icelandic word for ranger, landvörður, means. We’re protecting the land; we’re its guardians.” Rangers safeguard Iceland’s fragile nature and the people who visit its remote fishing villages, tourist attractions, and mountainous wilderness. While their quotidian duties involve picking up trash, maintaining trails, and having a sharp word or two with travellers who stray off them, a ranger’s work is so much more. They have to be prepared for every eventuality and able to respond to all situations that arise far from the city limits. These are the people who take it upon themselves to ensure Iceland’s virtually untouched nature stays that way.

icelandic parks

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: THE WESTFJORDS

Dagur Jónsson drives a white pickup emblazoned with the Environment Agency’s logo. It’s probably the least practical colour for a ranger’s vehicle, but at the end of the day, any colour would end up covered in a thick brown layer of dust and mud from the winding roads of the Westfjords. We climb into the pickup to find out what a ranger does in a day. “I have to stop at Dynjandi first, but afterwards, we can pretty much go where we want,” he says.

Born this way

Even in summer, the roads in the Westfjords require careful driving. Still, you don’t need a 4×4 to get to the region’s most popular attractions, like the layered steps of the Dynjandi waterfall. On the way there, Dagur points out notable trails and rivers. An avid angler and hunter, he appreciates the area’s natural beauty – but also its bounty. “The worst insult the locals can imagine is for me to be an environmentalist from Reykjavík who wants to keep this place frozen in time. But I grew up in The Westman Islands, hunting and fishing.”

A printer by trade, Dagur noticed that there were fewer and fewer jobs in his profession. He started looking for something else to do and settled on studying systems analysis. “I hated it. Still finished the course, though,” he says as the pickup weaves its way up the hill. He’d always been an outdoorsy type: he spent decades with his local search-and-rescue squad besides hiking, biking, fishing, and hunting every summer. Faced with the prospect of looking for a job in a field he actively disliked, it was a major relief when he ran into an old friend who suggested he become a ranger instead. “I applied to work at Látrabjarg, and here I am, four years later.”

“THEY ALL SAY THE SAME THING,” HE LAMENTS AS HE RETURNS, THE RUNNERS LOOKING SUITABLY CHASTENED. “THEY SAY: ‘IT’S JUST SO BEAUTIFUL,’ AS IF THAT’S A REASON TO DAMAGE IT.”

iceland nature

Keep off the grass

Rangers’ official duties include taking care of facilities, picking up trash at the most visited destinations, and guiding travellers on scheduled hikes. That’s only a fraction of what they do, however: a lot of their time is spent dealing with whatever situations may arise on location, such as making sure people aren’t endangering themselves or the environment. The picturesque Dynjandi waterfall is a favourite for travel photoshoots, and many visitors cross the ropes intended to protect the delicate flora. When a running team in full costume charges off the path, trampling rocks and moss alike on a quest to capture that perfect press photo, Dagur puts a stop to it. “They all say the same thing,” he laments as he returns, the runners looking suitably chastened. “They say: ‘It’s just so beautiful,’ as if that’s a reason to damage it.”

Cliffhanger

Not far from Dynjandi, Dagur mentions, there is a ravine filled with fossils and a couple of other waterfalls that all get understandably less attention because of their proximity to the steps of gushing water that make for the perfect photo. (Dynjandi isn’t even really a waterfall, Dagur chimes in. It’s just a stream flowing down a hill.)

When asked if he has a favourite location in his territory, Dagur thinks for a while. “It’s got to be Látrabjarg.” Growing up in the Westman Islands, he learned to descend bird cliffs to collect eggs at a young age. He does so regularly with his searchand-rescue squad on the Reykjanes peninsula but descending the Látrabjarg cliff is a whole other animal. I ask if we could go there, but Dagur rejects the idea. “Maybe if you had mentioned it yesterday. It’s too far to go there today.” My hopes of a trip to the cliff are dashed. Dagur returns to his duties, plucking cigarette butts from the path along the waterfall. “The nicotine pouches are everywhere.”

I wander off for a bit while the photographer documents the waterfall, the din drowning out the shrieks of the seabirds that populate every cliff and fjord of the region. A light breeze stirs up the fresh scent of ling. The pink buds have yet to mature into bilberries, so I reach down to pluck a few leaves of mountain sorrel instead. As I savour their tart freshness, Dagur returns, the path now cleared of all foreign objects. We share the view over Arnarfjörður fjord in comfortable silence. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” Dagur finally says. A short moment later, he glances over at me. “So, you really want to see the cliff?”

"IF YOU PUT YOURSELF IN DANGER, IT MEANS THAT OTHERS WILL LIKELY HAVE TO ENDANGER THEMSELVES TO RESCUE YOU."

látrabjarg iceland

People, places, things

A couple of hours and about 125 kilometres later, the white pickup has become a deep shade of brown. The road is not particularly rocky, but it zigzags up and down the sides of the Westfjords’ steep and flat-topped mountains in the most unusual ways. There is limited lowland between the mountains and the sea, and most of it is taken up by pale, yellow beaches, the impossibly clear water lapping at the rocks that hold up the road. Dagur isn’t a local here, but as he spouts anecdotes about the people inhabiting the farms along the way, he could have fooled me. The anecdotes, and the farms, are fewer and fewer as we approach the cliff. We’re almost there when fog starts to settle in. I exchange worried glances with the photographer, both of us silently hoping we haven’t driven all this way only to have the view obscured. Just before we arrive, the air clears, and the immense magnitude of Látrabjarg spreads before our eyes.

“Everyone wants to see the puffins,” Dagur exclaims as we pass a few of the comical, black-and-white birds, calmly perched on the cliff’s edge, not in the least perturbed by us strolling right by them. “These ones are pretty old,” Dagur notes. I ask him how he knows, and he sighs, “Oh, you can tell by the beak.” He rattles off the names of the various seabirds that make their home on the 400-metre-high cliff facing an extraordinary amount of horizon.

Then he halts suddenly, looking up towards land. “Did you hear the fox?” I did not and probably wouldn’t have known if I had. We listen for a while until it starts calling again. “That’s a female fox. You can tell by the way they shriek,” Dagur explains patiently.

At Látrabjarg, one of Dagur’s recurring tasks is talking courage into tourists who’ve managed to drive out to see the cliff but have to be coaxed into driving back up the steep, winding dirt road. A part of a ranger’s duties is keeping the people visiting their territory safe. The Látrabjarg cliff is steep, and the path along the edge has no barriers between visitors and a drop of up to 400 metres. In light of recent news coverage about tourists’ safety in Iceland, I ask about accidents. “There hasn’t been a fatality here since, oh, I don’t know, 2014.”

iceland puffin
"EVERYONE WANTS TO SEE THE PUFFINS"

THE HOT SPOT: THE SOUTH COAST

It’s a few days later, and we’re leaving the city again, this time for the south coast. There’s a little more traffic here: most travellers who venture out of Reykjavík hit the waterfall-dotted south. We’re meeting our next ranger by the lighthouse on Dyrhólaey. Ey means island, but Dyrhólaey is no longer surrounded by water. A lighthouse towers over the surrounding flatness, a bright contrast to the sandy black beaches. The promontory’s cliffs are a lot lower than Látrabjarg, but they are nevertheless home to a plethora of puffins.

Boundaries

“It’s the only bird they want to see,” Guðrún Úlfarsdóttir tells me. The tourists arriving in Dyrhólaey in droves are a different breed to the adventurers and hikers in the Westfjords. “I think the people coming here are the ones who prefer a little more comfort in their travels,” she says delicately. While Dagur racks up the mileage on his pickup, Guðrún’s territory is limited to the hills of Dyrhólaey and the nearby Skógafoss waterfall. It’s a much-visited area, and the rangers on duty must ensure it’s safe and enjoyable.

To the east of Dyrhólaey, a stretch of black beach is cordoned off. “It has the same waves as Reynisfjara, so we make sure no one goes there,” Guðrún tells us. The black beach of Reynisfjara, another popular Instagram spot, has made grim headlines in recent years. While the waves lapping the shore look small, there’s a steep dropoff a few metres out that creates a suction effect that can, and has, claimed lives. There are a plethora of signs at the beach but no rangers. “Reynisfjara isn’t protected. It’s out of our jurisdiction,” Guðrún explains. Rangers can only operate within regions that have been declared nature reserves, and such designations are subject to much bureaucracy and a heavy dose of politics.

iceland parks
"THE ISSUE IS THAT PEOPLE DON'T WANT FENCES IN THEIR PICTURES, SO THEY OFTEN TRY TO CLIMB OVER THEM"

A jack of all trades

While most of her work revolves around talking to visitors and getting them interested in some of the other birds that frequent the rocks, Guðrún has her share of unexpected tasks too. “I spent yesterday lugging building materials into the highlands by helicopter,” she tells me. Today’s travels have her going into town to get oil for the car. A chain fencing off the delicate grass on the promontory is an aesthetically pleasing rust colour, blending in with the surroundings as naturally as possible. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Guðrún says. “Only problem with the rust is that it’s not very durable.” She keeps her pockets full of zip ties at all times to mend it.

How far would you go for the perfect picture?

Much of Guðrún’s work revolves around aiding visitors to the area and ensuring they don’t endanger themselves or the region’s birdlife. “During the nesting season in spring, we close off the area at night. It takes a while to make sure no one is up there and divert traffic from here.” Much like Dynjandi or the Látrabjarg cliff, Dyrhólaey is perfect for photography. “We get a lot of bridal shoots here,” Guðrún says. “The issue with that is that they don’t want fences in their pictures, so they often try to climb over them.” On a particularly picturesque spot overlooking the black beach below, however, the fence has been taken down. “We did that on purpose, actually,” Guðrún says. “It’s much safer for people to stand on the edge here than if they try it a little further. The drop here is only two metres or so, not twenty.”

Conditions change over time, making it even more challenging to keep visitors safe. On Dyrhólaey, there is an older path closer to the cliff’s edge. “We’re trying to get the old path grown over,” Guðrún explains. The cliff’s edges are deceptively fragile. It’s only been a few years since a couple died a little further down the beach, the cliff crumbling underneath them as they ventured off the path and one step too close to the edge.

Dyrhólaey is a popular destination all year round, and there’s a ranger here even in winter. This is Guðrún’s summer job: she’s studying geography at the University of Iceland. Before she started the course, she was studying computer science. “I liked the coding part,” she tells me. “The people, the culture, and the prospective jobs were less interesting to me.”

iceland parks

"WE LIVE IN A MAGNIFICENT COUNTRY FILLED WITH INCOMPARABLE NATURAL WONDERS, COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE PLANET."

MOUNTAIN MAN: THE HIGHLAND

Guðmundur Björnsson just got back from the Central Highland. He works there for two weeks at a time. The internet is patchy, and the phone signal is weak. Guðmundur spends his days mostly with hikers, hut caretakers, search-and-rescue volunteers, and other rangers. He prefers it that way.

“I used to work as a chef,” Guðmundur tells me. He remembers the exact moment when he had had enough of fine restaurants and exclusive countryside lodges. “I was working as a chef in a fishing lodge when these guides came in. They were ornery and irritated, complaining about the food, the weather, and everything else they could think of. I thought to myself: You get to spend the day out in nature fishing – something people pay astronomical sums to do – and you have the nerve to complain about the weather?’” Two days later, he told his boss he had signed up for a course in adventure guiding and he was quitting. After finishing his studies, Guðmundur realised he wasn’t cut out for working as a guide either. (“Telling the same stories over and over again, repeating the same jokes.”) Finding work as a ranger was a fortuitous coincidence. That was four years ago, and so far, Guðmundur hasn’t looked back.

iceland highlands ranger

Protect and serve

Fjallabak is a 42,000-hectare territory with mountain roads, hiking trails, biking paths, and geothermal areas. Most notably, it’s where you set off for Iceland’s most popular hiking trail, Laugavegur. Protecting nature might be in his job title, but much of his time is spent protecting people from the weather and themselves. “Ninety to ninety-five per cent of the work revolves around information. Gathering information and disseminating it to visitors. We follow the weather forecast, monitor the state of the roads and trails in our territory, and evaluate the danger involved in fording rivers each particular day.”

Information is what many prospective hikers lack. “I’ve often had to turn people back. People who didn’t have the right equipment. In these conditions, cotton kills. If I see a person about to set off for the Laugavegur hiking trail in sweatpants and sneakers, I start hearing warning bells immediately. In Iceland’s mountains, the only dangerous predator is the weather.” Unprepared travellers are not just a danger to themselves, as Guðmundur explains. “If you put yourself in danger, it means that others will likely have to endanger themselves to rescue you.”

"IN ICELAND'S MOUNTAINS, THE ONLY PREDATOR IS THE WEATHER."

Doing the work

In the nature reserve, there are no farmers or local inhabitants. It’s just Guðmundur, another ranger or two on shift, the mountain hut caretakers, the people who run the last-stop grocery store, and the search-and-rescue volunteers stationed there for a week at a time. These are the handful of people tasked with keeping visitors safe. “We’re a tight-knit group. We have to be; we have no one else to rely on.”

There is a lot to do and not a lot of people to do it. “We have to hike the trails, mark them, maintain the paths. We hike five kilometres one way just to put up a ‘closed’ sign so other people don’t go there. We need to get that information, that little sign, out into the snow or the patch of ground where it serves its purpose. It’s physical work, but I love it. Each day might start with a list of tasks, but things always come up. Sometimes you work full speed all day without getting to anything on your list,” Guðmundur says.

Much of the work is shaped by the remoteness and the dearth of people. “You often need to improvise with the resources you have on hand. You might find yourself several kilometres from your supplies in desperate need of a hammer. In those situations, you just have to find a rock that does the job.” Mostly, it’s important to be available, know the area, and ensure everyone is safe. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of stepping out into the water and reaching out your hand to someone too scared to ford a river, just to show them that it isn’t dangerous.”

iceland dýrholaey

For the love of the land

It feels counter-intuitive, but despite the remoteness and isolation, the largest part of the work is communication. It can be frustrating to deal with people who cross the line. “Rangers tend to care deeply for the territory they’re tasked with guarding. We’re working full time all day to protect the environment. When people misbehave in ways that can damage nature, it can be mentally draining. Especially when you’re repeating the same warnings over and over, just with a different weather forecast.”

"SOMETIMES, IT'S YOUR JOB TO STEP OUT INTO THE WATER AND REACH OUT YOUR HAND TO SOMEONE TOO SCARED TO FORD A RIVERM JUST TO SHOW THEM IT ISN'T DANGEROUS."

Guðmundur appreciates the places he’s gotten to experience during his time as a ranger. “It’s a perk of my job, the closeness to the natural beauty, and experiencing it for yourself. I’m not working as a ranger for the money. I enjoy being there. We live in a magnificent country filled with incomparable natural wonders, completely different to anywhere else on the planet. Fjallabak has wondrous geothermal activity and the largest rhyolite formations in the country, which give it amazing colours. And that’s just one spot; there are so many others, I don’t even know where to begin – Fjaðrárgljúfur, Ásbyrgi, Mývatn – they’re all unique.”

One Night in Gufunes

Geoffrey SkywalkerGeoffrey “Skywalker” pulls up in a Hertz moving truck in front of the FÚSK warehouse in East Reykjavík. He’s dressed in skinny jeans and white sneakers, wearing a black, longsleeved shirt featuring an ornery-seeming Rottweiler. (He’s a dog person.)A fixture of the hip-hop scene in Iceland since he was younger, Geoffrey hustled his way […]

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Unearthed

oddi archaeology iceland

Lucky number 12After the death of Þorlákur Þórhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt, in 1193, stories of miracles that occurred in his diocese were collected as part of efforts to canonise him. The first of three volumes containing such accounts describes 46 occurrences, including a blind sheep gaining sight, a lost ship that was found, and a […]

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In Focus: Privately Owned Tourist Sites

privately owned tourism sites iceland

Many visitors to Iceland may be surprised to know that some of the country’s most popular tourist sites are located on privately-owned land. Icelandic law ensures that the public can access sites of natural or historical significance, despite them being in private ownership. But all those visitors require infrastructure, both to protect the site itself and to attend to the visitors’ needs, and the state and local governments have a role to play. Icelandic authorities and private landowners share a duty to ensure accessibility, safety, and conservation at such sites, but the execution of these duties varies greatly from one tourist attraction to the next. 

Kerið 

The volcanic crater lake Kerið lies in South Iceland, not far from the popular Golden Circle route. For years, tourists have stopped at the site in between their visits to Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. In 2008, controversy erupted when Kerið’s landowners announced they would begin charging entry to the crater. Many locals considered it absurd to put a price tag on a natural site, believing it should remain accessible to all without a fee. 

While the decision to charge entry was reversed due to the amount of backlash it received, a fee was eventually instituted at Kerið five years later, in 2013. At that time, CEO of Kerfélagið Gunnar O. Skaptason stated that the public perspective toward charging entry to natural sites had changed. “This is something that everyone has been waiting for, because this money will be used to improve the infrastructure around Kerið. So this is actually nature conservation.”

A glance at recent Google reviews of Kerið seems to support Gunnar’s assertion: most mention the beauty of the site but not the entry fee. One reviewer that does mention the cost writes that it’s “cheaper than a coffee.” Another states: “I didn’t mind paying for entrance, because I see what they do with maintenance of the trail.” Despite collecting fees since 2013, Kerið’s owners have yet to install a public washroom at the site. This could be due to zoning permits: RÚV reported in 2019 that Kerfélagið had received permission to build more services at the site, but the pandemic has likely delayed construction.

iceland tourism private land
Kerið crater

Geysir

In a way, entrance fees were the instigator for the Icelandic state’s purchase of the Geysir geothermal area. Originally owned by a farmer, the area was sold to James Craig, a whiskey distiller and future Prime Minister of Ireland, in the 1890s. Craig was the first to charge visitors an entrance fee to the site, until he relinquished ownership to a friend, who dropped the fees. The land changed hands a few times, until it was given to the Icelandic state by film director Sigurður Jónasson in 1935. That was only the geothermal site itself, however: the surrounding land still belonged to private individuals. 

In 2016, after landowners attempted (in vain) to institute an entry fee once again, the state decided to acquire the surrounding land. Owners stated that they were forced to sell the land under threat of expropriation. It wasn’t until 2020 that the site was officially protected.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Long under most tourists’ radar, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in South Iceland exploded in popularity after it was featured in a Justin Bieber music video in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of visitors to the canyon doubled. The existing dirt trails were turned to mud by the increased foot traffic; visitors stepped further and further off the paths, causing damage to the surrounding flora. The site has been closed for weeks at the time in recent years to allow the flora to recover.

The canyon and surrounding area are privately owned. One of the properties, encompassing some 315 hectares, was put up for sale six years ago. In June 2022, Icelandic media outlets reported that a buyer had been found. As Fjaðrárgljúfur is on the Nature Conservation Register, the state had pre-emptive purchase rights to the land. This means that if they chose to do so, authorities could step in and take over the purchase. In the case of Fjaðrárgljúfur, the government decided not to step in, but the Environment Minister signed an agreement with the to-be landowner that is expected to ensure the canyon’s protection. 

Until now, no admission or parking fees have been charged at the canyon, but a government notice implied that a parking fee may be implemented, adding that “the collection and disposition of fees that may be charged for the parking of motor vehicles shall be in its entirety used to develop services, operations, and infrastructure for those travelling in the area.”

Reynisfjara

If there is one issue that stands above all others at Iceland’s tourist sites, it is undoubtedly safety. The country’s climate and natural features can create danger that visitors may not expect or be prepared for. That has been the case at one of South Iceland’s most-visited sites, Reynisfjara black sand beach. While the site’s basalt rock formations and black pebbles draw visitors in droves, its dangerous sneaker waves have claimed several lives, despite extensive signage warning of their danger. What makes managing the site even more challenging is that authorities must negotiate with not just one, but several landowners at the site.

reynifjara beach in iceland
Reynisfjara beach

Reynisfjara landowners and local authorities have been discussing installing additional safety infrastructure at the beach, such as a flashing light and a gate that could be closed when conditions were particularly dangerous. Both parties have accused the other of delaying such developments. Jónas Guðmundsson, a project manager at Iceland’s search and rescue organisation ICE-SAR accused some landowners at the site of hindering efforts to set up a warning system. One representative of the landowners denied the accusations, but expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the proposed equipment, asking if police officers stationed at the site had not been able to prevent tourists from approaching the waves “how was a gate supposed to do it?” Landowners say a government committee set up years ago has dragged its feet on the issue.

It’s clear that the more parties are involved in the decision-making process, the more cumbersome the process of installing necessary infrastructure, even when safety is at stake. The installation of a flashing warning light at Reynisfjara has since been approved by all parties, but not before another tourist death occurred at the site last June.

Fagradalsfjall

Iceland is volcanically active, meaning that many sites have the potential to become tourist attractions overnight; and magma does not distinguish between private and public land. When the Fagradalsfjall eruption began in March 2021, locals (and international visitors, once pandemic restrictions allowed), streamed to the Reykjanes peninsula to witness the spectacle with their own eyes. 

iceland tourism volcano eruption
Fagradalsfjall eruption in 2021

The eruption occurred on private land, roughly a two-hour hike from the nearest road. It goes without saying that there were neither washrooms at the site nor a place to park – minimal infrastructure that needed to be ensured in order to preserve the surrounding environment. In May 2021, after clearing unpaved lots and installing port-a-potties at the trailhead, landowners instituted a parking fee of ISK 1.000, stating that proceeds would go toward building up infrastructure in the area. The government also agreed to contribute finances toward building up necessary services at the site. Tension arose, however, when the lot’s owners announced that they would be willing to sell the property and the brand-new volcano – for the right price. Government representatives stated they would protect public access to the site and that investing public funds was out of the question if any new owners planned to operate the site for profit.

Eruptions pose huge planning challenges for landowners and authorities: they are difficult to predict, attract huge numbers, involve significant danger, and constantly change the very landscape around them. Hiking trails at the Fagradalsfjall eruption, for example, were regularly closed or modified as they were cut off by lava. The eruption stopped in September 2021, and visitor numbers slowed down to a trickle. All development plans at the site came to a halt.

Lack of policy?

If there is anything the above stories show, it is that Iceland’s government lacks a cohesive policy when it comes to entry fees, access, and funding of necessary infrastructure at popular tourist sites. Decisions appear to be made on a case-by-case basis, and are largely reactionary: infrastructure is not created in anticipation of increased traffic, but only once that traffic is already straining the limits of the site in question.

The issues that affect the operation of tourist sites in private ownership touch on larger issues connected to land ownership in Iceland in general. In recent years, such discussions have touched on the consolidation of properties, for example, which would give wealthy individuals disproportionate control over natural resources in Iceland. Government policy may need to be clarified in regards to the responsibilities of landowners, particularly when it comes to natural resources or natural wonders located on their property. 

While Icelanders, and Icelandic authorities, have a sense that most, if not all, natural sites should remain free and accessible to all, they are also not opposed to charging fees in exchange for services, particularly if the funds collected go toward nature conservation and necessary infrastructure. This type of administration has been successful at sites like Víðgelmir cave, where private owners have both increased access to the site and ensured it is well-conserved. Fees don’t seem to deter foreign tourists or locals from visiting sites: and likely seem minor compared to the cost of their accommodation, dinner, or rental car. In fact, travellers often seem happy to take part in protecting the areas they are visiting.

Keflavík Pt. 3

keflavík iceland
keflavík iceland

Langbest

The noon traffic is picking up inside Langbest, a fast-food restaurant in the Ásbrú neighbourhood of Keflavík, which has been a fixture of the local food scene since 1986.

Langbest serves pizza, hamburgers, and chicken wings – and it’s owned and operated by Ingólfur Karlsson, a jovial, bearded fellow, who sits us down in a corner booth and lets us in on his secret. Consistency.

“We’re at about the third generation of people eating here,” he says. “It’s become a kind of tradition. People grew up here, and they come back here for something familiar. You could say that it’s seeped into their subconscious.”

As I dig into a bowl of chicken wings, jab my fork at the salad – Langbest’s most popular dish, it turns out – and nibble at some pizza, I understand the appeal. Not to mention all the history. Near the entrance, there’s a wall of photos from the time of the naval station.

The building, which also houses a hair salon, was constructed in 1957 and consecrated by famed army cheerleader Bob Hope. It was initially christened “The Viking Mall,” a shopping and community centre that later came to house a rotation of fast-food restaurants: Wendy’s, Subway, All American Food. Since Langbest opened in 2008, the kitchen’s remained almost unchanged. Every now and then, a former soldier drops in.

Ingólfur recalls opening his doors one morning, and an elderly gentleman and his wife walking in. The two of them sat awhile at a table in the back. Ingólfur walked over and clarified that if they’d like to order, they could come on over to the cash register.

“I know all about that,” the man replied.

The man’s name was Thomas F. Hall, and he was the former Commander of Fleet Air Keflavik and the Iceland Defence Force, he explained: the one who had spent the first five-dollar bill at the original Wendy’s – the same five-dollar bill that had been pinned to the kitchen wall in remembrance of the act. When the naval station closed in 2006, Thomas Hall had returned as part of a special closing committee. After all of the military’s equipment had been packed up and readied, he had sat on the aeroplane and awaited its take-off – when he remembered that five-dollar bill. He sent a soldier back to the base to retrieve it. It was the last thing they took.

Ingólfur began working at the naval base mess hall at the age of 15 and stayed there for 12 years (he worked five years for the navy and seven for the air force). When the army left, he got laid off, but by that time, he had been operating Langbest in downtown Keflavík for almost a decade. Not long after losing his job at the base, he was called into a meeting with Kadeco and invited to open a second Langbest in this building. Ingólfur agreed. He spent almost ISK 60 million [$436,000] on renovations, and when Langbest opened its doors in Ásbrú in 2008, the banking collapse was in the offing. He operated two Langbest restaurants between 2008 and 2014 but closed the one in town during that latter year.

Langbest in Icelandic is a compound word made up of lang, meaning, roughly, “way” (as in “way better”) and best, meaning, well… Asked about the origins of the name, Ingólfur recalls that it derives from an argument between the original owner of the place, Axel Jónsson, and his brother, a waiter. His brother wanted to give the restaurant an Italian name, but Axel, the chef, disagreed. During their argument, they continually said, “No, it’s way better to…” And so the third brother, overhearing the argument, interrupted: “Why don’t you just name it Langbest?”

“If you paste the name into Google Translate you get Second to None – which is a great name for the restaurant,” Ingólfur observes.

“If you have to eat at other places in town,” I ask, “where do you go?”

“I like Issi’s Fish and Chips. His fish is good. Fresh. Consistent.”

Issi Fish and Chips

Jóhann Issi Hallgrímsson has an impeccable beard with a moustache that curls up on each side toward his rather striking eyes. He’s serving fish and chips from his food truck in Fitjar (which is, technically, outside this article’s purview, given that it’s not in Keflavík).

Issi grew up in nearby Grindavík and operates Issi Fish and Chips with his wife Hjördís. The two dated briefly during grade school before splitting up. They found each other again 20 years later, got married, had kids, and founded the company Tralli (named for his grandparents’ dog) in 2016.

“None of this would be possible without her,” Issi says, with a glint in his eye.

He’d actually founded the business while working another job. As the two roles grew more difficult to juggle, Issi was called into a meeting with his former superiors. They began to reprimand him until Issi interrupted: “I’m gonna have to stop you; I have to give notice.” The meeting ended on amicable terms, and Issi’s been his own boss ever since.

keflavík food

Like for most people in the business, COVID was a setback – but the volcanic eruption in 2021 provided an opportunity. As soon as he heard the lava was flowing, Issi revved up his food truck and headed off toward the volcano. He parked his truck at the trailhead, knowing that the people would come. Despite spending a month there, and, in his own words, making a good buck – he never bothered to visit the eruption itself. He was too busy frying fish.

Although he has no direct connection to the naval base, he agrees that it had a big impact on the fast-food culture in Keflavík. When he lived in Grindavík, he used to compete against the Americans in basketball. It wasn’t so much the sport that was thrilling, but the oversized pizzas that they used to serve at Wendy’s. “Not to mention the Dr. Pepper.”

Issi’s grandfather, Jón Kristjánsson, was the first Icelander to open a fish and chips joint in Iceland (as far as he knows). It was in Akureyri, North Iceland, and was called Matarkjallarinn (the Food Cellar). It burned down in 1942. The family has since joked that the old man had gone out to drink with British soldiers and forgotten to turn off the frying pan.

Issi attributes the popularity of his food truck to the freshness of his ingredients. He gets all of his fish fresh from the ship Þorbjörn in Grindavík. He says he’s meticulous about cleanliness: regularly replacing the oil and keeping the sieves clear. He laments the rising prices of ingredients and says that some fish and chips vendors in the UK have closed their doors, as opposed to raising prices.

Asked where he eats in Keflavík, he says that he’s a regular at Pulsuvagninn.

Pulsuvagninn

Pulsuvagninn is, undoubtedly, the most famous fast-food joint in Keflavík. It’s operated by Vilberg Skúlason – called Villi – who was born in 1957 in Blönduós, North Iceland and raised in the south, in Selfoss. A trained meat processor, Villi came to Keflavík after being persuaded to come work at the now-defunct Víkurbær, the first supermarket in town, by its owner.

Pulsuvagninn first opened its doors in 1977. It was originally owned by “a few local boys,” Villi explains, one of whom had spent time in Denmark – from where he borrowed the famous hamburger recipe (it’s marinated in a special oil and served with red cabbage). In its heyday, Pulsuvagninn was a little shack on wheels that solely offered a hot dog with everything and soft drinks from a soda fountain.

food in keflavík

Villi and his wife took over the hot dog truck in 1980, and the hot dogs and original Danish hamburger have remained unchanged. Along with his wife, Villi operates Pulsuvagninn with Inga Hilda Gústafsdóttir, whom he met in 1978. When Villi bought Pulsuvagninn, Inga was working at a school cafeteria, but Villi persuaded her to come work for him. She now owns a share of the truck.

“She’s absolutely indispensable,” Villi says, with Inga standing next to him, in the staff quarters in the back of Pulsuvagninn. Inga explains that, these days, staffing is the toughest part of the business. “We’ve been forced to recruit younger and younger employees. All the way down to the 10th grade,” Inga says. “We used to employ housewives, but now they’re all working at the schools. People seem to be a lot better off – they can afford to work less. I understand it, of course, but the trend’s been problematic for us, nonetheless,” Villi observes, adding that some of the younger generation haven’t “learned to work.”

Pulsuvagninn (The Hot Dog Cart) is spelled with a u instead of the more widely-accepted y (Pylsuvagninn), which sometimes inspires criticism from language-sensitive customers. Villi recalls someone once stopping by and finding fault with the spelling, before replying in English – when asked what size of fries he wanted – that he wanted “medium.”

Thai Keflavík

The first time I saw the Grammy-nominated band Kaleo was at the Night of Lights festival at Thai Keflavík. JJ Júlíusson, the band’s frontman, belted out Vor í Vaglaskógi at least twice that evening, on account of popular demand, before the song had actually been released.

JJ and Magnús Heimisson, the owner and manager of Thai Keflavík, are “cousins” (JJ’s stepfather and Magnús’ father are brothers). According to Magnús, Keflavík residents spend something like 30% more than capital area residents on fast food. Hoping to open a food hall in Ásbrú, Magnús has recently been delving into the books of restaurants in the area – and some of the numbers, he says, have been quite astonishing.

“Pulsuvagninn, for example, unbelievable revenue! Makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been doing all this time.”

thai food keflavík

Digging into some Pad Thai, which is fantastic (the wife and I sometimes make special trips to Keflavík on account of it), I ask Magnús about the nature of his clientele.

“Icelanders? Foreigners? Thai people?”

“Mostly Icelanders. Thai people cook at home – they know how to make Thai food.”

“What was COVID like for you?”

“Shit, man. We were in our death throes. But it was good, ultimately, because people wanted to support local restaurants. Last summer was the biggest summer since we opened 16 years ago. Even without the tourists.” Magnús also mentions that the eruption helped, as well as quarantining tourists ordering delivery.

As far as the food hall in Ásbrú is concerned, Magnús is excited. He’d like to preserve some association with the naval station.

“Not that I’m going to open an army-themed food hall, but to keep some elements that pay homage to the history. Some of the locals would like to forget all about the naval station era. But the younger generation should take pride in their history. Besides, the tourists love hearing about it.”

Oriento

Oriento is a family business situated in downtown Keflavík that opened its doors in August of 2019. The family, comprised of parents Mohamad Chikh and Natalia Bujorean, and their two children, Mahmoud Chikh (called Memo) and Nahla Chikh, moved here in 2017. They lived in Innri Njarðvík before relocating to Ásbrú and then settling in Keflavík.

Mohamad is Syrian and Natalia is Moldovan. They met in Greece, where they lived for seven years leading up to the economic crisis in 2008. They moved back to Syria until war broke out and they fled to Iceland. Memo, their son, sits with his parents at a table in the back of the restaurant and translates. His sister’s off today.

keflavík food

“What do you think of Keflavík?”

“It’s okay. It’s a little bit boring. For any kind of diversion, you need to go to Reykjavík.”

“Do you go often?”

“Not really. Not to mention how expensive gas has become.”

As I taste the lamb Souvlaki, which is rather good (I’m so full at this point that food has lost all meaning), the family appears a little worried that our interview will cut into time with customers.

“It’s the second of the month, so we’re quite busy,” Memo says. “Yesterday was crazy. They just kept coming. No breaks.”

I learn that Memo’s father has worked here every day since they opened their doors three years ago, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM, without a single day off.

“I think the only day he took off was Christmas Day last year – because no one else was open,” Memo observes.

food keflavík

“And how long is he going to keep this up?” I ask. Memo turns to his father.

“He doesn’t know. We’re trying to find staff, but it’s been difficult. Most people want to work off the books (svart, or black, in Icelandic), but we can’t do that.” He says that some people collect unemployment benefits and then work off the books to supplement their income.

I ask Memo what his father’s going to do when he finally takes a day off.

“Sit in the sun. Either that or close the restaurant for a week and rent a summer cabin.

keflavík iceland

But he worries that if he closes people will become upset.”

“I think most people will understand if he takes a few days off,” I reply.

The conversation turns to more troubling aspects of their business. Oriento’s been robbed twice since the family opened its doors. They have photos of burglars’ faces, but the police haven’t done anything.

“They can’t catch them – or they don’t want to,” Memo says. “I don’t understand it. The last burglar took money from the cash register, and we knew the person who robbed us before that.”

Memo explains that they found the culprit on Facebook – a familiar face to the police. He was a friend of a former employee, who had probably known that his father was saving up money, which he kept at Oriento, to open a restaurant in Reykjavík.

Memo regularly visits Langbest. It’s the only fast-food place that he really likes. “The food is just good. It’s got a lot of variety. It’s not expensive.”

Anton's Mamma Mia

Anton Narváez was born in Chile. He studied boat building in Denmark before moving to Iceland in 1967. He opened his first restaurant, El Sombrero, in downtown Reykjavík in 1984. Four years later, he constructed Argentina Steakhouse – one of Iceland’s most famous steakhouses – from scratch. Over the next 35 years, Anton would open eight more restaurants.

In 2019, he had planned on opening his eleventh and final restaurant, Mamma Mia, at Garðarshólmi (constructed in 1909) in Keflavík. But while renovating the house, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

Prior to starting the project, he had approached Eyrún Anna Gestsdóttir, called Eyja – whom he had met in Kaffi Duus some years earlier – if she’d manage the restaurant. Upon his death, Anton’s son pulled out of the project, and the building stood empty for three months.

Sitting across from me at Anton’s Mamma Mia, at a table next to the window – it’s probably the smallest restaurant in Keflavík, a total of eight tables, or 28 seats – Eyja recalls how her mother’s death in 2016 altered her perspective on life.

“Life is so short, in the end, and you should do what you want to do. If you fail, you fail – but at least no one can accuse you of not having tried.”

Moved by this epiphany, Eyja approached Anton’s family and received the green light to open the restaurant on her own.

“Anton had wanted to call the restaurant Mamma Mia, but I got permission from his children to call it Anton’s Mamma Mia, to honour his memory,” Eyja remarks.

“Has owning a restaurant been what you expected?”

“Darling, no, sometimes I want to go in the back and shoot myself!” Eyja goes on to explain, with a kind of salt-of-the-earth bluntness that’s thoroughly charming, that opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic was a challenge, although she wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Anton’s Mamma Mia specialises in pizza. I ask her if the recipes originated with Anton.

“No, the menu is mine. My baker Sigter helped me with the recipes. When it came to naming the pizzas, I cracked open a beer and improvised.”

Eyja was born in 1976 and raised in Reykjanesbær. Her mother’s father was an American soldier from Oklahoma.

“Did he and your grandmother have a long relationship?”

“There was no relationship. I never met my grandfather. Nor did my mother – but she bears his name: Combs.”

“Any plans of going to Oklahoma, tracking down your family?”

“Nope. I’ll be here. Focusing on this place.”

Nauseous from the day’s gluttony, I dig into a 9-inch Combs pizza (with garlic, bell peppers, onions, lobster, shrimp, Camembert, and arugula) and enjoy it. As far as that’s possible.

Is there an article about the Icelandic passenger ship that was sunk in 1944 by a U-boat?

godafoss icelandic ship ww2

On November 10, 1944, a German U-boat sank Goðafoss, an Icelandic passenger ship, just outside Reykjavík harbour, leading to the deaths of  24 people. We haven’t written about the event itself, but we have, however, covered the reception history of an interesting book about the event, called “Útkall: Árás á Goðafoss,” or “SOS: Attack on the Goðafoss.” 

Published in 2003 by Óttar Sveinsson, it attracted international attention and has been translated into multiple languages. Notably, when it was translated into German, a special press conference was held at the Frankfurt book fair, in which an Icelandic survivor from the attack and a former U-Boat crew member met and reconciled. After the German translation attracted some attention, a documentary was even made about the event in Germany. 

While the Goðafoss may certainly be the most notorious U-boat attack from an Icelandic perspective, it was certainly not the only one to affect Icelanders. Because of Iceland’s important position between Europe and North America, many wartime convoys passed through Iceland. Icelandic vessels were very careful to fly the Icelandic flag to signal their neutrality, but some eight Icelandic vessels were nevertheless attacked and sunk by U-boats during the war.