So what does that mean when applied to a town? The coastal town of Djúpivogur, in east Iceland, has just been granted international Cittaslow (Slow Town) status, and is making a quiet bid for some international love by offering to show visitors Iceland in slow motion.
I edge my way towards Djupivogur at a suitably modest pace, first staying at the Egilsstadir Guesthouse, a cosy spa hotel on the shores of Lake Logurinn. It’s a must for foodies. Even WH Auden – who wrote the not-altogether-complimentaryLetters from Iceland (in which he complained about dried fish and sleeping in a wet tent) – praised the food here. Part of the ethos of the slow city is to reconnect distinctive regions with their food, their nature, and their craft producers to form a bulwark against homogenised, globalised culture.
From this summer you’ll be able to fly direct from Gatwick to Egilsstadir withDiscover the World, and it takes only 30 minutes to drive on to Stöðvarfjörður, where a brilliant community arts centre in an abandoned fish processing factory is taking shape. It seems, given the circumstances, like indecent haste. Before the road was built in the 1970s it used to take seven hours – a reminder of how remote this area is.
The snow and the black sand of the volcanic beaches provide a highly Instagrammable monochrome look – though if you’re there in the summer, the green mountains will reflect off the water. It’s as if the natural world is amplified. No wonder many Icelanders have such a strong innate connection to their environment.
The challenge for them now is that visitors don’t quite get it. Recently, the same group of foreign students had to be rescued from traversing the treacherous Highlands during winter not just once, but three times. A couple on a camping trip in the east were spotted tearing up the moss that forms over hundreds of years to make a comfy mattress under their tent. To stem these outrages to the landscape, the tourist board has come up with Iceland Academy, a good-natured online guide to cultural, eco and safety behaviour in the Icelandic wilds. (It also includes a guide to entering a public geothermal spring which will save on awkward moments.)
Reyðarfjörður is a town at the base of the largest fjord that cuts into this southeast part of the coast. It was once the site of whaling stations, and a critical strategic military base for the allies during the second world war (there’s a very good museum on the conflict). These days it’s becoming increasingly populated by film companies who find the backdrop an excellent stand-in for Arctic Norway. There is, however, a studied (and endearing) indifference to celebrity. I’m told Dennis Quaid, who stars in the second series of Fortitude, trots around entirely unbothered by requests for selfies.
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By contrast, artists and makers are important here and in abundance. When I finally reach Djúpivogur, home of slow, Coca-Cola and petrol signs are banned but the workshops of local artists and craftspeople (who seem numerous in a population of 400) are extravagantly signposted. Even the mini-mart contains a showroom for Arfleifð, a tiny handcrafted fashion and apparel brand using traditional materials: fish leather, horn, wool and horse hair. From the small town hotel to the clapboard houses, uniqueness is prized and celebrated here.
The local rock museum – and that’s as in rock collected from the surrounding basalt lava deposits, not rock’n’roll – is particularly unique. An arresting public art installation, Eggin í gleðivík (the Eggs of Merry Bay) by Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson, uses 34 large-scale egg replicas placed around the bay to represent 34 bird species.
At the Wilderness Centre on the edge of Iceland’s Highlands, Denni Karlsson, a filmmaker, and his wife Arna, a historian, have built a dormitory that gives you a glimpse of how 19th-century Highlanders (albeit with great taste levels and bathrooms) would have lived. Essentially you get to “sleep in a museum”. Downstairs a new cultural and art exhibition opens this June.
There’s also a fine herd of Icelandic horses, and from June you can join epic rides including a midnight amble during a summer’s sunny night. This gives ample opportunity to try out the unique Icelandic gait called the tölt. I hear it feels like flying.