Inspired by Iceland
Backward Brothers’ Café
For generations, Icelanders have amused themselves over stories of the dimwitted brothers from Bakki: Gísli, Eiríkur and Helgi. In Dalvík, North Iceland, there’s a café in their honor.
“I sometimes ask kids: ‘Have you ever tried going to the hot tub with your mom and dad and tested whether it’s possible that you don’t know which feet are yours?’" Kristín Aðalheiður (Heiða) Símonardóttir laughs inwardly as she recounts her favorite tale of the silly Bakkabræður, the three brothers from Bakki, known as the Barmy or Backward Brothers in English. “They think it’s remarkable that someone would stay put for an entire day because they’ve confused their feet with someone else’s.” The story goes like this: To save fuel, the brothers decided to take a footbath in a hot spring rather than heating water for bathing. However, as they couldn’t identify their own feet, they just kept sitting there until a traveler walked by. They begged him to help them. The man hit their feet with his cane and then the brothers quickly realized which feet were theirs.
Bakkabræður are said to have come from Svarfaðardalur, just a few kilometers from Heiða’s hometown of Dalvík, where she and her husband Bjarni Gunnarsson opened the café GísliEiríkurHelgi – Kaffihús Bakkabræðra in 2013. Inspired by their legend, it’s furnished and decorated with old items and tools, and specially-designed props. Heiða points out a pair of old skates. “People bring us gifts. They like it that old items are displayed here rather than being hidden away in storage somewhere.” Although perhaps partly based on real-life people, Bakkabræður, as featured in the folk stories, are legendary characters. “In my mind, they existed at some point in the 1700s,” says Heiða. The brothers are timeless, as a clock without hands in the café’s bathroom indicates. The café’s guests, locals and foreign, pay attention to such details. “When people realize that we’re telling stories, they get sucked into them. Foreign tourists think to themselves: ‘Can it be that we know these stories from home?’ and start asking questions. The chat takes interesting directions,” says Heiða.
Heiða and Bjarni had actually set out to establish a museum about Gísli, Eiríkur and Helgi, launching the project in 2008. “In the middle of the process we realized that the museum would never be profitable on its own and took a U-turn, deciding to establish a café with all these items, and it proved a hit.” When the off-piste skiing season starts in March, the café becomes somewhat of a community center for skiers, Heiða states—fittingly so, as she fancies the brothers to be excellent skiers (their skis are on display at the café). The café’s homemade fish soup and bread baked with local beer has proven popular among the skiers.
By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos by Páll Stefánsson.