Inspiring Icelandic Women – Ásta Kristrún Ragnarsdóttir

Inspiring Icelandic Women – Ásta Kristrún Ragnarsdóttir

Inspiring Icelandic Women – Ásta Kristrún Ragnarsdóttir

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In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we are launching our new Wander Women premium guided tour to Inspiring Iceland for women travel groups. This 10-day tour explores the otherworldly scenery of the Land of Fire and Ice, and highlights incredible women who have made a positive impact in their local communities.

The Wander Women tours have been developed by an all female team at Insight Vacations to provide female travelers with immersive travel experiences and celebrate female empowerment through the women they meet on their journey. Women can connect with their fellow travelers and celebrate the achievements of female business leaders along the way.

On Day 2, our guests will take a storytelling walk with Ásta Kristrún Ragnarsdóttir through the historically significant village of Eyrarbakki on the South coast of Iceland. Ásta runs Bakkastofa Culture House , and leads the women on a fascinating tour of the fishing village, taking in one of the oldest houses in Iceland, Húsið, or The House, where her ancestors once lived. We spoke with Ásta, an author and writer with many enthralling tales of her own, who is helping to preserve and promote the history and traditions of Eyarbakki.

Guided by Strong Female Role Models

From an early age, Ásta was ambitious and hard-working. However, she cites a number of inspiring women that she credits with influencing her journey. First, her mother was a powerful role model, who taught her the importance of choosing her own path and how education could inform that. Ásta spent time studying in France and U.S.A., completing studies in French, Psychology and Student Counselling, before returning to Iceland to assume the role of Student Counsellor at the University of Iceland, marking the inauguration of this position. She was one of only two high-ranking women at the University, at a time when female business leaders weren’t common in Iceland. “We had to set an example, to show other women what was possible,” Ásta explains.

Her formative years were also guided by a kindergarten director, Ida, who she credits with helping her to be intuitive around children and treat them with the same respect as adults.This attitude has stayed with her throughout her working life, helping her gain a role working in children’s television, but also creating a strong foundation for her later role as a student counsellor.

Kristrún Tómasdóttir Hallgrímsson, her paternal grandmother, is another woman who had a profound influence on Ásta. A scientist, solo concert pianist and devoted mother, Kristrún didn’t have an easy life, but continues to inspire the women who came after her. “Her story isn’t one that I speak about easily, as it’s very emotional, but she was a hero,” Ásta shares, adding, “You can trace many universal themes through the events of her life – betrayal and strength in overcoming challenges, which contain lessons for us all.”

After one of Kristrún’s daughters was kidnapped, the woman sank into deep despair. However, she turned to art and crafts to manage her grief and eventually created a stunning tapestry, Per Ardua ad Astra (which translates from Latin as “through adversity to the stars”, that was displayed at New York World’s Fair in 1939. Now, it hangs in Ásta’s home, a testament to her grandmother’s life and work. Guests will view the tapestry when they visit Bakkastofa during the Inspiring Iceland tour.

A Champion for Women’s Rights

Guests on the women only tour can hear more about Ásta’s involvement with politics in Iceland. She describes how a feminist political party, Kvennalistinn, or Women’s List was formed in Iceland in the early 1980s. Its primary objective was to champion Women’s Rights in the country, a topic that was often ignored. “I believe that it’s important for women to realize the things that aren’t fair,” Ásta comments. She acknowledges that while things have improved considerably, true equality is still a long way off.

When Insight Vacations’ guests meet Ásta, they’ll be struck by her joie de vivre and creativity. She claims that she didn’t have the serious demeanor required for politics, declaring that she is “not a typical politician,” and that she doesn’t believe everything should “end with fire”. Her personal outlook is that the fight for equality is “not a battle against men, but a battle for a better life for women.” She prefers to lead that fight through creativity and positivity, finding ways to open up opportunities for young women in the country.

Ásta explains how fundamentally she had to choose between her career at the university or following a political role. As Director of Student Counselling Services at the university, she has provided guidance to many young women and empowered them to achieve in different walks of life. For instance, she mentions that there were no female engineers in Iceland when she took on the role of Student Counsellor, largely due to the mindset that females weren’t suited to these roles. To show the progress that has been made on this front, now almost 50% of STEM roles are fulfilled by women, beating many other countries by a long stretch. She has strong faith in the role of a counsellor, and grew her department to ten counsellors before leaving university life in 2000.

Finding Inspiration in Eyrarbakki

After her work with the University had concluded, Ásta’s organisational skills and visual arts experience led to her being asked to design a stage and theme for the conference “Women and Democracy” at the Reykjavík City Theatre in October of 1999, where Hillary Clinton was the keynote speaker.”

For many years, Ásta taught a course in large companies preparing employees psychologically for retirement. Her “Golden Years” course won many awards, and was seen as the model example for retirement preparation in the country. Teaching this course encouraged Ásta and her husband Valgeir to consider their own futures. They dreamed of living somewhere peaceful and relaxing by the ocean, where they could follow their passions of music, art and storytelling.

Eyrarbakki, around an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, was the obvious choice for the couple. The tiny fishing village has a significant history and one of the country’s most important museums is housed in Ásta’s ancestral family home, Húsið. The first timber house in Iceland, it was a kit house brought from Denmark by a huge trading company that was once the leading employer in the country. It served as the main residence for one of the company’s chief employees and became a celebrated center for European art and culture in Iceland.

Now Húsið is the Árnessýsla Heritage Museum, one of the stops female guests will visit on the storytelling walk with Ásta. Visitors can wander through the rooms and see how the inhabitants once lived, as well as view historic artefacts and wonderful wood carvings. Ásta enjoys a wonderful relationship with the museum director, and she observes, “Everyone needs to get along when you live in a small village. You need to be positive and help each other, which we do in Eyrarbakki.”

For hundreds of years the village of Eyarbakki was an important trading hub and the main port in the south of the country. Goods were imported regularly from Denmark, and distributed across the country. However, when a bridge was built across the river Ölfusá, it changed the fate of the village.

Now the village relies mainly on tourism for its livelihood, and it draws many Icelandic visitors who appreciate its historical value. Its proximity to nearby geysers fascinates those who travel here, and Ásta is delighted to share stories about these and other local attractions.

Creating and Preserving Culture

Valgeir Guðjónsson, Ásta’s husband, is a renowned musician and composer in Iceland, who was part of two successful pop bands, Spilverk þjóðanna and Stuðmenn, and responsible for many hit songs and even movies. When the couple came to Eyrarbakki, they created Saga Musica, a unique show where the Icelandic Sagas have inspired new stories presented in beautifully melodic songs.

The Icelandic Sagas are a collection of epic stories by various authors that are grounded in reality and represent a vital part of European history. These stories date back at least 1,000 years and reveal fascinating characters such as the remarkable Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a woman who is believed to have delivered the first person of European heritage born in America. Saga Musica is a true passion project of Valgeir’s, and he often performs a few songs from the collection for Bakkastofa’s guests.

Ásta and Valgeir have lived in Eyrarbakki for eight years, and love the life they have built sharing stories and music in this quaint seaside village. Every visit to their Cultural House is tailored to the guest’s desires, and as Ásta explains, they only accept a limited number of people each year so they don’t become overwhelmed or overworked. She is keen to preserve the moment and ensure that each guest is a participant, rather than just a spectator to the experience. Her aim is to “fill their emotional tanks with positivity,” and hopes they will feel their spirits restored after their visit.

Women Only Tours That Create a Difference

Insight Vacations’ Wander Women tours have been created by women for women and aim to enrich our guests lives through each encounter. That’s why we include a number of MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences on every itinerary, introducing our travelers to women like Ásta, female leaders who make a difference in their own community and country.

Our MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences on the Wander Women tours are selected to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG no.5, gender equality.

Insight Vacations is proud to be a founding member of the TreadRight Foundation. This organization was formed by the family of brands in the Travel Corporation to make travel a force for good. From supporting local artists and artisans preserving cultural traditions to choosing sustainable destinations and accommodation, we provide insightful itineraries that help protect the three pillars of TreadRight Foundation: People, the Planet and Wildlife. We invite our guests to take the pledge and Make Travel Matter.

Join the women traveling together on Insight Vacations Inspiring Iceland where Ásta invites you to share a storytelling walk that you’ll never forget.