Follow in the footsteps of elves to explore the close-knit communities and astonishing landscapes of offbeat East Iceland
Throat-catching awe tussled with an intense desire to play hide-and-seek as I peered down into the secret valley. The sharp, snow-dusted knife edges of Mt Dyrfjöll rose cold and remote to the left; down below, blue-green glacial pools glinted between gigantic boulders in the clear autumn sunshine. It was Tolkien-dramatic, through a fantastical prism of Lewis Carroll.
Most visitors to Iceland don’t venture far beyond the capital, Reykjavík, and the ‘Golden Triangle’ of attractions nearby: Thingvellir National Park, site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and the continental rift; Gullfoss waterfall; and the oldest known geyser, Geysir. But I was far, far away from all these highlights, and their attendant tour-buses. I was on the opposite side of the island in the ‘Deserted Inlets’, a region of close-knit communities and extraordinary walking, rich in legends of elves and beasts. I was in Iceland’s magical east.
“What we have is roots,” my host Arngrímur Viðar Ásgeirsson told me when I arrived in the tiny fishing village of Bakkagerði, the main settlement on the Eastfjords inlet of Borgarfjörður Eystri. “We have more than just the nature. People here know the area. And there’s our culture – the villages, the mountains, and the elves.”
Yes, elves. It’s said that the Elf Queen herself lives in these parts: her palace is on Álfaborg, a rocky hillock just outside Bakkagerði. The ‘Hidden People’ mostly live up to their name, but occasionally they appear, to advise, reward or create mayhem. Right now, the only havoc on the horizon was an impending storm. But Arngrímur saw no problem: “Some people check Nasdaq or the stocks first thing every day. We check the weather. Then we make our plans.”
The storm wasn’t due to hit until after midnight – plenty of time to start exploring. Borgarfjörður offers some of the region’s best hiking, so I was planning to spend a few days exploring on foot with Arngrímur, to get to know the area’s secrets for myself – and find those elves.
There are around 150km of trails in the Deserted Inlets, which explore everything from abandoned villages on black-sand beaches to colourful rhyolite mountains. Further south there are more coastal walks and nature trails; inland lies Vatnajökul National Park. The infrastructure is in place – East Iceland has marked day-walks, self-guided hut-to-hut routes and luggage-portered hotel-to-hotel trails, and there are comprehensive hiking maps available. It’s just that most people don’t know about it yet.
To get a good look at Bakkagerði, we headed for the hills on the northern side of the inlet. We paused at a patch of wild bilberries; while I indulged in some enthusiastic berry scoffing, Arngrímur – clad in a hand-knitted jumper and scarlet waterproof trousers – pointed out some local landmarks.
Bakkagerði has a surprising amount going on for a community of only 130 people. As well as the elf-castle and a puffin rookery, there’s an historic church, a boutique rock-hewn café, three museums, a community centre and concert venue, a shop, a restaurant and a little spa. Less surprising (once you’ve met him) is that Arngrímur has a hand in most of these – as well as running his guesthouse, helping on his father’s farm and raising a family. His neighbours are just as busy, he tells me – to carve a living, they have to be.
“Quality of life here is about freedom,” he explained as we started off again towards Hrafnatindur – the highest point on the north side of Borgarfjörður. On a clear day there would have been a great view across to where the puffins nest; unfortunately the clouds rolled in and a sudden downpour sent us scurrying down the hillside. The turn in the weather prompted some sage safety advice from Arngrímur: “If the fog comes in, don’t sit down, or you’ll be dead. Do anything else but sit down – or fall from a cliff.”
Despite the rain, on our way back to hot showers and dry socks we paused at Arngrímur’s parents’ farm to deliver a bag of bilberries to his convalescing mother. “Treat nature right and each other,” he advised as we plunged back out into the wet. “That’s how we’ve survived all these years.”
That evening, in the best Nordic tradition, it was story time. ‘Adventureland’ is a one-room cave of wonders on the ground floor of the community centre. While I admired a collection of local geological specimens in brightly lit glass cabinets, Arngrímur stooped under a painted archway in the corner, disappearing behind a red-velvet curtain. When he called, I drew back the drapes and entered a fairy-lit grotto. Five or six mysterious doorways lead to child-sized dens, designed for local children to listen to the tales of their ancestors – which is my excuse for curling up in one, next to a treasure chest, and reverting to my six-year-old self.
Arngrímur pressed play on a stereo and I listened to the legend of how the farmstead at the end of the fjord got the name ‘Snotrunes’; apparently, a brave steward broke the curse on his elf-queen-in-disguisemistress (Snotra) by following her to the ‘Other Realm’ one Christmas, and returning to tell the tale. Crawling to a den under the sea and clutching a cuddly fish, I heard the story of Gellivör the Ogress, who kidnapped shepherds to feed to her young in the mountain behind the puffins’ nests. And I learned about Naddi the Monster, who terrorised the road around the headland – which I’d driven the day before – until he was wrestled and thrown into the sea.
The whole place was smaller than my lounge and, with the lights on, I could see that the ‘castle’ was fake and that the ‘forest canopy’ was made of paper, but the magic remained nonetheless. It wasn’t just the storm outside that made me huddle tightly under my duvet that night.
The next afternoon, the wind had dropped enough for us to set off into the hills on the south side of the inlet, but it was still too gusty to safely negotiate the higher mountain passes. So Arngrímur improvised our walk, linking two trails between Geitfell and Svartfell – the Gold and Black Mountains. His attitude to venturing into ogress territory was somewhat cavalier, but I suppose that’s what happens when the places of legend are marked on real maps.
Although on this side of the valley the mountains are named ‘gold’ and ‘black,’ the night’s rain had left the land lush with colour. Geitfell’s slopes glowed with warm orange and pink tones; Svartfell towered blue-grey and black above us. It was a breathtaking walk in more ways than one though; as the steep rocky path up from the road turned between the mountains, the wind hit us full-on forcing us to link arms for stability until it turned again and we were sheltered behind a mountain. There was no sign of Gellivör as we followed the faintly trampled sheep trails across the windswept pastures; apparently independence (and disregard for lurking monsters) is an Icelandic trait, whatever the species.
Despite the best efforts of the wind and my imagination, I’d kept both feet on the ground and in reality all day. However, that night I had another brush with magic. Standing ankle-deep in wet grass behind the darkened guesthouse, I watched the ghostly green-white of the northern lights arc slowly and silently across the sky. Moonlight turned the fjord silver; the distant hiss of waves washing over rocks and my own breath (once I remembered to breathe) were the only sounds. It seemed too perfect to be real.
I woke up for the 16km hike to Stórurð the next morning wondering, like Alice, if I’d been changed in the night. Perhaps it was the after-effect of all the fresh air of the past two days. On our way to the trailhead, we drove back along the scree where Naddi the Monster had been thrown into the sea. It was a quick scramble up the same kind of gravelly slopes that Naddi had once terrorised to start the walk, but once I’d negotiated them, the Norwegian Sea lay behind us and Dyrfjöll ahead; with 360º of beauty around me and nowhere for monsters to hide, I strode out happily across the high, undulating ridge of Geldingafjall.
It seemed like a day to believe impossible things, so I braced myself when Arngrímur called a halt as the trail entered a rocky pass and said I was about to meet someone special called Jasper. We entered Jasper’s valley, and there he sat, in among the rhyolite and dark basalt – not a man or a monster, but a thigh-high boulder of solid greenish-gold jasper.
“He likes company,” said Arngrímur. “He’s lonely up here by himself – as out of place as we are. You can tell him your troubles, and think about how you got here.”
Jasper put us in a reverent mood and we left his domain quietly. Then, rounding the Súlur peaks and peering into Stórurð itself, the reverence rose to awe – we had reached the secret valley.
Dyrfjöll – ‘Door Mountain’ – is named for the missing chunk in its middle, which splits the ridge in two. It might as easily be known as the doorway to the most wonderful place in Wonderland. Stórurð, which lies below, is something special – even for Iceland. From a distance, the rounded boulders scattered around the hollow look like a giant’s pebbles, with vividly coloured blue-green pools and mini-meadows of lush green grass hiding between them. Up close, they’re even more impressive. The boulders’ surfaces are mottled with moss and lichen and they create a craggy grey labyrinth; I felt like an out-of-scale Alice clambering round it. Standing on top of one particularly enormous rock and surveying the scene, my grin was of Cheshire Cat proportions. I cooled my feet in the turquoise pools – fed by a mountain spring, they were glacially cold – before following the little stream out along the heather-strewn valley towards the coast. The wide, blue bay of Héraðsflói stretched ahead as far as I could see, and the braided channels flowing into it glittered in the afternoon light. I could’ve stayed all night.
Passing a few disinterested sheep, the walk out of Stórurð was a gentle return to the harsh reality of life in the east. I might have been having life-affirming epiphanies in the mountains, but many people are leaving Iceland’s isolated areas. The last resident of Brúnavík, a coastal village around the headland, left in 1944; further inland, many hamlets are being deserted. It’s not trolls, monsters or hungry ogresses driving them away any longer, it’s economics.
Bucking the trend, Bakkagerði’s residents – both human and elvish – are stubbornly staying put, farming and fishing the same lands and seas as their forebears. It’s not an easy life but, like Arngrímur said, it’s all about freedom. I could see the appeal: there’s a palpable and dynamic sense of community here, and the knitwear is glorious.
The most beautiful places are free to explore, so you can indulge your penchant to get ‘curiouser and curiouser’. With walks – as with stories – you ‘begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end.’ I’d uncovered some of East Iceland’s secrets, but there’s nothing mysterious about its appeal. They say you need to walk a mile in someone’s boots to understand them, and when this means walking in the footsteps of elves, the journey is quite simply magical.
Intrigued by Stórurð? Check out these amazing alternatives
Lake Myvatn: The lake itself sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and is famous for its volcanic and geothermal features. Hverir has bubbling mud-pools and fumaroles; nearby, you can see pseudo-craters at Skutustadir and the ‘dark castles’ of lava at Dimmuborgir. It’s also one of the best places in Iceland for birdwatching.
Jökulsárlón: Glacial lagoon adrift with icebergs on the south coast. The lagoon is open to the sea; the mixture of salt and fresh water means the glacier retreats more than 100m per year. Taste 1,000-year-old ice on a boat tours.
Vatnajökull National Park: Europe’s second largest national park is also home its largest glacier. Stretching from Skaftafell on Iceland’s south coast to nearby Lake Myvatn in the north, Vatnajökull National Park has everything from ice caves, volcanoes, waterfalls and wildlife to see and explore.
Westfjords: Iceland’s western outpost is almost uninhabited, except by wildlife. The cliff of all cliffs, Látrabjarg, is 14km long and up to 440m high. If you prefer to stay lower down, marvel at Dynjandi waterfall and soak in the coastal hot pools.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park: Iceland’s most famous National Park is home to the original geyser (“Geysir”), Goðafoss (“Waterfall of the Gods”), and the ancient home of Icelandic democracy. Watch continental drift in action at the canyon-like crack Almannagjá.The author travelled with Discover the World, who offer a wide range of independent and escorted holidays. A similar tailormade trip would cost from £1,158pp (based on two sharing) including return flights from London, Manchester or Glasgow with Icelandair, domestic flights, three nights at Guesthouse Álfheimar in Borgarfjörður (full board), three nights at Hotel Reykjahlid in Lake Mývatn (breakfast and dinner), six days’ car hire and entrance to the Blue Lagoon, in Reykjavik.