hidden europe 46

Amid the waves: Heimaey

by Philip Dunshea

Picture above: The coast of Heimaey, the largest island in Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar archipelago (photo © Milan_tesar / dreamstime.com).


The Vestmann archipelago lies off the south coast of Iceland. A ribbon of islands, all of volcanic origin, remind us that here is a part of Europe where landscapes are still rapidly evolving. Surtsey appeared almost overnight in 1963. Phil Dunshea reports from Heimaey, the only island in the Vestmannaeyjar with a permanent population.

One hundred kilometres east of Reykjavík, at Hvolsvöllur, Iceland’s prairie comes to a dead end. The town is a string of gas stations, pizza parlours and farm suppliers, pegged along what may as well be ‘Main Street’, although it’s actually Iceland’s Route One, the prolific, all-conquering ring road. Shelter is hoarded in the neat grid plan just behind, where homes are arranged three or four rows deep among trees, and side streets open onto endless fields. East, the ring road drifts on towards ice caps and volcanoes.

It is pre-dawn in early September. Wind hurtles through the town, arclights swing over forecourts, farmers and hauliers are moving about. Twenty minutes east of Hvolsvöllur, my car’s headlights catch the sign: right, for Landeyjahöfn. The new road is slick, reassuring, as it strikes out over scrofulous-looking gravel. The flats between here and the sea are called Landeyjasandur (lethal, I recall, for two travelling beggars in a Halldór Laxness novel). Where they end, where the road comes to its indisputable full stop, you catch the ferry to the Vestmannaeyjar. The drive over shrouded Landeyjasandur is an experience so minimalist and dreamlike it could have been thought up by an advertising executive, and it’s with a jolt that I discover, ten minutes later, I’m in a car park.

Over the sea to Heimaey

Landeyjahöfn is very recent and had to be built from scratch, harbours being awful to nonexistent in southern Iceland. Even with its hefty sea wall, it seems optimistic on this thundering coast. But the locals queuing in the bright terminal are cheerfully nonplussed, and very soon we are lurching around the upper deck of the Baldur as the captain flings her into the open sea. For 35 minutes we heave and thwack towards Iceland’s southernmost outliers, the Vestmannaeyjar, studding the sea ahead of us like meteorites. Landing on any of them looks like unlikely. From a practical or piratical perspective they’re all the wrong way round, so where there is any horizontal ground, it’s way out of reach of the water. The island we reach first is Elliðaey, where a single white house sits in a field above towering cliffs. Waves climb its red sides as the Baldur works past, aiming at a bigger shadow in the murk ahead.

For 35 minutes we heave and thwack towards Iceland’s southernmost outliers, the Vestmannaeyjar, studding the sea ahead of us like meteorites.

Heimaey’s harbour is unexpectedly superb. Ships enter through a narrow alleyway between walls of lava, on one side rising steeply all the way to the top of Heimaklettur, nearly three hundred metres above. To call it miraculous would not be too wide of the mark: the 1973 eruption of Heimaey’s in-house volcano, Eldfell, sent down a lava flow which came very near to blocking the harbour mouth completely.

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