Iceland summer 2012: Vestmannaeyjar

January 23rd 1973 was a stormy day in the Westman Islands. Heimaey’s fishing fleet hadn’t been able to go out and all the men were home for once. The children were too excited about all their brothers being home to study for their exam at school the next day.

In the middle of the night, there was a big earthquake through the island as a fissure a mile long tore open. Fire and lava spurted up through the gap from hundreds of craters. Some of these craters only lasted a few hours. The largest got bigger and bigger and built itself a cone-shaped volcano, later called Eldfell (Fire Mountain). As the lava flow began to engulf the town, the island was evacuated using the fishing boats which wouldn’t normally have been there. 5000 people were evacuated in four hours.

The new volcano continued erupting for six months. A third of the town, five hundred houses, were buried under lava and tephra and the lava got closer and closer to the harbour. A few islanders and some rescue workers noticed that when it hit the seawater, the lava solidified so they had the idea of pumping cold seawater on it to try and hold it back, to stop it slithering across the entrance to the harbour up to the cliffs on the other side and sealing it off. It worked and by the time the eruption was over, the harbour was safe and in fact, better than before as it was now sheltered from the open sea with a narrow entrance. The island was 20% bigger – there being a volcano and a lava field where there had been sea. The Mayor of Heimaey had had to make a decision – whether to let the lava take the town or the harbour and it had been decided that the harbour was more important – fishing being the lifeline of the town. The villagers of Heimaey took on a volcano and won.

The name of the Westman Islands needs another story. Having heard tales of a vast unpopulated land, a Viking by the name of Ingólfur Arnarson and his brother (it’s not actually as simple as that with Vikings; I’m not actually entirely certain how they were related or if they were related at all) Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson set sail in 870AD for Iceland, along with the slaves they’d taken from Britain and Ireland on the way past. Coming into sight of the new land, Ingólfur declared that he would let the gods decide where he should make his new home. He threw his seat posts, a symbol of being head of a household (although Icelandics make it sound like “chief posts” so that may be it) into the sea and declared that wherever he washed ashore, there he would make his home. For three years he lived around and explored the south west coast of Iceland while his slaves searched the land for these posts. They turned up eventually on the northern side of a peninsula on the south coast, a piece of coastline covered in steam vents. Ingólfur named this place Smoky Bay – Reykjavík and there he lived as Iceland’s first permanent settler. Meanwhile, Hjörleifur’s slaves had rebelled, killed him and settled on some small islands. When news of this eventually reached Ingólfur, he tracked them down and had them all killed and they gave their name to the islands – the islands of the Westmen, ie from the British Isles, west of Norway.

Going to the Westman Islands meant a fairly early start, in a minibus with Dee Dee of the Golden Circle tour, who recognised me and asked if I was stalking her. We were a bit late leaving because some of the passengers went missing, so Dee Dee drove like a mad person. It should have taken us two hours to get to Hvolsvöllur – Dee Dee managed to get us there in an hour and a quarter and half an hour later, we were at Landseyjahöfn – the new harbour for the quick ferry from the mainland to the Westman Islands, half an hour instead of three and a half from Þorlákshöfn on the Reykjanes peninsula. Because it was the weekend of the National Festival of the Westman Islands (Þjóðhátið in Icelandic, more generally known as “The Festival”) – the Icelandic equivalent of Glastonbury – the car park was packed and eventually Dee Dee had to drop us at the terminal and go off to park the minibus.

We were given our tickets and told that if we lost the return part, we would be stuck on the islands and then Dee Dee discovered she had a couple of spare tickets and began to muse about selling them – “Do you know how much these tickets are worth this weekend?”

I am incapable of staying still on a ferry. Having befriended a French girl called Cécile on the minibus, we settled down at the back, where we could see the sea and the islands and what little of the mountains were visible under the mist on the mainland. But within minutes of getting underway I’d decided I wasn’t staying still and spent the rest of the crossing roaming around what little of the ferry was accessible to passengers. I’d always expected the Westman Islands to be quite flat but I’d seen them from the Ring Road several times during the last week and discovered that they’re actually big jagged things. That should actually have been pretty obvious. The weather had heated up a lot since we’d left Reykjavík and I was pretty comfortable even on deck in the wind in just a t-shirt. We were also accompanied by a lot of people heading to the Festival, who’d clearly started drinking about the time they left home. And alcohol is not only expensive in Iceland but also only available in state-owned shops called vinbuðin. There’s one in every town and the opening hours are usually mid-morning to evening although there’s one town I’ve come across and now can’t find where it’s only open for one hour a week. These festival-goers were already into the drinking songs at 10.30 in the morning.

We arrived on Heimaey after thirty-five minutes, coming in between the old brown high jagged cliffs and the new lava that had threatened to seal off the harbour thirty-nine years ago, disembarked, met Dee Dee on solid ground and were immediately taken off to our first excursion of the day – a boat ride round the island on a motorboat called Viking.

On the smaller boat, the waves were much more noticeable. It was still incredibly smooth and flat – I suspect beautiful calm days like that are fairly rare in the Westman Islands but we were still bouncing along like we were on a ride and I had to keep hold of the side. I am not and never have been susceptible to seasickness and sadly not everyone on the boat was like that. I kept my distance from one particular passenger.

We had a guide with a microphone pointing out various sights and giving a constant commentary on the place but it was impossible to make out much of what he was saying over the engines and the wind and the waves. Mostly I ignored him. I know he pointed out Surtsey but as there were three possible candidates, I just took photos of the group and decided to find out later. Surtsey is even more extraordinary than Heimaey. On November 14th 1963, there was a huge volcanic explosion a few kilometres south-west of Heimaey and within a week, there was a volcano sticking out of the sea. The eruption lasted three years and by the time it was over, the newest island in the world had been born and had become the second largest island in the Westman group. The sea is not kind to new lava and it soon shrank to half its birth size but within about fifty years, it will settle at its final size and stay that size for a few million years. It’s named after Surtr, ruler of the Norse world of fire called Múspell, who will fight Freyr at Ragnarok and then engulf the Earth in flames.

We also saw lots of kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs and lots of puffins swimming in the sea or flying over the surface. They’re fairly easy to see because their wings are a different shape from the other birds and they look awkward but they’re almost impossible to get photos of. We stopped off in some sea caves – going into volcanoes from the bottom, effectively – which had incredible coloured stripes and after an hour and a half we were heading back into the harbour. There was just one more stop. There was another sea cave in the big brown cliffs and this one has an echo. Our driver parked in there, came back onto the top deck and produced a saxophone.

Dee Dee had given us some mini-guides to the Westman Islands which included this line: “Accompanying you is a guide who might perhaps be in the mood to play a trumpet or a saxophone inside one of the caves” and now I understood.

Back on dry land, Dee Dee showed us to the Café Kró, right opposite the boat trips where she’d organised lunch for us – soup and bread. Cécile was concerned about it possibly being fish soup. I didn’t care what it was because I had no intention of eating it but I hoped the bread would be good. It was. Little fresh baked mini baguettes, still warm. No plates but I was quite happy to eat bread out of a bowl. We sat with the Italian man and his young son, who were from Florence. The soup turned out to be pepper (which Cécile was also not too keen on, as wasn’t the Italian boy) so we all sat and ate bread and then the Italian man and Cécile had coffee and brought back lots of sugar cubes for the boy to eat.

We were then put on a coach for our next excursion – a ride around the island to see what we couldn’t see from the boat. Stop one was just out of town, by the bay where we could see an elephant in the corner of the cliff. Not a real elephant – Iceland can be weird but not that weird. Just like a natural sculpture of an elephant. A few of us took photos but we’d already seen it from the boat, much to the driver’s disappointment. We were also right across from the Festival campsite. It seemed quite quiet but then it was still only the middle of the day and I knew a lot of the festival-goers either hadn’t arrived yet or were still in town.

Next we stopped at the opposite end of the island, at Stórhöfði, which is the windiest place in Europe. The wind stops there only four times a year – not four days, our guide made clear, four times and the last time was three weeks ago. It’s a great viewpoint.

We spent a little while there and then went down the side of the hill, parked the bus on the side of the road and climbed over another hill to spend a while puffin-watching. First we had to contend with sheep – in Iceland, sheep roam freely over the summer and then everyone helps collect them up at the end of August and the farmers reclaim their own and put them away for the winter. If you don’t want them on your land, you fence them off, rather than fencing them in anywhere and you often have to stop, even on the Ring Road (which is the Icelandic equivalent of the M25 except bigger) because there are sheep in the road. In this case, there were sheep on the hillside with an amazing island and blue sea background. I’m not used to seeing sheep with the sea in the background.

I’d had the sense to bring my binoculars so once I’d taken photos of the hillside in the hope that the puffins would be visible in them, I settled down to watching them closer up. They’re very cute. They hop around on the grass and then they stand and stare around for a while and then they hop around a bit more. It was quite idyllic, actually, sitting on a hillside in the sun, watching the puffins below us.

Next stop was a toilet stop at Vestmannaeyjar Airport. Little Bournemouth Airport is Heathrow compared to here. Compton Abbas is Bournemouth compared to here. Better view, though.

Back on the bus, we headed off to Eldfell. This is the volcano that nearly destroyed the place in 1973 and the driver told us one of my favourite Icelandic stories. I heard it from Geir on my second day as well, so I’m absolutely convinced it’s true.

Eldfell is still hot nearly forty years later. As little as 20cm down, it’s 300°. When important foreign visitors – royalty and world leaders and the like – come to Iceland, they’re always taken to Heimaey and they go up the volcano to inspect the crater. The Mayor of Heimaey has some dough buried in the volcano the day before, in a milk carton wrapped in foil, and the heat of the ground cooks it, so they dig it up and eat it as a gesture of international friendship. One day the King of Spain was due to visit and he’d heard about this volcano bread and was looking forward to tasting it and had been talking about it. Two hours before he was due to arrive, the Mayor discovered the dough hadn’t been planted – according to our Viking Tours guide, the man from Viking Tours who’d been meant to take it up there hadn’t. The Mayor panicked – the King of Spain wanted to eat this bread – they had to do something about it. So he asked a local baker to run up there with a loaf of bread. The ground would warm it and the King of Spain would never know. The baker did. Later the Kind of Spain arrived, they went up Eldfell, the bread was dug up and eaten with great ceremony. The Mayor asked the King what he thought of the volcano bread. “Very good,” the King said. “But I didn’t know it came sliced.”

We had a choice at Eldfell, whether we wanted to look at it and then go back to the bus or whether we wanted to walk up to the crater and then walk back down to meet the bus in half an hour. That’s not a choice. Of course you walk up to the crater. The ground is red and quite loose and the same ultra-light pumice I found all around Hekla and at the top of Þríhnjúkagígur. Cécile flew on up and tried to walk all the way around the top of the volcano instead of stopping at the edge of the volcano. During the eruption, the crater became so high and fragile that the north side of it collapsed and for a while, a colossal lump of rock floated in the lava, threatening to crash down onto the town. When you’re visiting the crater, you stand where that broke off and look down into the bowl and up at the high fragile side opposite although you can walk around like Cécile tried to, but there’s not much path there and it looks like you have to be very careful not to fall into the crater. Apparently if you’re not wearing hiking boots, you can feel the heat radiating off the ground. I’d decided if I was walking up a still-steaming volcano, boots were a better option than sandals. I looked at the crater, then I looked down at the town, at the grey and black lava field. Forty years ago, where I was standing just did not exist. It was sea. To put it in perspective, the rock under my house is anywhere between forty-five and two hundred million years old. The oldest part of the Westman Islands is only six thousand years old and the part I was standing on is only thirty-nine years old.

We half-walked, half-slid back down the cone to the bus, just in time to hear the guide talking about puffins. They eat puffins in Iceland. Foreigners tend to say “But how can you?! They’re so cute!” and he was explaining about exactly which ones they eat. Their beaks change colour and pattern as they get older, like rings on a tree so they only eat puffins between three and five years old, before they’ve started breeding and basically, they eat them because there are lots of them and they taste good. There are strict rules and limits on how many and where and when the puffins can be caught and when the little ones get confused and fly into town instead of into the sea, the islanders catch them in nets and send them on their way.

Now we were coming back into the other side of town. We’d passed a house with a turf roof, the workshop of an Icelandic MP and Eccentric Character. He’d caused a bit of a stir in the news recently. He’d had a car crash on Reykjanes, hit a big brown boulder. Talking to a local clairvoyant, it seemed a family of elves lived in it. He asked her to ask them if they wouldn’t mind moving to the Westman Islands. Apparently the elves were fine with this, so he had the boulder put on a lorry and ferried over to Heimaey and he went on foot, carrying a cardboard box which contained a jar of honey and the elves. He even paid the elves’ ferry fare. “Love this nation,” said the guide.

Fishing, as I said, is an important business in Heimaey. They dry fish and export it. But during the twenties or thirties, when Iceland had prohibition Spain had threatened to stop buying their dried fish unless Iceland started buying their wine again. So Iceland quickly changed its laws – so quickly that it forgot to also un-ban beer. Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989. “Love this nation…” the guide said again.

We drove through the new lava field. Our guide is a Heimaey native, born and bred, who was there the night the volcano erupted and is of course the one who told us about the school exam due the next day. He pointed out all the sights. He pointed out exactly when we driving over the swimming pool he’d learnt to swim in, where his house had been, told us about how he’d illegally sneaked back over to the island when the volcano was still going and about how when he saw fire in the sky, he was excited because he thought his school was burning and he wouldn’t have to do the exam the next day. He pointed out everything.

Our final stop was at Eldheimar, or “Pompeii of the North” – an archaeological dig in the east of the town, where they were slowly and delicately uncovering some of the streets and houses buried in tephra – the lightweight flying rock. Most of the houses were actually pretty intact. I suppose the tephra is light enough to not collapse the roof. There’s not much visible – the project hasn’t been going very long and isn’t welcomed by all locals. Just a few corners and a bit of roof here and there, along with signs showing what house is where, what it looked like, who the occupants were and a before and after photo. You can just about get into the first house – not that it’s open to tourists, but the former owner went in to see it when it was first uncovered and she said everything looks exactly as it did the night she evacuated.

Then we were taken back to the harbour, left at Café Kló for an hour. Dee Dee had told us repeatedly to be back at the ferry by five and it was just after four. Cécile wanted a cup of coffee so we went inside the café, only to find it had turned into a cinema for the afternoon. All the doors were shut and the lights were out and there was a film about the volcano – probably the one that’s on at the Volcano House in Reykjavík. It really was horrific when seen like that.

I left Cécile to her coffee and went to wander around the town. I quite fancied getting across to the big brown cliffs and I know it’s possible but I couldn’t figure out how and besides, I didn’t really have the time. Once I’d done a circuit of the nearest streets, I settled down on the pavement in the harbour to enjoy the view and watch the ferry coming in before going to board at five to five.

The ferry had been a bit late coming in and so it was late leaving. Our little group managed to gather together on the steps inside the terminal with Dee Dee and stood there and waited while Dee Dee looked at her watch every five minutes, unable to understand why we weren’t on yet. She’d spent the day at the Festival – her friends tell her she has to come every year and she always refuses because she doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t think the noise and crowds will be much fun if you’re not drunk. But this year, she volunteered to take the Westman Islands tour even though it was supposed to be her day off because then she could visit them without having to stay for the noisy drunken bit and could then tell them “No, I’ve been!” when they demanded in future years. All she’d really had to do was drive us to the ferry, make sure we knew when we had to be where and then take us back again so she’d had quite a relaxing day.

Eventually we were allowed on the ferry. I settled on the back with Cécile again until we started moving and then I was off again. This time I managed to spot puffins off the sides as we crossed back over to the mainland. We found the minibus, parked right at the back of the crowded car park.

Back in Reykjavík two hours later, I had lots of packing to do.

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