A Surprise off the South Shore (JB)


Júlíana Björnsdóttir's picture

Ten days ago, I traveled to the largest of the Westman Islands, to Heimaey or Home Island, for a short break with my parents.

I had no particular expectations as to what I’d see other than the crater Eldfell (Fire Mountain) that surprisingly erupted in 1973, forcing the inhabitants to leave without notice.

My mother was born in Heimaey and spent the first five years of her life there. During our stay, we returned to the street of her youth, Heimagata (Home road).

We knew we wouldn’t find her childhood home, once located on 25 Heimagata, now buried under a thick layer of hardened lava. It was a strange feeling to walk along the paths through the streets that went under lava in the eruption of 1973.

For my mother, it must have been strange to walk down memory lane, remembering her childhood vividly and her old home as she remembers it in her childhood memories.

The stories she told my father and me were those of a child discovering the world; the neighbor who urinated in his garden “with his belly button,”and her younger brother sitting on the wall in front of their house.

Her memories reflected the imagination of a creative child with a vivid imagination from an early exposure to literature.

Among the things she shared with us was the memory of her father, my late grandfather, saying that an eruption was bound to happen eventually. He was the head of the Inland Revenue while the family lived at 25 Heimagata

And he proved to be right.

The island is a miniature of Iceland, its mainland. It’s representative of the creative and volatile forces at work in nature when shaping the landscape. A visit to the island reveals just how intimate the life of man is with the forces of nature, and how invigorating the imminence of such uncontrollable power is to a community on the brink of nature’s incredible power to change the world as we know it.

During this short visit, each day was filled with activities. On my first morning, a lovely Sunday morning, I went for a run. It started out with a drizzle but before I knew it, the sun was out and made the undying wind that, too, lives in the Westman Islands a little easier to take.

I navigated the streets, running to the end of a couple of dead-end streets —more common here than anywhere in the world I've been—and up and down hills and trails in the vicinity of the town. The town, entrenched in a circle of Heimaklettur (Home Rock), Eldfell, Helgafell and steep rock formations, is easily abandoned for the countryside. In a small area, there are craters, beaches —one of which reminded me of an abandoned version of the Red Beach in the island of Santorini —and green hills that wow the human spirit.

Monday morning, we took a walk around town and explored my mother’s old street, and with plenty of time to spare before heading out to dinner, my father and I climbed the Eldfell and Helgafell craters. The experience is not one I would have liked to miss, but I’d be a fraud if I did not confess to an acute fear of height as I discovered how treacherous the path up and down, in particular down, the Helgafell crater proved to be.

Tuesday, the day before the first autumn storm was expected to strike, and the day that we decided to make our last on the island to avoid the said storm, I went for another run on a pleasant sunny (and windy) day.

This time, I chose to run to Herjólfsdalur (the Valley of Herjólfur) where the legendary (and sometimes notorious) Merchant Holiday festival (Iceland’s Bank Holiday) takes place and has for more than a century.

I attended the Þjóðhátíð (“National Festival”) festival in 1999 and was not impressed in a memorable way, unlike many of my fellow countrymen, some going year after year for life.

But Herjólfsdalur, serene in all its grandeur, redeemed the valley of my previous impression.

During our stay, we also drove to Pirate Cove, the entrance point of Algerian pirates —mistaken for Turks for the longest time —in the 1600s. The roaring sea viciously struck the cliff and the narrow cove with force that made me think of Hawaii’s majestic waves.

The Westman Islands are indeed a place of wonders.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.