Spring is in the air when we set out from Egilsstaðir along Route 94 to Borgafjörður Eystri. A cloudless blue sky casts soft hues onto the white spine of mount Tindfjöll, gleaming brightly across the snow-streaked plain of the Fljótsdalshérað valley. The road crosses swollen streams and rapid rivers, and we trundle over dusty unpaved sections, accelerating again when it periodically turns to asphalt.
We roll down the windows down and let crisp air flow through the car, cruising through a reddish landscape that’s slowly emerging through the melting winter snow. Soon after the tiny village of Eiðar, a couple of roadside huts catch our eye. It turns out that the painter Kjarval spent time living here, during his lifetime. Moved by this particular view, he sought permission from the local farmer to build a small cabin—far from his rented accommodation in Reykjavík, this humble shack was the only property he’d ever own. The distinctive mountain range to the east would appear in several of his paintings.
Walls of snow
The onward route skims the wide black beach of Heraðssandur, where the violent white surf is visible far out over the flatlands. A line of horseback riders are visible trotting out across the sand as we begin the ascent into the mountains. The road weaves up the mountainside, and we pass a parked snow plough equipped with rotary blades to scythe through deep snowdrifts. We see why it’s necessary as we drive through a canyon of snow, the white walls several metres high on both sides of the road, with horizontal seams visible from different snowfalls.
At several points along the way, there are lay-bys with signposts for hiking routes to Stórurð, the famously picturesque mountain valley where massive rocks tumbled down from the surrounding mountains. It’s still too early in the season for the hike, and we look longingly at the poles vanishing into deep banks of snow. Running streams carving out tunnels beneath the surface means the hike will be impossible for a couple of months yet.
After descending the mountain pass into a long valley, we pull over and crunch over a stretch of wet, shining snow to the canyon of Ytra-Hvannagil. After ten minutes of scrambling over the pebbly slopes and boulders that line the canyon’s river, we emerge into a secluded basin with towering basalt cliffs on either side. It’s a pretty spot that casts the massive mountains in a human scale.
The final strait to Bakkagerði rounds Njarðvíkurskriður, a near-vertical scree slope with a muddy, heavily potholed track carved into it. One spot along the way is marked by a large standing crucifix called Naddakross, which is alleged to stand where a local farmer battled a demon called Naddi in the 14th Century, casting him into the sea to live in a cave that later collapsed. It’s good that he did: the road is bad enough without meddling from supernatural beings.
The elf city
The rolling green fields of Borgarjörður Eystri comes as a surprise as we cruise down through verdant farmland into the fjord’s sole settlement of Bakkagerði. The largest building in town is the fish processing factory, which is dominated in turn by a curious and distinctive circular hill named Álfaborg—translated literally, “elf city.”
Our curiosity piqued, we go for a closer look. There are two marked routes up the hill. The first has large, colourful rocks jammed into the mud acting as flagstones, and leads up to the summit. Various outcrops dot the hilltop, and the warm spring sunshine casts long shadows, giving this place an almost fantastical feeling. Jagged mountaintops surround Bakkagerði, looming high through a soft white haze. We linger here for half an hour without really noticing the time pass. Elves or not, it’s a magical spot.
The second route is marked by poles that vanish into a copse of skinny trees. It’s a short, pleasant walk that circles the hill in a clockwise direction, leading through flowering valleys and up through jutting rock formations. As I follow the bright blue trail markers over snow banks and mossy rocks, I realise it’s my first real walk of the spring, and I crave the natural, therapeutic rhythm of a longer hike.
The town’s harbour lies across the fjord. Small boats bob in the sheltered cove, where a group of builders are working a new harbour house on the quayside.
A wooden staircase leads up to the top of a tall, grassy sea stack, connected to the mainland via a strip of reclaimed land. At the top, there’s a bird hide that looks back over to Bakkagerði. In summer, this spot becomes a puffin colony, but even in the early spring, we see a variety of seabirds at very close range, nesting in the rocks and bobbing in the waves below.
Back in town, we check in at the Blábjörg Guesthouse, where we’re welcomed by a local named Elísabet. We ask after a grocery store. “There isn’t one, I’m afraid,” she says. “It closed down last year. Bakkagerði has received a ‘troubled town’ status, so we’ll be getting some money from the government, and that’s the first thing we’ll use it for.” I get the feeling this interaction is common—Elísabet later brings us some lamb chops and potatoes to tide us over.
After a dip in Blábjörg’s seaside hotpot and a steam in the sauna, I head back to my room. The outlines of mountains are still just visible over the fjord. I open the window and drift off to the sound of the crashing waves, dreaming of discovering a glowing doorway into Álfaborg that leads to a subterranean feasting hall deep inside the earth.