The more miles I log on Iceland’s country roads, absorbing each landscape as it melts into the next, the more I find myself grasping for a vocabulary, an idiom, a metaphor to convey how each mountain, cliff, and waterfall fits into the grand, immersive masterwork of the Icelandic wild. Waking up on the island’s east coast, after a slow, steady slog across the moors, farmlands, and glacial floodplains of the south, I scrutinise the eastern mountains of Berufjörður: layers upon layers of grey-brown rock, each narrower than the one beneath, but just as tall. Immediately, and without imaginative intervention, they seem like massive steps, hewn in meticulously even intervals to allow an easy ascent—but for whom?
In early medieval Britain, the Anglo-Saxons surmised that only ancient giants could have wrought the Neolithic monuments and Roman masonry they encountered in their new home. Here in Berufjörður, the uncanny familiarity of these geological forms conjures up images of giants larger and older than the Anglo-Saxons could have dreamt of. This pre-coffee reverie leads me to the metaphor I’ve been seeking: Iceland, it turns out, is the crumbling ruin of a sprawling titan metropolis; each district has a unique architectural flavour, changing gradually or suddenly into the style of the next. It appears the giants of the East Fjords, like the Pre-Columbian Maya, had a thing for steps.
It’s easy to lapse into such fantasies while traveling in the east. Unlike the south, where crowded carparks mark the presence of something spectacular, few visitors and tourist facilities tether the east to the banal realities of Iceland’s tourism moment. At times, there are more reindeer grazing alongside Route One than cars winding down it. Although towns dot the coast, jutting out on peninsulas or nestled within fjords, the feeling of remoteness is difficult to shake; it’s about as far as one can drive from the cafés and clubs of 101 Reykjavík.
An unexpected refuge
It’s all the more surprising, therefore, to discover Havarí, a hostel, music venue, and vegetarian café housed in a repurposed sheep barn between Djúpivogur and Breiðdalsvík. Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, known to Icelandic music fans as Prins Póló, and his wife Berglind Häsler bought the farm in 2014 and gradually converted it into a cultural and culinary waystation in the middle of nowhere. The couple had already begun flirting with agrarian ambitions in 2013 when they started producing Bulsur—vegan sausages concocted from organic grains, beans, and seeds grown in the east. Having spent most of their lives in Reykjavík, they knew, more or less, what the future would look like there. ‘We wanted to see what would happen if we tried something completely different,’ Svavar tells me over breakfast at the café. The fare—an omelet alongside a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with flattened Bulsur—is a welcome departure from the pyslur and potato chips that punctuated the previous day’s journey from Reykjavík.
The café occupies one corner of Havarí’s concert venue—a tastefully sparse hall, decorated with paintings that feature Prins Póló’s signature crown. ‘Is it too late for coffee?’ asks the text on the paintings; it’s just gone 10 and the answer is unequivocally, ‘No.’ At the other end of the hall is the stage, graced this summer by numerous Reykjavík acts—FM Belfast, Sóley, and Úlfur Úlfur, to name a few. Packing the house has hardly been an issue for Svavar. The audiences mostly comprise Icelanders from near and far, he says, but some foreign visitors—unsuspecting guests at Havarí’s hostel—find themselves dumbstruck to have stumbled upon such vibrant events this far from any city.
Like the venue, the hostel is stylishly spartan: exposed concrete betrays the building’s past life as a sheep enclosure. Cosy rooms—private and shared—open onto a communal hall with tables and a small kitchen. Gender-neutral bathrooms and a neatly organised system for compost and recycling quietly and unpretentiously attest to a spirit of inclusivity and sustainability. It’s a warm, peaceful haven, pregnant with social and cultural possibilities amidst the isolation of Iceland’s eastern coast. By the same virtue, it’s also a perfect place to launch headlong and alone into the wilderness that encompasses it.
My first stop, like Havarí, is an anomaly in the landscape, albeit of a geological sort. From afar, the Blue Cliffs (Blábjörg) of Berufjörður seem unremarkably grey. However, as I near the small cliff wall, grey gives way to a gentle blue hue. Fragments of the same tuff lie scattered along the coastline, transformed by the lapping tide, into a rich, dark blue. Across the fjord, the mountain Búlandstindur climbs, like a terraced ziggurat, into the clouds, dwarfing the town of Djúpivogur that extends before it.
Nearing the fjord’s mouth, I climb a dirt road towards Fossárdalur. The name—which means ‘Waterfall-river-valley’—seems a topographical mix-and-match that nevertheless reveals precisely what the valley contains. Hand-painted signs warn that I’m here at my own risk and inveigh against al fresco defecation: ‘No shit. No paper.’ A vague trail winds through a sapling grove, leading to an arresting view of the waterfalls that give the valley its name. Step by step, a series of cascades descends from the cloudy highlands, cutting deeper and deeper into the rock as the river nears sea-level. The most striking of these falls—Nykurhylsfoss—plummets, frothy-white, into a turbulent pool before coursing through a narrow gap in the rock wall, feeding, ultimately, into the fjord. With the stepped mountains rising in the background, I ponder the architectural ingenuity of bygone giants who, it seems, built this as a grandiose gateway to the sea.
Merchants and Minerals
The perfect circles of fish farms along Berufjörður’s southern coast remind me that humans, not giants, now inhabit this region. My final stop, the settlement of Teigarhorn, testifies to this human history. Niels Weywadt, a Danish merchant who managed a trading enterprise in Djúpivogur, built a house here in 1880. Clad in tar paper, the jet black Weywadt House interrupts the spectrum of natural colours as if to proclaim human presence. Nicoline Weywadt, a daughter of the merchant, assumed stewardship of the estate after her father’s death, appending to the house a photography workroom, from which she established herself as one of Iceland’s most famous early photographers.
Likewise schooled in mineralogy, Nicoline knew that her familial home sat on a geological treasure trove: peppered across Teigarhorn are zeolites—minerals formed by a reaction between hot water and volcanic rock. Although collecting them is forbidden, it’s not hard to find zeolites affixed like parasites to the crevices and rocks along Teigarhorn’s rugged coast. Their crystalline structure—too uniform to seem natural—propels me back into fantastical ideation: my clever, crafty giants must have something to do with these.
As I roll into Djúpivogur in the late afternoon, ships sail in and out of the harbour. Children head home from school. A clerk restocks skyr in the local grocery store. I feel almost guilty for indulging my imagination. The true wonder, I realise, is not the imaginary, colossal metropolis I superimposed upon these mountains and fjords; rather, it’s the fact that the prosaic realities of day-to-day life here persist, indifferent to the monumental landscape that surrounds it.