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Published: August 6th 2012
The ceiling of the turf-roofed Litlibær, or Little Farm, was so low my hair brushed against it. But when I sat down in the drawing room, sipping a hot cup of coffee and looking out the small, multi-paned window to the fjord and snow-flecked mountains beyond, I felt quite at home. I chatted with the sixteen-year old great-great grandson of the man who had built the original farm, and who now helped greet visitors from far flung corners of the globe curious to see what an old Icelandic farmhouse, built on an isolated fjord in an isolated corner of an isolated country, was like. I smiled as he explained his plans to travel the world – Canada to the US and down through Latin America, then over to South Africa and northwards; what a much more connected world he lived in compared to that of his recent forebears, one in which he could dream of such circumambulations. Once Litlibær was the middle of nowhere – now you can find it on Facebook.
But Litlibær still manages to capture so much of what I love about Iceland. Yes, it has splendid isolation aplenty. You can easily get to spots that make
you feel you are the last person on the face of the earth. Indeed, sans the tour bus of French tourists that preceded me to the farm, there was just me and the family who manages the property. Not another house in sight. And the farm also showcases Icelandic intimacy; the boy was related to the founders of the farm and could trace his family tree back hundreds of years. In a country with this small of a population – the last census put it at 320,000 – one gets the feeling that everyone knows everyone (or least someone who does!). Icelanders don’t even have family surnames; they use patronymics: so-and-so’s son or daughter of so-and-so’s son or daughter…. Every farm also has a name, a character. That kind of intimacy allowed me, shortly after arriving in Iceland, to get within almost touching distance of Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, as he was inaugurated for his record-breaking fifth term. There he was. The president. (Icelandair likes to point out that the prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is in the phone book…)
In Iceland, one can have both isolation and intimacy. You can be alone together, as I was in Litlibær.
I have been to Iceland before, as many of you know. And the idea of it has been haunting me ever since. Something about this isolated, windswept island in the middle of the north Atlantic grabs hold and never lets go. It is simply like no other place.
So, when I discovered that my cheapest way to Trieste and the Balkans actually was going to be on Icelandair (flying into Milan), I jumped at the airline’s offer of up to a week stopover at no extra charge. A week is really not enough, but I would take what I could get (and I am sure my fragile pocketbook, facing a year of negative income, probably was thankful that the damage would be relatively minimal).
For the stopover, I knew that I would focus on Vestfirðir, or the West Fjords, that strange antler-like appendage jutting out of Iceland’s northwest corner. The isolated, wild part of an isolated, wild country – the kind of place I always seek out.
As most travel guides will tell you, the West Fjords constitutes less than ten-percent of Iceland’s landmass yet, due to its mindbogglingly jagged contour (it is the
West FJORDS after all!), possesses up to 50 percent of the country’s coastline. It is also an empty place, in part due to the extreme terrain and climate, but also due to a population drain to the “big city” – Reykjavík. Only around 7500 people inhabit the peninsula, of which nearly half live in the “booming” de facto regional capital of Ísafjörður. The West Fjords is a place that even Icelanders go to get away from it all.
After spending a week in the West Fjords, I wonder if I have been ruined for travel in the rest of Iceland. It is the Iceland I think most people imagine when they think of Iceland (minus the geysirs), but because it is off the main ring road – Highway 1 – few travelers make it out this way*. It has so much dramatic beauty and rich history, might visiting another part pale in comparison?
In my five-day circuit, I hiked along the Látrabjarg cliffs, the western-most edge of Iceland and thus of Europe, the dizzying plunge dropping to the dark Atlantic waters. Thousands of fearless puffins sauntered at the cliffs’ ragged edges, allowing me to get even closer than
I had gotten to the Icelandic president. I stood beneath the powerful Dynjandi Falls, feeling its spray on my face and listening to its gentle thunder. I drove across the highlands, a bleak, barren world, though flecked with patches of snow and wildflowers. I lazed in hot springs at the edge of the sea, feeling the cold air on my face as my body boiled. I visited a working family farm on Vigur Island, just across from the glinting Drangajökull, Iceland’s northern-most glacier. I ate surprisingly good food – mussels pulled right from the fjords, trout from mountain streams, local lamb – served in restaurants in converted 18th and 19th century harbor buildings. And I soaked up a little history at the museum dedicated to the life of Jón Sigurðsson, a major leader of Iceland’s 19th century nationalist movement and a native of the West Fjords…and, of course, at intimate, isolated Litlibær.
I already know I must come back. I need to venture out to the even more isolated, all but uninhabited, Hornstandir, the remote northern edge of the West Fjords. I could see it from many vantages on my drive around the fjords, taunting me to cross the
cold waters and climb its mountains and glaciers.
Somehow Iceland – and the West Fjords in particular – strikes the right balance of intimacy and isolation for my wandering soul. I will be back.
*That might be changing, since the West Fjords were named in the top ten regions to visit in 2011 by Lonely Planet. So the secret is out.
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