Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/27 posted by hidden europe on

It snowed last Tuesday night. Yes, we know you will think we are joking, but it really snowed. We were in eastern Iceland, and snow at the very start of September is a reminder of just how early winter comes to some parts of northern Europe. But a light dusting of new snow did not deter us from setting out for Landsendi, a remote headland that really does look on the map as though it might be at the very end of the world.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It snowed last Tuesday night. Yes, we know you will think we are joking, but it really snowed. We were in eastern Iceland, and snow at the very start of September is a reminder of just how early winter comes to some parts of northern Europe. But a light dusting of new snow did not deter us from setting out for Landsendi, a remote headland that really does look on the map as though it might be at the very end of the world. Wild headlands that look out over ocean waves are the stuff of myths and sagas: think of Finisterre in Galicia (northwest Spain) or Land's End in Cornwall (southwest England). Iceland actually has a number of headlands that boast the name Landsendi, but the one we targeted was engagingly remote. We lingered on the long road that skirts the wetlands where the Lagarfljót eventually reaches the sea, an area awash with seabirds and rainbows as the weather changed by the minute.

Eventually the tarmac gave out, and a gravel road continued on over the shoulder of windy Ósafjöll, climbing steeply to a wild col before dropping down the headland below. There are abandoned farmsteads, remote and isolated places where long ago families tried to make some sort of living from the land. This area of Iceland, the most beguilingly beautiful but harshest of lands, has suffered depopulation for generations as folk have left to make their lives in less testing environments.

One can but imagine what life might once have been like here before any roads brought a hint of modernity into the wilderness. Farming families doubtless struggled to survive biting winter cold, gathered around the eternally burning open fire in the farmhouse kitchen. Smoked meat and dried fish probably hung in the rafters - at least for those who had made a little money during the preceding summer months.

Most settlers have left but still there is something of the Icelandic soul in this rural wilderness. Those who know the ways of elves insist that the valleys, mountains and headlands of the northeast of the country are home to plentiful hidden folk. Just south of Landsendi is the elf settlement of Álfaborg, famously depicted in the paintings of Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval who as a child lived in the area.

We had no definitive sightings of elves on the road to Landsendi, but we did encounter a spirit or two, for there are ghosts from Icelandic history everywhere in this wilderness. We crossed the vast scree slopes where the monster Naddi used to wait at dusk to waylay innocent travellers and cast them to their deaths. And near Landsendi itself, there is a crucifix that has graced this headland for over seven centuries. The cross bears an inscription imploring travellers to pause and meditate for a while. So pause we did.

The land of the sagas has a curious knack of blending old and new. Many places have their hidden mythologies. It is just that in Iceland, the echoes of history are woven more thoroughly into the fabric of everyday life.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.