Friday 5 April 2024

Höfn and the Diamond Beach, by the mighty Vatnajökull glacier

There is a volcanic sand beach on the south coast of Iceland, where translucent blocks of ice drift ashore, looking like jewels, shining in the sun against the black ground. The Diamond Beach is located close to a glacial lagoon also famous for the number of glittering icebergs that the glacier drops into the waters. All these marvels happen in one of the most deserted regions of Iceland, which only became accessible to travellers when the ring road that surrounds the island, 'Hringvegur' or Route 1, was built; the closest town with services and minimal comfort is the port of Höfn, the most important on the south coast.

Let's start at the Diamond Beach.

Scattered along the black shoreline, translucent blue fragments of iceberg.

Black sand is made of basalt grains, resulting from volcanic lava rapidly cooled as it contacts the waters of the North Atlantic. The work of the sea eroding the basalt pulverizes the stone and forms this sand.

The colour of the ice pieces varies between shades of blue and gray. The blue is more evident when ice contains less air bubbles, but it also depends on the incident light.

Glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón (Jökull=glacier) is the discharge lagoon of the Vatnajökull glacier; its calm waters are dotted with small blue icebergs, and the glacier front spreads in a gentle slope into the waters of the lagoon. The pieces of ice then slide along a water channel that connects the lagoon to the ocean, and go adrift as 'diamonds' on the beach.

The lagoon waters are calm but deep, reaching almost 300 meters, and are affected by tides, rising and falling as ocean waters enter or leave the channel. The tidal range in the lake reaches 2 to 3 meters.

Vatnajökull Glacier forms the largest ice cap in Iceland, and the largest in Europe except for the Russian island of Severny. It is 380 m thick on average but can reach almost 1000 m. Its slow recession has been increasing the depth of the lagoon's waters

Vatnajökull ice cap area is ca. 7700 km2

Höfn í Hornafirði fishing town

Coordinates: 64°15' N, 15°13' W
Population: 2 500 inhab.

Höfn is the only town on the south coast of Iceland. It was built on a flat peninsula, cut out by fjords, granting conditions for a sheltered harbour.

Fishing is the main activity, followed by tourism, which is helped by the fame of Höfn langoustine, the main dish on local restaurant menus. But the fleet catches a wide variety of fish from the North Sea - sole, anchovies, sardines, red mullet...

Höfn was founded in 1897, when a local merchant brought a trading outpost from inland to the coast, and installed it by the port.


This outpost is now the oldest house in town, the Gamlabúð (“Old Shop”); it was recently converted into a documentation center for the Vatnajökull Park and its glaciers, a combination of Regional Museum and Tourist Office.

Built by the same merchant Otto in 1897, this other residential mansion is now a famous restaurant next to the port: the Otto Masur & Drykkur.

Behind those two buildinds, one more deserves to be mentioned: the Art Gallery, Listasafn.

Næturútvarp á Öræfajökli (Night Radio in Öræfajökli) by Svavar Gudnasson

Due to its location and the surroundings, Höfn has been the setting for some movies, such as Lara Croft (I) or 007 Die Another Day. The filming, with large crews, has been another source of wealth for the little town.

The turf church Hofskirkja,  at Hof

In a small village south of the glacier stands the Hofskirkja church from 1884, dedicated to St. Clement, which was the last with turfed roof and juxtaposed stone walls. It is one of six in Iceland classified as heritage sites.

Oh those fabulous sceneries, and this is still Europe !

Monday 12 February 2024

The Legend of Kópakonan , the seal woman of Mikladalur

(continued from the previous 'The Selkie Woman of Mikladalur, Kalsoy')


The legend of Kópakonan (the Seal Woman) is one of the best-known folktales in the Faroe Islands. A Seal Woman is a local variant of Greek-European Mermaids - Ondine, Melusine, the celtic and norse Selkie, Rusalka, Lorelei...

Seals were believed to be former human beings who voluntarily sought death in the ocean. Once a year, on the Thirteenth night (6th of January), they were allowed to come on land, strip off their skins and amuse themselves as human beings, dancing and enjoying alltogether.

A young farmer from the village of Mikladalur on the northern island of Kalsoy, wondering if this story was true, one Thirteenth evening he went and hid in a cave on the beach.  As the sun set he watched the seals in large numbers surfacing and swimming towards the shore. They clambered on to the beach, shed their skins and laid them carefully on the rocks. Divested of their skins, they looked just like normal people. The young lad stared at a girl so beautiful as he'd never seen, placing her skin close to the spot where he was hiding, and when the dance began, he sneaked up and stole it. The dancing and games went on all night, but as soon as the sun started to peep above the horizon, all the seals came to reclaim their skins to return to the sea. The seal girl was very upset when she couldn’t find her skin, though its smell still lingered in the air, and then the man from Mikladalur appeared holding it, but though she begged for it he wouldn’t give it back to her, so she was forced to accompany him to his farm.

He kept her with him for many years as his wife, and she bore him several children; but he always had to make sure that she didn’t have access to her skin. He kept it locked up in a chest to which he alone had the key, a key which he kept at all times on a chain attached to his beilt.

One day, while he was out at sea fishing with his companions, he realised he had left the key at home. He announced to his companions, ‘Today I shall lose my wife!’ – and he explained what had happened. The men pulled in their nets and lines and rowed back to the shore as fast as they could, but when they arrived at the farm, they found the children all alone and their mother gone. Their father knew she wasn’t going to come back, as she had put out the fire and put away all the knives, so that the young ones couldn’t do themselves any harm after she’d left.

Indeed, once she had reached the shore, she had put on her sealskin and plunged into the water, where a bull seal, who had loved her all those years before and was still waiting for her, popped up beside her. When her children, the ones she had had with the Mikladalur man, later came down to the beach, a seal would emerge and look towards the land; people naturally believed that it was the children’s mother. And so the years passed.

Then one day it happened that the Mikladalur men planned to go deep into one of the caverns along the far coast to hunt the seals that lived there. The night before they were due to go, the man’s seal wife appeared to him in a dream and said that if he went on the seal hunt in the cavern, he should make sure he didn’t kill the great bull seal that would be lying at the entrance, for that was her husband. Nor should he harm the two seal pups deep inside the cave, for they were her two young sons, and she described their skins so he would know them. But the farmer didn’t heed the dream message. He joined the others on the hunt, and they killed all the seals they could lay their hands on. When they got back home, the catch was divided up, and for his share the farmer received the large bull seal and both the front and the hind flippers of the two young pups.

In the evening, when the head of the large seal and the limbs of the small ones had been cooked for dinner, there was a great crash in the smoke-room, and the seal woman appeared in the form of a terrifying troll; she sniffed at the food in the troughs and cried the curse: ‘Here lie the head of my husband with his broad nostrils, the hand of Hárek and the foot of Fredrik! Now there shall be revenge, revenge on the men of Mikladalur, and many will die at sea and others fall from the mountain tops, until there be as many dead as can link hands all round the shores of the isle of Kalsoy!

When she had pronounced these words, she vanished with a great crash of thunder and was never seen again. But still today, alas, it so happens from time to time that men from the village of Mikladalur get drowned at sea or fall from the tops of cliffs; it must therefore be feared that the number of victims is not yet great enough for all the dead to link hands around the whole perimeter of the isle of Kalsoy.


End of the curse: today Kalsoy is a happy island where all fishermen and sailors have the best support and security, and no one else fell from mountains. A place to visit in peace and wonder.

Syðradalur, Kalsoy
Húsar, Kalsoy

Sunday 28 January 2024

The Selkie Woman of Mikladalur, Kalsoy

I am absolutely fascinated by these sparse rural villages on the Faroe Islands, with their wooden houses painted in tar-based black and covered by grass roofs.

Currently most villages there are served by roads and many have helipads, so the isolation is no longer what it was when connections could only be made by sea; the easier access shows, for example, in the rise of accommodation and restaurants all around. It has also brought artists that leave their works on Faroese folklore.

Mikladalur is located on top of a cliff, with access to the sea by a slipping ramp. But it's most famous for a beautiful bronze sculpture of the legendary Seal Woman, a Nordic mermaid, standing on rocks at sea level, facing a waterfall from above the rocks.

Mikladalur is older than expected: it is already mentioned in writings from 1298, in the island's sheep and dog count. Later, in 1584, there is a register of owners that also mentions the first village assembly, in the churchyard, in 1646. 

After centuries of farming and herding, as Mikladalur was well located close to some fishing banks, it became a fishing port in the 19th century. Then the village grew with people who came from other villages for the  seafaring jobs. The village first school was built in 1885. Another activity at that time was bird hunting, also bringing an important income to the village. The road arrived only in 1980, and life has changed since then. Even a café has already opened there.

Mikladalur, island of Kalsoy

Population: ~30
Coordinates: 62° 20' N, 6° 46' W

The stone church was built in1856

Nornðástova Smithy, the blacksmith forge, is a red-painted stone house with a grass roof; for some time it was a center of activity on the island, teaching the profession to many apprentices. They made hooks and harpoons for whaling, knives, sickles and even eyeglass frames.

The Smithy closed in the 1970s, but the furnace and wheel still function; they are now protected by a grass covered roof. It remains in the Norðnástova family.

A water mill can also be seen downstream on the brook that flows through the village. Every village on the island had one, for grinding grain - barley and corn., 

Kópakonan, the Selkie of Mikladalur.

The legend of the Faroese Seal Woman was immortalized in bronze with a sculpture by Hans Pauli Olsen in 2014, on a low rock next to the village gate. The framing is spectacular.

The statue of the Seal Woman was erected on a rocky knoll, Stórakneysi, at the village shore. I will publish the legend in a following post. 

Another unusual feature of Mikladalur is a small forest; it is well known that in the Faroes, trees are absent in nature, they are only found in plantations. That's why this little forest is so valuable:

The tree line in the Faroe is about 200 m above the sea. This plantation was made at an altitude of 100 meters, southeast of the village, on the banks of a small stream. It was started in 1953, and consists of dune pine, Japanese larch and spruce varieties.

Kallur, the headland north of Kalsoy island

The northern half of the island of Kalsoy rises more than 200 meters above the sea. The peak of Nestindar reaches 788 m.

Rugged cliffs covered in layers of greenery rise towards a sky that seems to merge with the sea. The route along the cliff crest to the Kallur Lighthouse is as dangerous as it is irresistible.