The land of the Elf Queen


Iceland’s isolated fjords
While most of Iceland’s tourism infrastructure concentrates on the west of the country, near the capital Reykjavik, intrepid travellers are increasingly heading to the remote fjords of East Iceland, drawn by superior bird-watching experiences, isolated hiking trails and Elvish lore. Pictured here, Icelandic horses graze near a farmhouse in Borgarfjörður Eystri.


The big city

Bakkagerði, Borgarfjörður Eystri’s main settlement, is home to a population of just 130 people and is accessible only by a gravel road. Kittwakes (a type of gull), fulmars (a kind of seabird) and puffins all have made their home in the small harbour of Hafnarhólmi on the east of the Fjord, while a rare, vagrant drake, called Steller’s Eider, has been seen in the waters around the town. 


Mountain walks

Bakkagerði also makes a good base for multi-day hikes through the Víknaslóðir, or “trail of secluded inlets”. These are 27 well-marked hiking paths that take in isolated coves, black sand beaches and inland lakes, passing reindeer and sheep that graze in the mountains. 


Palace of the Elf Queen

Located in Bakkagerði, Álfaborg Rock (or “Elf Rock”) is a hilly outcrop, much revered in centuries-old Icelandic folklore as the home of the Queen of the Elves. While some argue the elves are a romantic myth, many locals remain superstitious about the “hidden people”, believing they live in the rocks. More than 100 folk stories have been recorded in Borgarfjörður Eystri, including tales of monsters guarding the roads, doomed romances between elves and humans and trolls roaming the mountains. Other important sites connected to Elvish folklore are located nearby, including a rock formation known as the church of elves, Kirkjusteinn, in a nearby valley. 


Christ on Elf Rock

Bakkagerði’s picturesque village church, Bakkagerðiskirkja, was built in 1901, and inside is a painting by famous Icelandic artist Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885 to 1972). Known for his unusual and varied artistic style, the painter spent his childhood in Borgarfjörður Eystri and was later asked to create an altarpiece for the church. His work, painted in 1914, depicts Christ on top of the Álfaborg, with mountains in the background. Curiously, some sources say the church was meant to be built on top of the Álfaborg, but instead was constructed next to it.


Home sweet home

One of Bakkagerði’s most interesting attractions is Lindarbakki, a small one-storey home covered in thick grass. Originally built in 1899, the green turf provides excellent insulation from the fierce north-easterly winds and extreme weather that often sweep the fjord. Restored and privately owned, it is used as a summer residence. 


Life’s necessities

Fishing is essential to life in Iceland. According to one local, villagers have fished here for more than 400 years. A small fleet of a dozen boats cull the waters around Borgarfjörður Eystri, mainly for porskur (cod), which is then salted for preservation. Here, fish heads hang out to dry on wooden racks, being prepared for export to Nigeria. 


Playing in a minefield

A child climbs over the rusting, empty casing of a sea mine on a deserted black volcanic beach in Breiðavík, a small cove located a day’s walk from Borgarfjörður Eystri. Many mines were placed around the East Fjords by forces – whether German or Allied remains unclear – during WWII. In 1942, an active mine washed up in Borgarfjörður Eystri and exploded, shattering windows throughout the town. While no one was seriously injured in the blast, old sea mines and unexploded ordnance from WWII remain a global hazard. 


Extreme, erratic weather

An all-terrain vehicle pauses at the crest of a hill on an unpaved track in the hills between Borgarfjörður Eystri and Breiðavík after delivering dinner and supplies to a mountain lodge used by hikers. A popular activity in Iceland, off-roading is not for the inexperienced (or uninsured), with drivers at the mercy of Iceland’s extreme, erratic weather – temperatures can quickly plummet or fog suddenly roll in – and its incredibly rugged terrain. 


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