Heimaey, "Pompei of the North", Westman Islands, Iceland

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -

Heimaey is the name of the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands group just off the south coast of Iceland – and also the name of its only settlement, which is a busy fishing harbour.
 
The island qualifies as a dark tourism destination thanks to the dramatic volcanic eruptions of 1973. It covered part of the settlement in thick layers of lava and expanded the territory of the island through the creation of new land to its east.
 
An excavation project "unearthing" some of the houses covered by the lava and ash of 1973 uses the clever slogan "Pompei of the North". 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

   

More background info: It was in the early hours of 23 January 1973 that a spontaneous eruption of a new volcano, quickly named Eldfell (meaning, not very originally, 'fire mountain') necessitated the hurried evacuation of the island's entire population that same night.
 
Amazingly, there were no casualties – everybody got out alive … no mean feat given that the entire settlement was constantly being showered with lava and ash. While most people left, a few were actually drawn towards the unfolding drama – including Iceland's premier volcano-documentary-film-maker. His photographic images and the film footage of the 1973 eruptions on Heimaey are amongst the most iconic and well-known ever taken, and you can re-watch them both on Heimaey as well as in Reykjavik.
 
The eruptions continued for months and covered the island with ash, while lava flows claimed part of the town and threatened to destroy the vital fishing harbour. Luckily, though, they ultimately even improved the harbour – seawater was sprayed on to the advancing lava and it cooled down in such a way that it still allowed the passage from harbour to sea while indeed providing a better breakwater protection for the harbour than before (though it remains contested whether that was the result of the spraying or whether the lava flow would have stopped where it did on its own anyway).
 
Parts of the town were less lucky, as about a third of its houses were crushed under the lava or collapsed under the weight of the ash that the volcano had spewed out. But after a clean-up and rebuilding programme, life returned to normal within a relatively short space of time.
 
 
What there is to see: For today's dark tourist, the excursion to Heimaey is worth it for the remaining signs of the destruction caused by the volcanic eruptions of 1973, especially the ruins of houses crushed by lava. In the harbour, a partly lava-crushed concrete wall of a former water tank can also still be seen.
 
The most convenient way of seeing Heimaey's points of interest is by coach trips around the island. These include a couple of the ruins and in particular the Eldfell volcano itself. You can climb right into the main cinder cone crater – and fetch still hot pieces of rock from cracks inside the reddish brown crater wall!
 
You're also driven around parts of the "new land" created by the lava flows and stop by the only piece of new land that is already being cultivated. The rule on the island regarding the new land is that it remains public property unless someone manages to make a garden (that isn't blown away by the first storm): Only if the garden persists for more than one season can the plot of new land in question pass into that gardener's private ownership. So far only this one little garden has made it – obviously a lot of time and effort has gone into maintaining it. In addition to plants and flower beds it includes some rather kitsch miniature houses too.
 
Usually a trip up to the top of the seabird cliffs, home to some of the world's largest puffin colonies, is part of the tour as well – when I was there in mid August, however, it was so late in the season that there were only a few puffins left. By the way: in Iceland, puffins are not only seen as the cute little winged clowns you show to tourists – they are also an important food source, as are their eggs. Puffin meat can regularly be found in many of Reykjavik's (or Heimaey's) restaurants. The technique by which eggs are collected from the sheer cliffs involves swinging precariously from a rope bouncing from ledge to ledge – a dangerous operation requiring quite some skill. The guide on the tour that I was on even gave us a little demonstration – but not on a sea cliff, only on a small rock face on land.
 
From the cliff tops on the southern tip of Heimaey you can possibly also spot the volcanic island of Surtsey in the distance – visibility permitting. This is a new island that appeared from the sea in 1963 in a dramatic marine volcano eruption. It is in fact still the "youngest" island in the world. After the volcanic activity ceased, the whole new island was declared a nature reserve where scientists study nature's slow colonization of a completely new land, and it is therefore out of bounds for tourists.
 
In the cosy town centre of Heimaey, there's a small museum that includes a section on the eruption. And a bit further down the road there's a "Volcanic Film Show" about the events. More films about Iceland's volcano eruptions, including classic footage of Heimaey's Eldfell but also Surtsey, Krafla (cf. Viti) and others, are offered by the "Volcano Show" in Reykjavik.
 
You can also go on boat trips that circumnavigate the entire island in an hour and a half, passing the new land's coast and stopping at a cliff cave (where the skipper may get his saxophone out to demonstrate the incredible acoustics of the cavern!). When I did it, it was also the end of the puffin season, when young birds, called pufflings, who were left behind by their parents (which is normal) and got confused and lost in the village (which is also quite common) are "released" into the sea by throwing them overboard (they can swim too, don't worry). If seabird-throwing ever tickled your fancy, this could be your chance!
 
But back to the volcanism thread: the newest addition to Heimaey's commodification of the legacy of the 1973 eruptions is an the excavation project that began in 2005 and aims to turn this into a full-blown tourist experience: several houses that were covered by lava are slowly being excavated and a kind of modern archeological theme park is thus being developed. It's evocatively called the "Pompei of the North" ... in allusion to Pompeii in Italy, of course.
 
Several excavated former homes can already be seen. I haven't see this for myself, though, as my trip to Iceland and Heimaey was back in 2004, so I cannot report first-hand on this new attraction. Some Internet searches suggest that work is still ongoing, but I have not been able to find out anything about visitation modalities or prices.  
 
 
Location: some 6 miles (10 km) off the south coast of Iceland, about 70 miles (110 km) south-east of Reykjavik.
 
Google maps locator:[63.44,-20.25]
  
 
Access and costs: remote but quite easy to get to all the same; but not cheap (surprise, surprise).
 
Details: Heimaey is best reached by plane  e.g. from Reykjavik's small domestic airport – it's only a short hop (20-25 minutes). Thus it's possible to do an excursion to the island as a mere day-return trip. But there are also quite a few accommodation options on the island. As an alternative to flying, there is also a ferry connection, including one from/to a new landing stage at Landeyjahöfn, reducing sailing time to a mere 30 minutes compared to the previous 2-3 hours from a harbour much further away. However, the new one is under threat from constantly shifting sands on the south coast of Iceland.
 
Once there, the island would be small enough to be exploreable on foot, if you have the time and required fitness. But for those on day-return trips, sightseeing packages are on offer. These usually include a pick-up and drop-off at the airport or the ferry landing stage and a drive round the island to take in the volcanic sites as well as the cliff top with its puffin colonies and views over the sea and other islands. They also allow sufficient time for optional boat trips, visits to the film theatre and/or aquarium and shopping/lunching. Whether they would also allow sufficient time for seeing the "Pompei of the North" excavation site(s) I cannot say, because when I was there in August 2004, the project hadn't begun yet (and it's unlikely that I will have the opportunity to go back anytime soon). I'd be intrigued to hear about this new development, though. So if you've been and can enlighten me, please do contact me.
 
Cost: The kind of tour I was on comes at a price of ca. 250 EUR per head, inclusive of flights (from/to Reykjavik) and sightseeing tour by bus with an English-speaking guide. Boat tours come on top. The 90-minute circumnavigation of Heimaey island offered by Vikingtours, including a stop in the cliff cave, currently costs ca. 30 EUR per person.
 
 
Time required: Heimaey can be done as a single day trip excursion from Reykjavik, but those wanting to spend more time on the island can also find various accommodation options as a base for more leisurely and extensive exploration of this beautiful speck in the sea. A couple more days can probably be fruitfully spent that way.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Iceland. If you're staying on Heimaey, one option worth considering as an add-on is taking a boat trip to Surtsey, the volcanic island that was "born" as a result of an underwater eruption in 1963. You can't land on the island, but you'll get a good close look (and you may also spot whales en route); the cost of such trips is in the region of 60-90 EUR.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: I already mentioned Heimaey's famous seabird colonies, in particular puffins! The island is in general more a nature lover's destination than a dark one. The seasonal release of pufflings is just one aspect. You can also take whale watching boat trips or just hike.  
 
While fishing is the only real economic activity here and is otherwise calm and peaceful, once a year, on the first weekend in August, Heimaey becomes home to one of Iceland's best-known festivals, including bonfires, music, fireworks, food and drink (one delicacy on offer is the local speciality of smoked puffin!) – in fact the island's entire population is out for this mega picnic of sorts. Visitors are welcome too, though.
 
For more tourist options on the mainland see under Iceland.
 
 
 
  • Heimaey 1 - new land beneath Eldfell volcanoHeimaey 1 - new land beneath Eldfell volcano
  • Heimaey 2 - house crushed by lavaHeimaey 2 - house crushed by lava
  • Heimaey 3 - harbour wall crushed by lavaHeimaey 3 - harbour wall crushed by lava
  • Heimaey 4 - older volcanic stacksHeimaey 4 - older volcanic stacks
  • Westman Islands - SurtseyWestman Islands - Surtsey
  

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