Land of elves and ice

Travelling Well | Word: Erin Munro | Photos: Getty | Posted on 18 October 2017

Behind Iceland's bleak veneer there is stunning natural beauty and an invisible world of magic 'hidden folk' who visit the human world only rarely.

On a muddy patch of grass on a small hill, my ear is pressed against a boulder. I block out the shrieks of children playing and strain to catch a whisper of ... something.

“Can you hear it?” the tour guide enquires, eyes bright with encouragement.

I’m supposed to be hearing a troll laughing.

Tourists who make it to Iceland without hearing about elves soon learn what they didn’t know: elvish keyrings and stuffed toys fill the shelves of souvenir stores in Reykjavik.

The huldufólk elves look like humans, I’m told, but live in an invisible parallel dimension. The “hidden folk” visit humans from time to time but cannot be seen unless they allow it.

The city’s architecture adds to the fairytale illusion. Homes have the Scandinavian storybook design

If the huldufólk were to exist, there could not be a better home for them than Iceland. With volcanoes, bubbling geysers and rainbow-framed waterfalls, the country resembles a real-life fairyland.

Before arriving, I had heard Iceland compared to Mars for its alien landscapes. In some parts, enormous glaciers smother the earth.

With just five days in Iceland, we do what many visitors do and base ourselves in Reykjavik, home to 130,000 people, roughly a third of the country’s population.

Reykjavik’s bars have made it a famous party town, and there are cafes, vegetarian restaurants and pizzerias that wouldn’t be out of place on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, or South Yarra’s Chapel Street.

Iceland's "hidden folk"

Iceland's "hidden folk" are honoured across the island nation.

Hardy, long-maned Icelandic horses

Hardy, long-maned Icelandic horses are dressed for the chill.

The city’s architecture adds to the fairytale illusion. Homes have the Scandinavian storybook design, but are mostly constructed from corrugated iron due to a lack of timber. Iceland has few trees.

Each day we journey out to visit natural wonders and environmental spectacles. In the evenings we return to the city for food and nightlife.

Elves can make road construction a tricky prospect in Iceland. Many of the rocks and boulders that punctuate the landscape are believed to be home to huldufólk, and highway development has been stopped on occasion to preserve elven residences.

In Iceland, even civil engineers must submit to the facts of folklore.

Amid otherworldly rock formations and stunning grassy glades, it was just as easy to believe in elves.

Though the bitumen sometimes winds around “elf neighbourhoods”, the main interruption to our progress is the photo opportunities offered by dramatic valleys, fuzzy, long-maned Icelandic horses, and the miniature houses that sprout like hobbits’ dens. 

Our first full day is spent chasing waterfalls, first Seljalandsfoss and then Skógafoss, both in the south and about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. Rainbows glint against the white rush of water and vivid green cliffs.

A rushed version of the Golden Circle tourist route takes us to four popular landmarks on day two: Thingvellir National Park, the location of Iceland’s first parliament, held in 930 AD; the Geysir and Strokkur geysers, the latter of which puts on a great show every 10 minutes or so; Gullfoss waterfall and Kerid Crater Lake.

On our last day we unwind at the Blue Lagoon, a steam-wreathed geothermal spa in a lava field that manages to look ghostly. Until, that is, the otherworldly mood is dampened by some Germans flying noisy drones.

Geothermal spa blue lagoon

Geothermal spa blue lagoon. 

On our way back to the city we stop at the harbour town of Hafnarfjordur, apparently known for its supernatural beings.

It’s at Hafnarfjordur that I listen keenly for the troll laughter, under the guidance of Sigurbjörg, an elf whisperer. Sigurbjörg hosts a 90-minute tour called The Hidden Worlds, something of an introduction to Icelandic spiritual folklore. Having come to Iceland because of the elves, this was a must-do in an otherwise ordinary-looking neighbourhood.

Ambling through residential streets, Sigurbjörg points out notable sites and shares stories of mostly ill-fated human and huldufólk interactions.

Her grandfather, she says, was an exception, and held a friendship with a huldufólk man for many years.

I couldn’t hear the troll in the end. Torn between wanting to listen a little longer, and hurrying up so the rest of the tour group could take their turn, I moved aside with a laugh and a shrug.

In that moment it was tempting to succumb to my Australian-bred scepticism. But amid otherworldly rock formations and stunning grassy glades, it was just as easy to believe in elves.