A quick visit to Flatey island
Flatey is an island in Breiðafjörður in northwestern Iceland. The name means Flat Island, and that’s what it is, by Icelandic standards. It’s not very large: two kilometers long and a few hundred meters wide. And yet Flatey has been inhabited for well over a thousand years, due to its favorable position close to fishing grounds and trade routes. Around 1900, 400 people lived here; today there are only five permanent residents. But many houses are used as holiday homes, so in the short Icelandic summer the population multiplies.
Traveling companion A. had been to Flatey before and had then experienced two days of pouring rain. Yeah, that’s the kind of bad luck you can have in Iceland. But both Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide are full of praise for the island. So while we’re in the neighbourhood, we’re giving Flatey a second chance.
From the port of Stykkishólmur, within sight of our guesthouse, ferry boat Baldur departs daily at three o’clock to Brjánslækur on the other side of the fjord. On the outward and return journey, the ship calls at Flatey, which gives us the opportunity to spend two and a half hours on the island. A little short maybe, but in the end it turns out to be our luck.
The first days of May are icy cold, even by Icelandic standards. It feels like winter is back. On the morning before our intended visit there is even snow. But at the beginning of the afternoon it starts to clear up a bit, so we take a chance. Unfortunately: the Baldur sails straight back into winter after leaving the harbor. The sun disappears, it starts to snow again and the wind is freezing cold.
Inside, it is nice and warm during the one and a half hour crossing. But on deck it is only bearable for a short time. For the first time this trip I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wise to take a winter coat with me to Iceland. Until now, the layering concept worked fine: two t-shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece sweater, a wind jacket and a rain jacket were enough to keep out the cold. But in these dire circumstances, that defense no longer works.
When the Baldur docks at Flatey, we consider staying on board untill Brjánslækur and back again. The island is barely visible due to the blizzard that is howling around our ears. Okay, let’s do it. We take shelter behind the harbor building while we watch the boat sail away. Then we try, against the storm, to walk towards the village. This is an insane enterprise.
But at that point, the weather improvement also reaches Flatey. The blizzard is anything but gone, but at the same time the sun breaks through the clouds. According to an old Dutch folk wisdom, when it rains and the sun shines, there’s a party in hell. I wonder what they’re doing there when the sun shines and it snows at the same time.
“You know that there is nothing open on the island?”, the lady in Sealink’s office had asked when we bought tickets that morning. Yes, we knew, but luckily that’s not entirely true. The church is open every day until eight o’clock. We come here a few times during our visit to warm up. The walls and ceiling were painted in the 1960s by the artist-in-residence, the Catalan painter Baltasar Samper. There is also a fan on the ceiling which is constantly rotating; it that a measure against covid?
The village is just past the church. It is not big: about twenty-five houses, situated on a small bay with a rocky beach. The word picturesque was invented for this: the houses are well maintained and painted in colors that seem carefully matched. The freshly fallen snow provides, literally, an extra layer of magic. But it’s still very difficult to capture that beauty, because of the strong wind that constantly blows snowflakes on the lens of my camera.
It’s like walking through a ghost town in the wild west. We see only one man; otherwise the two streets are deserted. Also inside the houses we see no signs of life. And of course the hotel with the cafe is also closed; the lady from Sealink had warned us. Coffee, or another hot drink, is not an option.
There is a piece of Dutch national history associated with Flatey. On October 6, 1659, a merchant ship from the Netherlands, armed with 14 cannons, sank here in the harbor (source: the Icelandic wikipedia page). One could take that as a bad omen. We therefore do not take any risks and make sure that we are back at the port well before the planned return of the Baldur. Imagine the boat is fifteen minutes early, does not see us and sails on directly to Stykkisholmur.
In the end, the Baldur is not too early, but more than half an hour too late. But luckily the weather has calmed down a bit. We hang out at the harbor and enjoy photogenic skies. Fish hangs to dry on a wooden rack; which turns out to belong to the man who later helps to install the gangway to the Baldur. He is probably also the one who locks the church at eight o’clock.
In the restaurant, well, the cafeteria, of the ferry we evaluate the speed visit, while enjoying an ostborgari and a pricey can of Viking beer. The conclusion: under these circumstances those few hours were more than enough. In fact; they were the maximum achievable, humanly speaking. But during a sunny period in summer, Flatey seems like a nice place for a longer stay.