The largest of the Breiðafjörður islands, FLATEY is a tranquil haven of two dozen or so restored wooden cottages set amid fields that are bright yellow with buttercups in summer. If you like the idea of having nothing to do all day but stroll through undisturbed meadows while taking in magnificent vistas of the West Fjord mountains and Snæfellsjökull, then dining by evening on succulent cod caught the same afternoon, this is the place to come. The weather is most dependable in August, but remember if you’re coming here out of season the island will be virtually deserted, since most of the houses are only occupied in summer by Reykjavík city slickers; just five people spend the winter on Flatey.
Although low-key in the extreme today, Flatey was once one of Iceland’s leading cultural centres, and in 1172 a monastery was founded on the island’s highest point, a little behind where the present-day church stands, though there’s nothing left of it today.
From the ferry jetty it’s a ten-minute walk down the rough track that passes as the island’s one and only road to the old village, a restored collection of painted houses nestling around a tiny harbour. It’s from here that Flatey’s sheep are painstakingly bundled into boats and taken to surrounding islands for summer grazing – quite a sight if you’re around to witness it.
Past the harbour the track bears right, turns into a well-trodden path and climbs a little to the diminutive Lundaberg cliffs where you’ll find plenty of black guillemot, kittiwakes, fulmars and puffins from April onwards; half of all the different species of bird that breed in Iceland are found on the islands of Breiðafjörður.
Beyond the Lundaberg cliffs, the footpath continues towards the eastern part of the island, which has been declared a nature reserve, marked by the odd sign or two and closed to the public during the breeding season (May 15 to July 20); the birds migrate south in late August or early September. It’s possible, though, to pass round the edge of the reserve, following the marked wooden posts, to Flatey’s south coast (also closed May 15 to July 20) where you’ll be bombarded by arctic tern who show no mercy for man nor beast – even the island’s sheep are subject to regular divebombing raids. If you don’t mind this (keeping still seems to deter the birds a little), there are some secluded pebbly coves here, home to the odd wrecked fishing boat, with excellent views on a clear day across to Snæfellsjökull.
Flatey’s church, with its dramatic roof, is easily reached by a footpath from the village’s main street. Inside, you’ll see paintings of island life – and puffins — by the Catalan painter Baltasar Samper. Quite the entrepreneur, while visiting the island in the 1960s he suggested painting the church in return for free accommodation; his picture behind the altar shows Christ, unconventionally wearing a traditional Icelandic woolly sweater, standing alongside two local sheep farmers. After much hard work, the yellow building behind the church has been restored to its former glory and proudly claims the title of the oldest and smallest library in Iceland, established in 1864.
Flatey was once home to the Flateyjarbók, a collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts written on 113 calfskins. Although the book was written at Víðidalstunga in northern Iceland around 1387, it somehow turned up on the island and remained in the possession of a local farmer’s family until they gave it to the Bishop of Skálholt, who in turn sent it by royal request to King Frederik III of Denmark in 1659. The Flateyjarbók finally returned to Iceland in 1971 and is today housed in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið in Reykjavík.