I have been fascinated by labyrinths since childhood, the adventure that materializes when entering an uncharted and tangled world where it is impossible to know what waits around the corner and it‘s uncertain if one will ever find the way out. When you think you are farthest away from the exit it suddenly appears – or not. „But there is no reason to build a labyrinth when the whole world is a labyrinth,“ wrote the Argentinian author Borges. And those words resonate well with Dimmuborgir in the Mývatn area in northeast Iceland, a name that literally translated means Dark Cities, a true labyrinth of nature. It is amusing in that context that Borges stated that „Borg“ in his own surname was the same as „borg“, the name for „a city“ in Icelandic.
A wondrous citadel from another world
But even though Borges visited Iceland three or four times during his lifetime and his widow, Maria Kodama, confessed that in their love story Iceland was „like the heart in our chest“, he never traveled to Dimmuborgir as far as I know. I came there the first time as a child with my parents and was enchanted at first sight. This area, covered with randomly strewn lava rocks and incalculable cliffs, small sand dunes and volcanic caves, is like the ruins of a wondrous citadel from another world. There you can imagine mansions and palaces with bizarre towers and crooked pillars, dark colonnades, ancient squares and narrow streets, ghoulish churches and bulwarked castles. But despite its discordant forms and images there is a strange methodical uniformity to the place.
A nameless cowboy
It is possible to walk three different paths in Dimmuborgir, varying in length. The last time I wandered around these towering rock formations the sun was scorching on a summer day and I felt like a nameless cowboy in a barren desert from a 60s spaghetti western, searching for drops of water and cruel revenge. Many of the rocks and cliffs are harrowing, coated with green clumps of moss and a couple of twisted birch-trees. Some of the cliffs come with a story, for example Valsbjarg (Falcon Rock) that hovers over a rocky ground. A long time ago a falcon had its nest high in the cliff. A young man from the area had recently learned how to gather eggs on a remote island, where the egg collectors were lowered over the edge of the cliffs on a rope, and wanted to boast his ability for a handful of spectators. He plunged down and died. One of the onlookers was his fiancee.
Satan‘s permanent headquarters?
Another noteworthy place is The Church, a lava tube structure that conjures up images of a place of worship and a whole congregation turned into stone by some mythical force. It is no wonder that many have tried to bestow Dimmuborgir a mythological importance. In Nordic Christian lore, it is said to be the site where Satan plummeted when he was cast from the heavens, and later created the „Catacombs of Hell“ as his permanent headquarters, way before he thought of Wall Street. When the producers of Game of Thrones were scouting locations for the main camp of Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, they were captivated by Dimmuborgir. Actually they took fancy to more places in the area, in particular Grjótgjá, a small hidden cave with a natural geothermal spring inside, and used it as the love nest of Jon Snow and Ygritte, his Wildling paramour.
„The heart in our chest“
Lake Mývatn and its surrounding area has many other spectacular places to offer, such as Hverafjall, Námaskarð and Víti, to name a few. It is one of the largest lakes in Iceland, incised by countless inlets and creeks, dotted with dozens of islands and islets, and has for a long time been looked upon as some kind of a magical oasis in an otherwise rugged area, celebrated for its beauty. Beware though of the myriad of annoying midges in the area – an insect net for protection is recommended. High pillars of lava rise out of the pure lake, crowned with green bonnets of birch and willow, while the coastline is jagged with coves and inlets. A day tour with Arctic Face to Mývatn and its surrounding gems is an excellent idea; the best way to maximize a travelers pleasure to the area is with an experienced guide, someone who knows their way around and has the right vehicle for transport, combined with knowledge of stories, the geography, and the flora and fauna. It deepens the experience of a traveler and gives the country and the journey additional dimension. Afterwards, it is easy to understand how Iceland becomes so often „the heart in our chest“ of true lovers.