Iceland summer 2012: Snæfellsnes

Despite being quite a long day, Thursday felt like an easier and more relaxing day than the others. I think that was because there wasn’t really any “must-see” sight – it was just a day of seeing nice things and taking it easy.

We were heading up the west coast, round or under the fjords and I used the time to go through the Poetic Edda. I read the Prose Edda in Denmark and I’d tried to read the Poetic Edda, which is a collection of older poems about the Norse myths and legends before. It’s hard – even in translation, it’s still full of old Norse words, phrases and concepts, it uses a lot of kennings and assumes you remember a lot of details. You have to read it with a finger in the notes and a finger in the index, so went through with a pencil to make it easier to read.

Our first stop was at Borganes, about an hour north of Reykjavík. We were at a petrol station on the industrial estate with the best view in the entire world. It’s on the edge of the Borgarfjördur. We had about ten minutes there to get food, then we headed on to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which finishes at Snæfellsjökull, the volcano that stars in Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Other than blue sea and sky, the first major sight we saw was Eldborg, the remains of a perfectly formed crater in the middle of a field just beside the road. I think I flew out last time on Eldborg and I’d particularly wanted to see it. There’s no cone, no volcano, just this crown-shaped crater in the middle of nowhere.

Our first official stop was at Gerðuberg, a 2km long wall of basalt columns, which are perfectly hexagonal. It was freezing cold there and I began to think that for the first time, I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes with me. I took photos of the wall and sheltered behind the coach to take photos of the view, including the bright red volcano cone behind us.

We carried on, now turning left onto Snæfellsnes, past cliffs made of my new favourite rock, rhyolite, which is the pretty green and orange striped stuff, like at Landmannalaugar and followed the coast round to a small fishing village called Arnastapi. We just had time for a photo of the small harbour before our guide led us out onto the cliffs to see the kittiwakes nesting.

At first you think that all you can see is grey cliff and then you look a bit closer and realise the cliffs are almost invisible under the mass of birds nesting on them. Some are adults, some are half-grown birds and some are even fluffy little chicks. Different species nest at different heights but this cliff seemed to be nothing but kittiwakes. We went on to a spectacular natural arch, where you could see greenish-blue sea framed by a rock window, again covered in kittiwakes and the occasional gull. Then before we went back to the coach, we went to see a lake where arctic terns like to swim. There weren’t many there that day, which was just as well as apparently they dive-bomb visitors.

The next stop was only five or ten minutes further round the coast, at Hellnar. The guide had booked us a table at “the most popular restaurant in Iceland’s countryside” and ordered fish soup. Anyone who didn’t want the fish soup was quite welcome to wander around and entertain themselves for an hour.

I entertained myself. The restaurant was a tiny little hut on the side of the cliff, almost on the beach. I went down to the beach and took photos of a sheltered corner of the cliffs and planned to sit there on the rocks to eat my breadsticks. Then I looked up at the cliffs and decided it might be better to not sit underneath them – they looked a little bit fragile. I did give in to the lure of building a stack of rocks to join all the other little stacks and then I went up behind the cliffs to try to find somewhere among the rocks, out of the sun. That was hard – there’s very little shelter in Iceland, very few trees over about three feet tall. There is a saying – “If you get lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up” and because of the way the boulders were wedged into the hillside, it was impossible to find shade. I settled down in a patch of grass against a boulder and ate my breadsticks and read the summary of the Laxdæla Saga from my guidebook with Snæfellsjökull looming over me – definitely one of the more scenic picnic spots I’ve ever had.

All too soon I had to scurry back down the rocks onto the path and then up the side of the cliffs back to the coach to go to our next spot.

This turned out to be a black sand beach at a place called Djúpalónssandur, which used to be a fishing village and is now gone. The freshwater lake where they got their drinking water is still visible through a window in the cliffs and the lifting stones are still there – there are four of them and fishermen had to be able to at least lift the lightest two onto a ledge at hip height. They are called Fullsterkur (full strength, 155g), Hálfsterkur (half strength, 140kg), Hálfdrœttingur (weakling, 49kg) and Amlóðii (useless, 23kg).

On the beach itself are the remains of a trawler from Grimsby that was wrecked there years ago, scattered rusty iron all over the place, which mustn’t be disturbed and makes a bit of an obstacle course to get down to the beach. I stood and looked at the crystal clear water for a while and then decided that I had my sandals on and I didn’t care if I got black sand stuck to my feet, I was going in. So I paddled in the north Atlantic quite happily (got asked several times later on if the water was cold – yes, it was but not as cold as in the canyon at Þórsmörk).

On the way to our next stop, which was nearly an hour, our guide announced that she was going to read us some wisdom from the Vikings. The moment she said it, I knew exactly what it was going to be and I grabbed my copy of the Poetic Edda and she did indeed read out verses from the Havamal, the Sayings of the High Ones, which was one of the poems I’d spent the morning marking. I preferred my version – between the translation in her version and her difficulty with some of the English words, it was quite difficult to understand some of it, which is why it was met with blank silence from everyone else.

The next stop was on the north coast of Snæfellsnes at a small town called Ólafsvík. We only had half an hour so we couldn’t go far but I took some photos of their eccentric and very un-Icelandic church before spotting the waterfall. It was just behind the town and if I hurried I had time to visit it. On the way I came across boards all about protecting the town from avalanches coming off the mountain behind it and from the “slushfall” coming down the stream from the waterfall. They’d built a little boulder wall across the river just below the waterfall – I couldn’t see exactly how that was supposed to stand up to higher waters but it seemed to work.

The final stop at the day was in the harbour at Stykkishólmur, which also had an interesting un-Icelandic church but I didn’t get a chance to find it. I saw the harbour, lots of boats and big brown jagged cliffs protecting it from the huge open fjord beyond.

Then we had a two hour drive home. The first part of this was incredibly beautiful. We drove across fjords and fields and past mountains and then just as I was beginning to wonder where on Earth I was, I spotted the red volcano and realised we were back at Eldborg and Gerðuberg.

The sun was still out when we got back to Reykjavík so I went over to the seafront to see Esja again, interrupted as I crossed the main road by fireworks over downtown. Fireworks are very hard to see in daylight.

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