Iceland Feb 15 – The Wonders of Snæfellsnes

Today – yesterday (I’m writing this on Sunday but I’m putting Saturday’s date at the top of it – let’s see which day I end up going with) I went to Snæfellsnes. That’s a peninsula on the west coast, about halfway up, about 30 miles long. I’ve done this tour before, in the summer of 2012, and I drove round it myself over the summer, making about eight hundred stops along the way. I wanted to see what it looks like it winter so I decided to go again. What I liked about this particular trip the first time is that it’s quite relaxed – there’s no “this is an important place and you must see this and understand this” – I mean, I like that sort of thing, which is why I get upset at people who don’t understand Þingvellir but it’s nice to go somewhere where the only real purpose for going is that it’s nice. Why are we stopping here? Because it’s pretty. Why are we stopping here? Lots of birdies. That sort of thing.

We set off at about 8am. It was, of course, still dark and we had to stop for five or ten minutes on Miklabraut because some idiot turned up late and missed the bus and had to be delivered to the bus by minibus. And when I say bus, I mean a kind of all-terrain coach with a lorry front. I thought, given that it’s a long way, a relatively obscure place and it’s February, that there wouldn’t be many people. Wrong! I believe there were two spare seats on the entire bus. After spending the first hour crushed in near the back, I moved when we got to Borgarnes and caused minor chaos. Halldor, our guide, counted us and can only have counted us correctly yet noticed I wasn’t in my seat and began searching for me. It was only when my previous neighbour found me sitting at the front – right behind Halldor, who really should have noticed a person who hadn’t been there before if he could notice a person wasn’t where they had been – that we finally worked out what had happened. He counted us twice! How can you count us twice, get the right number twice and still think someone’s missing?

So, yes, we stopped at Borgarnes. That was kind of my base when I was there in the summer. I’m very, very fond of Borgarnes, although I don’t know how I survived because the roadhouse doesn’t have any plastic cheese slices and I did most of my shopping at that roadhouse. The mountains were just about visible – bit dark, even by gone 9 o’clock in the morning, but visible.

Off we drove up north to Snæfellsnes, me now sitting next to a Chinese boy who spent the entire day playing match-the-jewels on his iPad, where I could see some of the view out the front and watch what the driver was doing.

Our first stop was at Ytri-Tunga. I feel like I recognise that name – maybe it’s a name from the sagas, although I don’t remember reading any saga set on Snæfellsnes. It was cold and windy and cloudy but Halldor wanted to go down to the beach to see if we could see any seals on the rocks. Any seals on the rocks would have been smashed to pieces, given how violent the sea was being, but whatever. And he pronounced them “sheals”. Funny how “sheep” become “seep” but with seals it’s the other way round. We didn’t see any sheals.

Next stop was our lunch stop at Arnarstapi. Arnarstapi is a teeny-tiny village, mostly summer houses, only two families living there all year round. It’s not much more than a few wooden houses on a big patch of grass beneath a lovely pyramid mountain but the reason the tour groups all stop there is that this patch of grass sits on top of some perfect basalt column cliffs with abundant sea birds. Arnarstapi is where I got attacked by Arctic terns in the summer because their idiot baby was waddling around on the path. No terns there in February. We saw fulmars, assorted gulls and grebes (no puffins either) and probably some kittiwakes. I found seashells up the cliff and on consulting Halldor as to how they got there, he clearly had no more idea than I did. Is it the sea and the high waves in big storms? Yes. Or is it birds dropping them after they’ve eaten the insides? Oh. Probably both. Anyway, I may have brought back a perfect, if small, pair of joined blue mussel shells which then came unjoined in my pocket. I also fell over on the rocks trying to get a nice photo of the rock bridge/window. No one saw that happen.

We ate lunch in the community centre. It’s a big white ugly concrete building from the 50s. You can buy soup and coffee and drinks etc in there but you can also use it as a place to sit and eat your own food. My favourite feature, by far, was that on every table there was a little black notebook and a tin can full of coloured pencils. It seems every person who’s sat down to eat at that table has drawn a picture and written a message. So I did. Unfortunately, just as we were leaving, I realised I never wrote a date on it, which I was furious about but there’s nothing I can do now. I copied one of my photos – Barður Snæfellsás, with mountains in the background and orangey grass on each side.

Next stop, Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with interesting lava formations. The way down to this is a path down the lava. I saw them digging it and improving it over the summer and I’m sure it’s lovely except that it was buried under snow. We had to resort to climbing down over the grass, which goes against a lot of my Iceland instincts. Stick to the path, don’t climb on the lava or the moss. There were no cairns to knock down this time. Lots of driftwood. Interesting take from Halldor on the wreckage of the Grimsby fishing trawler – it’s there because “no one can be bothered to pick it up.” I was sort of under the impression it was deliberately left there, that it had become a feature of the beach. Black sand, black rocks, lava and rusty iron. The sea was far too rough here for paddling, like I did the first time. You’d be mad to so much as let the sea lick your feet, the mood it was in. I paused to look through the window at the cloud where I know Snæfellsjökull was hiding, I tried to lift on the fishing stones – there are four, of assorted weights, and fishermen had to be able to lift at least the smallest two onto a ledge at hip height. Yesterday there were not four. I know the smallest got smashed – presumably a tourist who wasn’t quite as strong as I thought – but last time I went, the two pieces were still there. I tried to pick up one of the remaining ones – no idea which one and it was as much as I could do to even move it, let along get it off the ground. I am not meant to be a fisherman. But I don’t mind. I don’t like fish and I’m not a big fan of boats.

Next stop: Ólafsvik. The least inspiring town on the entire peninsula, especially when it’s raining. I suspect most people just stayed in the little shop at the roadhouse. I went down to the harbour, decided it was uninspiring and tried to run up to the waterfall. Not a good idea. A teeny bit too far for the twenty minutes I had and also it was pouring with rain. I got halfway there, took a couple of photos and hurried back before I caused more problems on the bus.

Our last stop was just outside Grundarfjörður, at Kirkufell. This is a table volcano, very sharp at one end, flat on top and supposed to look like a church. It pops up in photos all the time. We made a photo stop except it was barely visible in the cloud and no one really wanted to go soaked getting a photo of the mountain hiding behind the cloud. I think we were supposed to stop in Grundarfjörður but it was raining and there’s not a lot there, apart from the only high school on the peninsula. Halldor attempted to explain about the Icelandic education system but having talked fluently for the last six hours, his English was finally beginning to run out.

We missed out Stykkishólmur altogether, turned off on the 56 south and quietly went back to Borgarnes, where my mountains had disappeared behind cloud. It was not very good weather.

I sat there at the front of the bus for a good ten hours. Whenever Halldor wasn’t talking to us, he was talking to the driver in Icelandic and over those ten hours I understood a handful of words. “Jökull” – glacier. “Walter Mitty” – we were driving down a stretch of road used in the recent film, the bit Walter skateboards down, I think. “Já” and ”Nei” – yes and no, fairly obviously. “Jæja” – a supposedly untranslatable word that seems approximately equivalent to “well” but can be used for dozens of other things. A variation on “lokið” – different case ending but it means closed and was referring to the door. A variation on something else, again, different case ending to the one I know. I was enjoying understanding several words in a row that Halldor said as we approached Reykjavík until it dawned on me that he was reading out a list of hotels we were going to drop off at. And there were some things I could understand from context and tone of voice – “is everyone aboard?” was fairly obvious even though I don’t know any of the words. What I did discover – because this was the first time I’ve heard Icelandic spoken so much, in a proper conversation – was how fast they talk, or how fast it sounds, anyway, and how many vowels and “k” sounds it seems to have. And then I realised that give or take minor shifts in pronunciation and spelling, this is more or less what it would have sounded like if two actual Vikings had been chatting.

As I said, Halldor talked a lot – kept up a commentary for at least eight hours of the trip. I more or less knew most of it but it took me by surprise how many facts and figures he can pour out – dates and heights and names and all sorts – mountain heights in metres and feet, dates of buildings and eruptions and significant events in the Settlement and all the stories. Not just stuff that was relevant to what we could see around us – tangents comprising everything he’s ever known about the history and geology and geography of the entire country. When I say I knew most of it, I couldn’t have put in a fraction of the detail he did. It makes me wonder if every Icelander learns this stuff, or if the sort of people who hoard all this information are the sort of people who become tour guides or if he went to the fabled tour guide school that Dee Dee told us about. Because all tour guides do it, pouring out an incredible amount of detailed information. Do all Icelanders in general? Do they really all read the sagas? Is it really true that the language has changed so little that a twelve-year-old can read the millennium-old manuscripts? Halldor did say they might criticise the spelling but if it’s true, then Icelandic has changed less in 800 years than English has since Shakespeare’s day.

We got back to Reykjavík just before 7pm, dropped off at half a dozen hotels and then the last few were delivered to the BSÍ terminal to be put on a minibus, since our places were inaccessible to the big bus. That was fun! There were two Chinese girls – one who’d worn a face mask all day long. Did she think there was too much pollution in the pure Icelandic sea air? Too much disease among the passengers on the bus? – who were staying at someone’s house. Our minibus driver spent five minutes consulting their directions before we left. We got halfway across the bus park and he stopped to look at them again. Did the first drop off and then he wanted to look again. When he’d looked, he got out a map and compared the directions with the map. By this point, we’d been back in Reykjavík three quarters of an hour and I seemed to be no closer to ever actually getting home. Because I’m out in the back of beyond, I’m always the last to be dropped off, which I don’t mind as long as it actually happens and I’m not just left sitting in the minibus while an obscure street is looked up for about fifteen minutes.

I’d sort of hoped to see the Northern Lights on the way home but it wasn’t dark enough and even if it had been, it was far too rainy and cloudy. All the Northern Lights trips were cancelled, or at least all the RE ones were.

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