Without doubt one of the jewels of Iceland’s crown, the volcano Snaefellsness and the glacier Snaefellsjökull that tops it, has a truly magical quality even for the most down to earth visitor to this part Iceland.
Before even venturing along the west coast of Iceland, the beautiful peak of this glacier can often be seen as you travel between Reykjavik and the international airport. Lying on roughly parallel peninsulas that are divided by Faxafloí Bay, Snaefellsjökull appears from there as a distant island in the sea, and at the right time of day, gleams with a shimmering pinky-orange hue.
Whether it’s the magnetic energies or the sheer beauty of a glacier sitting on the horizon that lures you there, visiting the Snaefellsness Peninsula and Snaefellsjokull in particular, is a journey that is definitely worth making.
The volcano itself is some 700,000 years old, and now considered dormant having last erupted some 1600 years ago. Sadly, and inevitably, the glacier is receding, yet its intriguing microclimate continues to affect the local weather and vegetation. Perched as it is on the very western tip of the peninsula, a journey around the coast here is always dominated by the presence of the mountain.
For photographers, as well as walkers and landscape lovers this is a stunning area to see. In the past the glacier has been the subject of many artists, including two of my particular favourites: WG Collingwood and Johanna Leópoldsdóttir (check). For anyone who has read Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, it’s good to know that it was this volcano that inspired the book and a journey from the Snaefellsness to Stromboli in Italy. Verne based his novel on the discovery of a book written in Iceland in the 12th century that claimed to have reached the centre of the earth from the crater of Snaefells.
Journeys in West Iceland are now easily made by road, but as with the whole of Iceland, travelling on horseback has traditionally been the main mode of transport. As he painted, WG Collingwood made his journeys this way following his carefully planned routes around the Saga steads, recording and reliving the tales that they tell. One of the most enjoyable ways to be immersed in Iceland, its nature and remoteness is to join a horseback trail. In West Iceland, often described as ‘all Iceland in a nutshell’ there’s the opportunity to ride amongst volcanic cones, across golden sandy beaches and through moss covered lava fields, almost looking the same as it did to Collingwood over 100 years ago.
It’s here too, that you hardly need to search for sightings of birds, flowers and even creatures of the sea. With some planning around your dates of travel, the mass of fulmars, kittiwakes and gulls can be added to be the wild antics of arctic terns. As they protect their nests by swooping over the heads of any human visitors, they then appear to abandon their chicks who in some places, create a fluffy carpet across the road. Unable to fly, the only solution is to walk ahead of your car gently shooing them out of the way. I’m not sure how you’d do this without a passenger to help!
With so much coastline, and many small beach areas and coastal pools this is a haven for wading birds and further inland, for ground nesting birds too. From the beach, it’s not unusual to watch young seals playing in the surf, and even in the depths of winter, when the huge Atlantic waves roll in, I’ve seen large adult seals sitting out amongst the many skerries that litter this ancient, drowned coast. On one occasion, on the north of the peninsula we stood and watched a pod of whales, their tell-tale waterspouts rising up like small fountains from a lovely calm sea.
Even though the Snaefellsness is a favourite location for geologists, it’s not a place only for those with a detailed knowledge of rocks and strata. For anyone with a fascination for getting underground, there’s an excellent cave in this locality that’s accessible as a safe and guided adventure. It’s an excellent example of an Icelandic lava cave and benefits from being deep, navigable and with plenty of wow. Seeing the giant rocks and the effects that intense heat created is an excellent way to gain a sense of scale of the events that took place. It’s also a salutary reminder of the need for the human race to respect the enormity and importance of nature and natural forces.
In keeping with the rest of the country, food in west Iceland today has its roots in the past. Life was tough for the first settlers as they arrived in the 9th century, and Iceland’s fantastic food culture retains important links to its historical methods and ingredients. Berry picking, geothermal production of sea salt and some of the most delicious shellfish all feature locally. Yet it’s the story of one of the most dreaded of Icelandic snacks that many visitors to the Snaefellsness will always associate with their visit.
Hákarl, or fermented Greenland shark, is for sure one of the most ‘Marmite’ moments you’ll ever have. On the northern coast of the peninsula and across the intriguingly named Beserk lava field is a farm that has its focus, the production of Hákarl. There’s no way to pretty it up. The smell is one of the worst and in my view, the only way to eat it is when followed by a chaser of Brennivin, Iceland’s alcoholic fire water. I’ve also decided that even then, I’m really only prepared to commit if I can raise a substantial sum for charity or aid of my own tree planting project.
Even though, this is the only thing about Iceland that I really dislike, the story of the shark is fascinating, as is the tale of the Berserkers, which I will recount elsewhere. What I’ve learnt about the Greenland shark is that it’s not hunted by Icelanders. In the past, every now and then, one would be landed along with other fish and as food was always scarce and nothing wasted, the shark could not be discarded.
Facts about the Greenland shark are many, but other than its great longevity of perhaps 400 years, and that it eats just about anything, it’s because its flesh contains high levels of a urea type chemical that makes this such a significant culinary tale. Through hard learned lessons, the Icelanders discovered that the flesh of this enormous potential food source was toxic to humans and that the way to overcome this was by fermentation.
Over the years, the irrepressible Icelanders worked out that the flesh could be drained of its toxic fluid and fermented before being cut into large strips to be hung out to dry. The slabs of drying shark turn a rich brown on the outside and, really do look like legs of lamb.
The drying sheds have rooves but no sides and the drying shark strips are exposed to the winds as they blow in off the sea. The final stage of the process is to cut the flesh into small white cubes that look very much like Feta cheese, especially as they will often be served on a cocktail stick accompanied by thick rye bread slices and Icelandic butter. Though it’s likely that the aroma of ammonia will warn you that this isn’t the feta that you are used to, best to beware when you see a small white cube on a stick. Years ago, I bought a few postcards from the farm, where there is also a large collection of maritime memorabilia. When I got back home and unpacked, I couldn’t work out what the smell was until I came to my paper bag containing my special perfumed postcards from West Iceland!
Wherever you travel on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, you’ll never be far from a classic volcanic cone or crater. Two of my favourites are Eldborg, which is easily recognisable and can be seen from the road. There’s a walking path there, but for a real treat I always like to recommend the crater at Grábrók. It’s further east but it’s on the way to travel north, so makes a great stopping place. There are 3 craters there, which means that you can take great photographs of one from another, and there are stunning views in all directions. Look out beneath you for the group of old field enclosures surrounded by dry stone walls.
Grábrók is a popular and doable climb but that doesn’t mean it’s crowded, especially if you avoid the middle of the day. The advantage is that there’s a really good set of steps and board walks to guide you up and to avoid unnecessary erosion of the loose scoria rock that forms these beautiful cones. Enjoy!
If you’d like me to make this into a journey or part of a longer road trip for you, I’d be delighted! Please just let me know.