Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Beauty and the Bungler

For the next two weeks we will be driving around Iceland, loosely following the island’s main road, Route 1.  The ‘Ring road’ makes an 840 mile loop around the main land, with many diversions lurking around every corner.  The first couple of days, we are leaving the ring road to explore western Iceland; specifically the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords.

We have just spent the last day and a half being blown around Snæfellsnes.

Snæfellsnes has been dubbed by some industrious marketing professional as “Iceland in Miniature” as it provides a quick and breezy tour around some central Icelandic sights in a nice little package.  Lonely churches on windswept fields?  Check. Volcano/Glacier combo? Snæfellsjökull.  A national park? You got it.

The drive out of Reykjavik was very pretty, but the scenery cranked up to eleven as soon as we got onto the peninsula.  Before we were officially in west Iceland, we had to drive underneath a fjord for 6km.  I can honestly say, that was a first.

When we arrived on the other side, the wind had intensified, and for the next day and a half it refused to give up.  Our little Suzuki was blown around all over the road, but that was hardly registered as we were too busy gawking out the windows.

We are visiting in autumn, which means the fall colors are in full bloom.  The trees, the heather, the moss…they are all bright and beautiful, creating a landscape that Bob Ross would be proud of.

It wasn’t long before we started to understand the scale of the landscape.  Everything is wider, taller and grander than I’ve seen before.  The closest we’ve come is maybe in Scotland on the Isle of Skye or the terraces of Peru.  Iceland is BIG and EMPTY and it feels like you are the only people exploring some fantastic new world in a video game.  

It wasn’t long before we made some animal friends.  These guys are Icelandic horses (duh) and they were developed in Iceland to be hardy and live for a long time. 

Their ancestors were the Norse ponies of the 9th century and they have incredible, rock-star grade hair-dos.

After hanging out with these guys for a while, we headed to Búðir for our first dose of isolated grandeur.

Búðir used to be a bustling trading settlement on peninsula, but now only the black church remains. A hotel has been added for folks that want to rest their head in peace and quiet, and possibly pay homage to Tim Burton, who I assume also loves this church.

Many other houses and structures are painted black, and I have to say I really like it.  It might be how well the color complements the other vibrant colors in the landscape, or maybe how it mirrors the jet black lava fields that surround the road. I doubt our house would look as great, as we are missing the atmospheric setting, but I am willing to try it.  It would be really easy to find, at any rate.

After tromping around the churchyard for 15 minutes, we developed a powerful need for strong coffee.  Fortunately, Hellnar was right up the road.  Hellnar has a year-round population of 9, but the residents were outnumbered 4 to 1 in the cafe.  There is a popular hiking trail between Hellnar and Arnstapi, so there were a lot of rental cars in the parking lot.  It’s hard to know whether Hellnarians are pleased with this or not…unless I am to take the sign on the ladies room as a clue. 

While John was visiting the little boys room (I shudder to think what they remove in there, although there’s a weirdo in Reykjavik they should connect with) I wandered out to inspect another isolated and picturesque church.  They have no shortage of these and John has to forcibly prevent me from taking pictures of all of them.

Fortified by hot americano coffees and a sticky bun, we had grown a little braver about turning down random side roads to see what was off the main drag.  Seeing something potentially interesting in the distance, we turned down an unmarked gravel road and came across an abandoned house.  

The outer shell remains, but the inside is completely gone.  There are two graves stones on the road onto the property, Helga Halldorsdottir (1903-1991) and Hallgrimur Olafsson (1888-1981).  I can only assume that the house has been abandoned for the last 25 years.  25 years in the elements of the peninsula can definitely strip a house.

Just before we officially entered the National Park, we stopped off in Mallarif (Pebble Reef) and got a first look at the many lighthouses that dot the coast.  The wind has risen significantly, and the waves were breaking high against the lava rocks that lined the bay.  Some braver than I climbed on said rocks and were buffeted around quite severely.  The sensible folks tromped around and took photos.

Dritvik beach was a couple of kilometers away, and promised an activity that John Levy could not resist: the lifting stones. Fishing boat crews used to test the strength of would-be fishermen. There are four stones: the ‘bungler’ at 23kg (50lbs), followed by ‘Weak’ at 54kg (119lbs), then ‘Half-Strong’ at 100kg (220lb) and finally ‘Fully Strong’ weighing in at 154kg (340lbs).  Apparently, if you couldn’t lift Halfsterker (half-strong), you were not cut out for a life at sea.

John and the Bungler

Leftovers from an English trawler ‘Eding’ which wrecked here in 1948

Black beach – Bright Seaweed

Snæfellsjökull (the glacier) was hidden away in the clouds, so we will have to catch up with another one later in the trip (they have a few here).  We were however lucky to encounter WESTERN EUROPE’S TALLEST THING! At 413m, it’s taller than the Eiffel tower and the Shard in London (both by 100m).  It’s a radio mast built originally for LOPRAN, a defunct navigation system for aircraft and ships.  It now broadcasts Iceland’s national radio.  Legend has it that it’s so powerful that you can illuminate a fluorescent lightbulb just by holding it close to the mast.  Unfortunately, I didn’t pack one of those.  Next time.

Grundarfjörður was our home for the night, and after a full day of driving and being pushed around by the wind, we were ready for some spaghetti.  After we checked in to our room, we wandered down to the community kitchen where we met a bad-ass lady.  Liz is from Ottawa, Canada – she’s a volunteer firefighter and she is cycling around the Peninsula on her own, with all of her stuff on her back, in gale force winds.  We thought we were being blown around in our car, this warrior woman is on a mountain bike. You should check out her journey on Instagram as to_kashyyyk_and_beyond.  She’s promised that she will email us once she makes it to Reykjavik, otherwise we are going to turn the car around and find her.

After our night in Grundarfjörður, we are moving onto the Westfjords.  John is being the best chauffeur; I cannot drive a manual transmission, so he’s got driving duty for the next two weeks.  He doesn’t know we are hitting our first non-paved road in the Westfjords, so hopefully he will continue to be as gracious as he is currently being.

I’ll leave you with a couple of shots of the amazing colors in Snæfellsjökull National Park.  I don’t know if I can say it enough – it’s freaking pretty out here, folks.

Categories: Iceland

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