We had learned to dance in the rain on Iceland’s Golden Circle; now today we were dancing in sunshine!
Well, OK, not exactly dancing but certainly smiling. The sun was shining for the first time in several days. We, all friends from the Virtual Tourist community, were enjoying each other’s company at a wonderful weekend gathering. And we were off to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, so packed with scenic spots that it has been dubbed ‘Iceland in Miniature’.
So as a contrast to last week’s Friendly Friday post showing you Icelandic weather at its worst, here is a follow-up to demonstrate just how stunning this country looks when blessed with good weather.
Please join me and my Virtual Tourist friends on a full day bus tour of this magical landscape. There won’t be time to show you everything we saw; these are just the edited highlights!
Our first stop was at the basalt column cliffs of Gerðuberg. This imposing formation is like a real-life geology lesson. The half kilometre long cliff looks remarkable even from the road but drive up close and it is truly impressive.
The hexagonal pillars look more man-made than natural. They are quite regular in size, mostly twelve to fourteen metres high and about one and a half metres in diameter. This adds to the impression that they were somehow manufactured. And in a sense they were, but by nature rather than man! The basalt was formerly lava flowing from a volcano which was rapidly cooled when it met the sea and formed these even shapes as a result.
Today the sea is some distance from this point; I would imagine that the land between here and there has been filled in gradually through deposits made during volcanic eruptions.
The beach at Ytri Tunga
At the farm of Ytri Tunga, where our guide Matthias told us he had spent summer holidays staying with his aunt, we were able to walk down on to the beach to see seals basking on the rocks. They were some distance away and I couldn’t see them close enough to identify if they were common or grey seals; both are found here. Nor did I remember to ask Matthias, so that must remain a mystery. Maybe there were even some of each in this group!
The beach here was sandy but strewn with seaweed-draped rocks. Inland we could see the Snæfellsjökull icecap; and between that and the beach were the bright green shades of the Icelandic farmland. It was here that I took one of my favourite photos of the whole trip!
Another highlight was the picturesque church at Búðir, which Matthias told us is a popular spot for weddings; I could see why!
An informative sign in several languages explains the history of the church:
In 1703, Bernt Lauridsen built the first church at Búðir which was demolished later and rebuilt again. In 1816 the parish at Búðir was abolished. Steinunn Sveinsdóttir, one of the ladies of the parish, fought strongly for a new church, but the national church rejected her request. Eventually Steinunn received a royal permission to build a new one, which stood ready in 1848. A quote on the door ring says, “this church was built in 1848 without the support of the spiritual fathers.”
In memory of this achievement Steinunn Sveinsdóttir, this noble woman, is buried in the churchyard in Búðir. Between 1984-86 the church was reconstructed and consecrated in 1987. Among the valuable possessions of the church are a bell from 1672, an altarpiece from 1750, an old silver chalice, two messing candlesticks from 1767, and a door ring from 1703. The church is protected and one of the oldest wooden churches in Iceland.
Probably because of that protection we found the church locked, but my friend Isa and I did manage to take photos through the windows – of each other!
The next stop was a much longer one, for a walk along the cliffs at Arnarstapi. Matthias drove us to a spot near the small harbour. There he explained that he would meet us at a parking lot a little further down the coast. With his clear directions, a marked path, and Regina (Icelandic VTer and our host for the weekend meet) as unofficial guide, we set off in the direction he indicated.
And what a walk this was! This was my favourite stop of the day, I think. The sea was a clear deep blue, the rock formations fascinatingly photogenic, the kittiwakes charming and the sun pleasantly warm on my face; just wonderful!
The natural stone arch here is called Gatklettur or Arch Rock. It is just one of many examples of how the sea has eroded the cliffs to create this dramatic coastal scenery. There are smaller holes and arches, several caves, numerous rocky islets (several topped with basalt columns tipped horizontally) and some sea stacks. As at Gerðuberg, I felt myself to be in the middle of a living geology lesson.
As we neared the end of our walk we arrived at a huge stone sculpture, the statue of Bárður Snæfellsás (the work of Icelandic sculptor, Ragnar Kjartansson). Bárður Snæfellsás was half-man, half-troll. He was one of the early settlers of Viking times; he landed at Dritvík and Djúpalónssandur and settled with his family at Laugarbrekka on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. His half-brother Þorkell also settled in Iceland, at Arnarstapi, with his two sons, Sölvi, and Rauðfeldur.
But the story of Bárður Snæfellsás gets interesting at the point when he flies into a rage after Þorkell’s sons play a prank on his daughters, leading to him losing his mind. He gives away all his land and all his earthly belongings; and he vanishes into Snæfellsjökull (the glacier that dominates the peninsula). There, it is said, he builds an ice cave and becomes known as the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell. The locals worship him and see him as their saviour.
Over the centuries people here have called on Bárður in times of hardship and trouble. He is said to wander the region wrapped in a grey cowl held together with a rope made of walrus-hide. In his hand he holds a cleft staff for climbing the glacier. What a perfect position for this giant sculpture of the giant, in the shadow of Mt. Stapafell and Snæfellsjökull!
And there was much more to come! We made a shorter stop a little further along the cliffs to see the dramatic lava sea stacks known as Londrangar; another wonderful view point, and with more kittiwakes.
I later read that these stacks are basalt volcanic plugs, part of a former crater, which has been eroded to its present form by the sea. The highest is 75 metres tall and the other is 61 metres. The nearby hill, Svalþúfa, is part of the same volcanic crater. The farmers in the area never make hay on this hill; they don’t want to disturb the elves who are said to live there.
Next was Dritvik, which used to be an important fishing cove, and which rivalled Arnarstapi as my favourite place on this tour. Here you can walk down a narrow ravine, known as Nautastígur, on to the black lava Djúpalónssandur beach. The path is lined with impressive cliffs and interesting rock formations. They include one known as Gatklettur, the Rock with a Hole. Yes, it has the same name as the arch rock at Arnarstapi, and for obvious reasons. Another, as you arrive at the beach, is known as Söngklettur, the Singing Rock. It is said to be the Church of the Elves; climbing on it would be frowned upon as it shows a lack of respect and might disturb them.
Just north of these, above the beach and visible from it, are the two pools, Djúpalón (Deep Pools), which give the beach its name. I loved the colours and reflections here. A sign by the path explains that the level of these pools rises and falls with the tide; only the surface water is fresh, so you have to be wary of drinking from them.
As you arrive on the beach you see four large rocks known as the Lifting Stones. Fishermen used to lift them to test their strength. If you couldn’t lift at least the third largest you were considered too weak to face the pressures of a life at sea.
On the beach you can see some rusty remains of the trawler Epine, which fished out of Grimsby on the east coast of England. She was wrecked here in March 1948, with only five out of the crew of nineteen saved. A sign on the beach describes the rescue effort:
‘Rescue teams from Anarstapi, Hellnar and Hellissandur came to help, but conditions were difficult, with bad weather and heavy seas. Members of the crew could be seen on the forecastle and the wheelhouse and tied to the rigging. The tide was coming in and huge waves broke over the ship. One man was washed up on the beach still alive. After the tide turned it was possible to shoot out a line which the crew managed to tie to the mast, and the four men who were still alive were pulled to safety in a rescue seat.’
The remains of the ship are left here as a memorial to those who died so it is important not to disturb them.
In addition to the rock formations beside Nautastígur, there are many more on the beach itself and out to sea. The weather now had turned a little hazy and there was a slightly eerie atmosphere. Perhaps this was due not just to the haze but also the stories told about the rocks. Regina told me that one is said to be a troll called Karl, the fiancé of the giantess in a mountain pass we had seen earlier in the day.
At the small volcano of Saxhóll I opted not to climb the 300+ steps to the top to look down into the crater. That wasn’t a bad decision from what those who did go up told me. The crater has no water in it, just a dry earth hollow, although the view from the top would have been worth seeing perhaps. Instead I took photos near the foot, of colourful mosses and the many small lava tubes; perfect homes for the Hidden People.
Jón, Regina’s husband, had told us yesterday about these Hidden People, the Huldufólk. They have been part of the folklore here since people first came to live in Iceland. One account of their origins places them within the Christian belief system. The story goes that God planned a visit to Adam and Eve. The latter wanted to bathe all her children and dress them nicely for the visit. But God arrived before all the children were clean, so she told those that were not ready to go and hide. God asked if the children he could see were all the children they had, knowing of course what she had done. When she lied and said that they were he declared that the children she had hidden would remain forever hidden from everyone, and their descendants too; and thus the Hidden People came into being.
Many here still hold to the old beliefs. They say that the Hidden People live in the rocks, invisible to man. Icelanders will rarely throw rocks, because they might accidentally hit one of the elves. Construction and road-making projects are sometimes altered to prevent damaging rocks where they are believed to live; and they are said to have interfered with machinery, making work impossible to complete until plans were altered to avoid their homes.
Leaving Saxhóll the road took us up to the northern side of the peninsula, through some rather bleak but beautiful scenery. The hillsides were dotted with waterfalls, a few small villages clung to the coast and the mountains inland were still (in late May, remember) well covered with snow.
There was one stop left to make, possibly the most famous on Snaefellsnes, at Kirkjufell. But as I have already described that in a previous post, Just a few of the waterfalls of Iceland, I won’t repeat myself here.
The journey back
From Kirkjufell we completed our drive along the northern coast of the peninsula and turned south to drive through the mountains. The weather had turned cloudy by now, but (as I had throughout the day) I grabbed photos of the scenery whenever I could. I was pleased to find later that a few had come out OK; extra reminders of our day out in this fantastic landscape.
I visited the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in 2018