Snæfellsnes is often touted as “Iceland in miniature,” and not for nothing—in a single day’s drive north from Reykjavík, you can experience heaths, beaches, lava fields, mountains and glaciers. It’s easy to forget, however, just how special this place is when you’re shouldering your way through throngs of tourists or desperately searching for a place to put down your tent that’s far enough away from your neighbours.
Which is what made our recent journey along the southern coast of Snæfellsnes so special. It was a weekend, on a beautiful sunny day, but there was hardly another soul to be seen apart from the people who actually live there. So my wife, Ada, and our trusty photographer, Art, and I were all able to absorb the eerie beauty of this region.
The spiritual fathers
Our first stop was Búðir. Like many places in Iceland, especially on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes, this place was once a bustling fishing hub under both Icelandic and later Danish control. Today, in lieu of fishing, there is the gorgeous Hótel Búðir, a church with a curious history, and many beautiful paths through the surrounding lava fields, some of which extended down to the sea.
The church, Búðarkirkja, although locked tight when we visited, is indeed worth a look. Painted a stark, jet black and adjacent to a graveyard that must look pretty scary in the light of the moon, the location of this church was determined in 1701 by literally firing an arrow into the air and seeing where it landed. Although it was decommissioned by the colonising Danes in 1816, a guy named Guðmundur fought to get it reinstated—albeit to no avail, and he never lived to see Búðarkirkja open its doors again. However, his wife, Steinunn, took up the cause, and the church was reinstated in 1847. Nonetheless, she had little financial help from the church authorities to complete the restoration, and today, the heavy metal ring on the front door is still inscribed “kirkjan er endurreist ár 1848 án styrks þeirra andlegu feðra” (“this church was resurrected in 1848 without the support of the spiritual fathers”).
Perhaps the Icelanders will come
At the time of our trip, the Prime Minister had not yet announced that the country would effectively re-open to tourism no later than June 15th. As such, the general feeling we heard from Icelanders we spoke with in the region was that while foreign visitors to the area would probably be non-existent this summer, there was some anticipation that there would be more Icelanders than usual.
The sentiment is understandable. Icelanders have spent weeks in social isolation, reduced to groups of no more than 20, with many of their favourite leisure activities—such as public swimming pools, gyms and pubs—completely closed. Now that the weather is improving and the government is beginning to relax social restrictions, stir-crazy locals are probably itching to get out of their homes, out of town, and into the wide-open space again. Not in numbers great enough to make up for the lack of foreign guests, but probably enough to breathe some renewed life into the country’s favourite natural sites.
Half ogre, half man, all fun
Our next stop was Arnarstapi, a quaint seaside village just west of Búðir. Here, you begin to see some of the mysticism associated with Snæfellsnes in general, as you can’t help but notice the imposing sculpture standing by the shore. This anthropomorphic pile of stones, sculpted by Ragnar Kjartansson, represents Bárður Snæfellsás.
Bárður is in many ways the spirit of Snæfellsnes. This character, reportedly half human and half ogre, has his very own saga, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, which recounts his adventures. His life events culminate in his wife being set adrift on an iceberg by his son, getting in a horrible fight with him, and then Bárður making the totally understandable decision to make his new home in the icecap atop Snæfellsjökull. From there, he became known to locals as the “guardian spirit” of Snæfell—an appellation he carries to this day, as he is described as such on the sculpture.
Today you’d be hard pressed to witness a fist fight between two half-trolls, but in lieu of that, Arnarstapi boasts a cute little tourist cottage village, and the surrounding area is something to behold. There are numerous hiking trails through the surrounding lava fields, and down at the shore there are some truly breathtaking cliffs, replete with basalt formations twisted into impossible spirals. The nearby ravine of Rauðfeldsgjá is especially worth a look.
The café by the cliffs
Just a bit farther west is Hellnar, probably the second-most metal place name in Iceland (after Dimmuborgir, of course). This is another former fishing and farming village that has since turned to tourism, as the many newly-built cabins attest. Looming overhead just north of the location, is the distinct snow-covered peak of Snæfellsjökull.
It is often pointed out that this mountain marked the entrance to the center of the earth in the eponymous Jules Verne novel, but it is also considered in New Age circles to be one of the planet’s “power centres,” imbued with potent energy. This is certainly easy to believe when you take in its beauty, which, on a clear day, you can see all the way from Reykjavík.
I was very keen on showing my wife the little café tucked into a steep hill overlooking the sea but, as was unfortunately expected, it was closed. Not to worry, though: just a stone’s throw away is a basalt cave that has been tunneled through by water and wind, and it is a truly magical place to sit and stare at the waves (provided the sea birds don’t harass you). Just overtop, there are seemingly endless trails through moss-covered lava fields that you could spend all day exploring. For the truly adventurous, farther east across an extensive meadow stands a statue of the Virgin Mary over a natural pool. An inscription at the foot of the statue informs the visitor that the Virgin Mary appeared on this spot in the year 1230, Bishop Guðmundur Arason asked her to bless the water at this spot, and the statue was put in place in 1989.
Soon it was time to return home. The day had been brilliantly sunny, though cold, and I was pleased to have shown my wife a little bit of one of my favourite regions of Iceland. As we headed east by car, I thought about other places in Snæfellsnes I wanted to show her—Ólafsvík, Grundarfjörður, Stykkishólmur, the mountain passes, beaches and lava fields. It made me feel impatient, in a hurry to bring her back to this magical region again.
But as we took the turnoff that connects again to Route 1, dropping almost immediately into Borgarnes, I recalled a bit of advice I heard years ago: Iceland isn’t going anywhere. Snæfellsnes has been here long, long before we were born, and it will continue to be here for centuries or millennia to come. Likewise, neither my wife nor I are leaving Iceland any time soon. Snæfellsnes is always waiting for you to pay a visit and it is always happy to see you again.
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