There’s a troll outside my bedroom window. For those of you familiar with the similarly titled tale about a hippopotamus, I should clarify that it was not, however, eating cake. The troll in question was the Kerling troll. One of three trolls in a competition to carve out the fjords of the Trollskagi and to separate the Westfjords from the rest of Iceland. In typical fashion, this troll was caught by the sunlight and turned to stone – which is how it came to be standing outside my bedroom window in Drangsnes.
The Trollskagi or Troll Peninsula sits on the north west corner of Iceland before you head out onto the Westfjords. Compared to the well trodden paths of the Golden Circle and the highly patronised Skaftafell, the Trollskagi and the Westfjords are, for the most part, relatively quiet. That said, you are still unlikely to find a scenic lookout or point of interest without at least a few other cars pulled over. You could pull over to take a call In Iceland and six other cars would pull over too just to check they weren’t missing out on a picture worthy vista or a secret waterfall. I had been really looking forward to the chance to see some of the more remote fjords and farmsteads on this section of the trip.
After exploring the Sigufjordur section of the Trollskagi, we headed out to Vatnsnes for our second day in the area. Vatnsnes is growing in popularity thanks in no small part to the novel Burial Rites. The novel is an historical fiction about an infamous murder case on the peninsula. Agnes Magnúsdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson were convicted of the murders of two men at the farm at Illugastaðir in 1829. Subsequently the pair were sentenced to death and Agnes Magnúsdottir became the last person in Iceland to be beheaded in a public execution. On the way onto the peninsula you pass Þristapar, the site of the executions.
The other big stop we made at Vatnsnes was to pay a visit to the Hvitserker. The Hvitserker is a 15 metre high rock formation standing just off the coast. The Hvitserker was a troll who was fabled to have been rushing to the shore to try and stop the sound of church bells that had been irritating him. In case you haven’t worked out how the rest of the story goes, the sun came up and the unfortunate troll was turned to stone.
The weather changed as we left the Hvitserker, emphasising the harsh conditions faced by the farmers living in such remote locations. It must be challenging enough today and it is hard to fathom how people coped in the past. As you round the head of the peninsula, you pass church at Tjorn where Magnúsdottir and Sigurdsson’s heads are buried. The farm at Illugastaðir is just a few minutes further along the road. Illugastaðir is a poplar stop not only because of its notoriety a infamous murder site but also because it has a resident seal population that obligingly rests on a rocky outcrop not far from the shoreline.
Once we had explored this beautiful but desolate stretch of coast we completed our circuit of Vatnsnes with a visit to the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvamstanngi. Our evening destination was a couple of hours away in the Wetsfjords. We had heard mixed reports of the roads in the area but were surprised to encounter over 70 km of gravel road almost as soon as we left the main Ring Road. I had horrible visions of us spending the next three days bumping and jolting along in our 2WD at a relative snail’s pace. Did I mention that our rental car was approaching 20 years old on a conservative estimate?
Although the ride out to our accommodation in Drangsnes was a bit challenging, fortunately it turned out to be the last of the unpaved roads we faced in the Westfjords. As well as being home to the Kerling troll, Drangsnes is also famed for its hot pots. Three hot pots are built into the sea well as you drive along the main street. We heard that they could be hard to spot but there was no missing them when we drove past. The tubs were packed with people enjoying a cheeky beverage or two when we arrived just after dinner time.
We saved our dip for the next morning against a spectacular backdrop of thunderous looking clouds and the beautiful fjord. The steaming soak in such a spectacular location was well worth a quick dash through the cold. After a pre-breakfast dip we continued into the Westfjords to visit the region’s biggest town, Isafjordur.
While Isafjordur escapes many of the crowds coming from the Ring Road, it does get inundated by thousands of day-visitors stopping by via cruise ship every other day or so. We arrived during peak time and used it as an excuse to seek refuge with a few more Icelandic brews at a local bar. You don’t need to be a super sleuth to have deduced by now that swimming and beer played significant roles in our self-guided exploration of Iceland. We were also lucky enough to stumble across a small gallery showing a selection of short Icelandic films while we were in Isafjordur.
The next day we headed out into the fjord for a couple of hours of kayaking. Our group included one lady who fell in as she tried to get in the kayak and a pair of American ladies who shared a double, could not paddle in unison and bickered the entire time. They turned up wearing disposable rubber gloves over their ordinary woollen gloves in a creative bid to keep their hands warm and waterproof. Needless to say we were not in elite paddling company and it was not the toughest paddle we’ve ever done but there was lots of opportunity to paddle out and circle back to the group, and it was really lovely to be out on the water.
After kayaking, we visited the nearby town of Sudereyri for a swim in a geothermal pool (for something different to do). From there we headed south to Sudereyri to visit the Arctic Fox Centre. The Arctic fox is the only mammal native to Iceland. The centre has a lot of information about the foxes and the research that is being done to protect and monitor them.
My day, if not my entire trip, was made here when we saw a lady change out of her Iceland-suitable boots and into a pair of plastic orange high heels (with love hearts instead of normal heel stems) for the sole purpose of conducting a C-grade, DIY photo shoot in front of the foxes. It was a glorious display of primping and preening as she posed and waggled her feet through the fencing at the bewildered but captivated fox. Her pose-like-no-one-is-watching (we were definitely watching) parade was reigned in only once the fox had nipped her toes when she waved her tackily clad foot in its face.
After the magic we witnessed at the Fox Centre, we decided to regather ourselves with a stop at Litlibaer to have waffles and tea in a tiny restored house that stands alone on the edge of a fjord. It was adorable – the door ways only came up to Ryan’s collar bone. After the restorative powers of waffles and jam we headed to our evening base at Holmavik.
The last two days on the road took us to Snaefellsness Peninsula. The volcano under the Snaefellsjokull starred in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. We didn’t climb the glacier ourselves to see if there was a volcanic entry to the Earth’s core but we did have a lot of fun exploring the area at the base of the glacier.
On the way into the peninsula we stopped into Stykkishólmur, another town featured in The Secret life of Walter Mitty. Near this town is the smallest mountain we climbed during our visit. At just 73m high, Helgafell is said to have been a favourite site of Thor worshippers until a small church was built on top of the mountain by a converted Icelander. It is said that if you reach the summit of the mountain, you can make a wish. Depending on who you believe there are certain conditions about not turning back or speaking during your ascent – we did both so I am going to favour the accounts that offer you a wish in return for simply summiting this behemoth of a peak.
The Snaefells area has a lot of interesting sites crafted by volcanic activity. We took a long drive through the Berserkjahraun. This extensive field of lava features another popular Icelandic saga, the Eyrbyggja Saga. A local farmer hired two berserkers to work for him only to find that one of them had taken a fancy to his daughter. He told the amorous berserker that if he could carve a path through the lava field for the farmer to visit his neighbours, the berserker could have his daughter’s hand in marriage. When the berserkers completed this seemingly impossible task the farmer and a local official (who was after the farmer’s daughter for himself), had the berserkers murdered in a sauna.
Just beyond this is the beautiful Kirkjufell mountain, a distinctively pointed peak on the shoreline with beautiful waterfalls just a stone’s throw away. While we were walking around the falls, we had the slightly awkward privilege of watching a random couple get engaged just a few metres away from us.
Other highlights in the area included the Saxholl crater. You can walk up 300 steps around the side of the crater to look back across the volcanic crater to the impressive glacier of Snaefellsjokull just a few kilometres away. We visited several of the lovely beaches in the area and our final stop for the day was at Dritvik.
On the beach at Dritvik you can test your strength against four lifting stones. The stones were used in the past to determine whether men were strong enough to work aboard the ships. The stones are 23kg, 54kg, 100kg and 150kg. The lightest stone is called the Almóði (weakling) while the 54kg stone is called the Hálfdraettingur (half carrier). If you could lift this to waist height then you were considered just strong enough to work as an oarsman out of Dritvik. The heavier stones are called Hálfsterkur (half strong) and Fullsterker (full strong). I am pleased to say that I could have scraped in as an oarsman (perhaps with a faux beard disguise) with the Hálfdraettingur while Ryan successfully hefted the Hálfsterkur.
The next day we headed back to Reykjavik with plenty of time to return the car. In the morning we made a quick stop at a lovely wooden church, Budir before heading to Borgarnes. In Borgarnes we visited the Settlement Exhibition Centre. This was a fantastic museum that used beautiful and creative displays with audio guides to tell the story of Egil’s Saga and the story of the settlement of Iceland.
When we returned to Reykjavik we decided the only fitting way to say goodbye was to finish the Barmuda Triangle. We did get waylaid on the way to our first stop by the tacky but enticing Lebowski Bar (themed around the film The Big Lebowski). We were really just there for the fun factor and our expectations were pretty low but the burgers turned out to be insanely good. A cheeky stout to wash down a veggie burger that I would confidently place in the top five of all time, and it was onto our second Bardmuda stop, Skulli (we had visited Mikkeller and friends on our second time through Reykjavik).
With so many craft beers to choose from, a beer tasting paddle was really the only way to go. We finished the triangle at Micro Bar with another tasting paddle. There were some lovely beers but to be honest, of the ten we tried, the one that stands out most clearly in my mind was the Gaedingur Skyrgosi Sour beer. And it distinguished itself from the pack for all the wrong reasons – namely because it was indeed quite sour.
We made an impromptu decision to go see another show at the Harpa, How to become Icelandic in 60 Minutes. Not quite as amazing as the Icelandic Sagas show from our first visit but it was still very funny and worth a watch. As we dragged ourselves back to the hostel, tired and well beered, our final stop was the Chuck Norris bar for a greasy second dinner. It was much tackier but certainly not as good as the Lebowski bar.
Three weeks in Iceland saw us trek for six days in the Laugavegur area before spending a fortnight driving the Ring Road. I could write about Iceland for weeks and weeks and still have plenty left to say. I’m sure I’ll post again on a few odds and ends but that is a wrap for now. The next stage of our trip takes us to the United Kingdom to swap the SAD car and guesthouses for a Spaceship campervan.