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The Snæfellsnes Peninsula - Fjord Cruise - Reykjavik

Rotten shark, hail storms, raw scallops and Viking sagas

all seasons in one day -2 °C
View Northern Lights Explorer - Iceland 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The wind was howling in the night and by the morning almost all the snow had melted, or rained/blown away. The thermometer said +6C, but the wind said something way cooler. Rocky-Rock had suggested we wrapped up warmly today and we all took note. Subsequently, half an hour into the bus journey we were all stripping off down to the thermal underwear as we were almost passing out from the heat. At a stretch-of-leg-stop I even went as far as popping out of the bus dressed just in my thermal vest (plus jeans I hasten to add) just to cool off a little.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
'The peninsula of the snowy mountain' juts out from Iceland’s west coast, and is often described as a microcosm of Iceland. It is characterised by rugged mountains rising between a wide coastal plain on the southern side and narrow coast on the northern side. The 100 km long, 680 km² area is therefore sometimes referred to as “Iceland in a nutshell”.

The 1446 m high dormant (that's the key word here: dormant!) volcano Snæfellsjökull glacier lies majestically at the end of the peninsula and its main claim to fame is its location as the doorway into inner space in Jules Verne’s classic, “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.” I think we're going to see lots of film locations on this trip.

Snæfellsnes is also renowned for its rich bird life and superb scenery.

Of course, we couldn't actually see anything whatsoever this morning, as it was still dark for the first couple of hours. We still had a photo stop – in the rain, taking photos of, well, nothing. I braved it as far as the doorway...


Bjarnarhöfn is an old estate at the foot of Mount Bjarnahafnafjall that was home to Þorleifur Þorleifsson (1801-77), a homoeopathic doctor who was said to have had psychic abilities. The church at Bjarnahöfn, built in 1856, contains many valuables and old artefacts, including an altar piece that is believed to have been painted in 1640. We, however, were there for one reason only: rotten shark.

The town of Bjarnarhöfn is where Hákarl is made, a uniquely Icelandic “treat” of fermented shark which is often associated with hardiness and strength. People may think however, maybe being a weakling isn't such a bad thing after tasting Hákarl....

Hákarl is basically a Greenland shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for several months. It is said to be an acquired taste (most definitely!) and has a very particular ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste, which has been described as similar to very strong cheese smothered in ammonia.

Greenland sharks are enormous creatures, some 8-10 metres in length, weigh 800-1000kg and live at a depth of 2500 – 3000 metres beneath the ocean. The shark itself is poisonous when fresh due to a high content of urea (that’s wee-wee to you and me) and trimethylamine oxide (they have no kidneys to remove the uric acid from the body), but may be consumed (really?) after being processed. Traditionally, Hákarl was prepared by gutting and beheading the fish and placing it in a shallow hole dug in the earth, with the cleared out cavity resting on a slight incline. The next step is to cover the shark with sand and gravel, and place heavier stones on top in order to press the shark. This helps the fluids from the fish to be pressed out of the body. This method of shark fermentation takes 6–12 weeks depending on the season. During this process the uric acid is destroyed and largely converted into ammonia. The flesh is softened and gets a more jelly-like consistency. Once the curing period is over, the shark is then thrown in the garbage bin cut into strips and hung to dry for several months during which time a brown crust will develop (rust?). This crust is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving. Of course these days, a more modern method is just to press the shark's meat in a large drained plastic container. The whole thing leaves me with just one question – why?

Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten and Gordon Ramsay vomited after eating the 'delicacy'. Andrew Zimmern suggested the smell reminding him of "some of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life," and he noted that hákarl was "hardcore food" and "not for beginners." It has also been described as “smells like a men’s loo; a potent parfum of urine and toilet duck that leaves you gagging and gasping.”

Having tried many, many weird foods in my time (think live ants, silk worm poo tea, crickets, baby swiftlets (now they were disgusting!), cockroaches, cicadas, an almond passed through an elephant (!), brain amongst others), I thought I'd be fine with a little fermented fish. After all, just how bad can it be?

As we stepped off the bus, the ammonia-rich fishy smell hit us like a curtain, but to be honest, after a few minutes your senses acclimatise to the aroma. There is a cute little museum on site, with items from the family home and farm, and those associated with sharks and fishing. Then we get to taste the famous delicacy. Of course, David and I already tried it the first night in Reykjavik, but I did wonder if that was sanitised for tourists (plus we'd worked our way along the Icelandic beer shelf at that stage and maybe our senses were a little dulled), so I was still somewhat apprehensive to taste it this morning. I needn’t have worried, I still didn't find the smell as obnoxious as I thought I would, and the taste was really quite pleasant. I went back for seconds and even thirds, all in the name of research, as my good friend Helen wanted me to describe the rotten shark experience to her (the things I do for my friends!). Well here it is Helen: the texture is somewhat similar to tofu, although it depends on whether you try an end piece or middle piece (they are cut in cubes about the size of a die); the 'crusts' can be a little chewy. As for the flavour – well, it is really hard to describe. It is fishy, of course, and you can taste the ammonia (or maybe it is just the smell that confuses you?) - I likened it to salty liquorice, and Rocky-Rock and the driver didn't disagree with that. Satisfied Helen?

Greenland Sharks give birth to live babies - such as this tiny 15 cm long infant.

Note two thumbs on the gloves - when rowing, one side would get wet, so you just turn the gloves around and use the otehr side.

Fighting over the shark delicacies.

Lunch cruise in the Breiðafjörður fjord
Due to high winds (the gusts were 10 on the Icelandic scale of 1-12!), our itinerary was changed from a lunch cruise, to having lunch in port (a delicious creamy fish soup with prawns, scallops and white fish) and then popping out on a cruise on the fjord.


Breiðafjörður is a large shallow bay, about 50 km wide and 125 km long and is interesting in that the northern tip was formed about 15 million years ago, whereas the southern end at Snæfellsnes was formed less than half that time ago.

Breiðafjörður has a spectacular land and seascape consisting of shallow seas, small fjords and bays and an inner part of intertidal areas dotted with about 3,000 islands, islets and skerries. The area contains about half of Iceland's intertidal area and tides can be up to six metres.

This area is on the UNESCO Tentative List but hasn’t quite made it to the official list – yet.

By this stage it had stopped raining, so we decided (along with 10-12 others) to stay on the fore deck during the cruise. The scenery consisted of islands (well, there's a surprise), with sun-lit mountains in the distance, and dark threatening clouds looming above them. Really quite dramatic.


As the boat gained speed, more and more people sought refuge inside, and by the time the hail set in, we were only four hard-core tourists left on deck.


Meanwhile the crew had been busy fishing, and we were served the freshest (2-3 minutes out of the ocean) raw scallops ever! Delicious!


As well as the Borgarfjörður Museum, the town of Borgarnes is famous for the burial mound of Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, the father of Egils Saga’s Egill Skallagrímsson which can be found in a park near the centre. Not that this is someone I have actually heard of, but the Icelanders seem to be proud of the fact.


Since 1998 there has been a underwater tunnel (5,762 m in length and runs to a depth of 165 m below sea level) under Hvalfjörður fjord, cutting the driving time between Reykjavík and Borgarnes by around 1 hour.

Borgarfjörður Icelandic Settlement Centre museum
The Settlement centre is primarily a local history museum which also covers local folklore, an insightful exhibition of Iceland's settlement period and the famous 10th century poet Egil Skallagrimsson (author of Egil's Saga), and an art Collection. Visitors can learn about the town and local settlements, and also see many exhibits of birds, local art, and traditional agricultural equipment. The idea behind the exhibits is to leave visitors with a great impression of childhood in Iceland, rather than being just a detailed compilation of facts and figures. Photographs play a major role in this exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits, as I love folklore and sagas.


We also had a very nice apple cake in the café there, which helped to get rid of the hákarl repeats was getting. It is not so nice the second time round.

One of the choices for tonight's dinner was 'lean horse steak', and very nice it was too. It was obviously one of those unfriendly ones....


Posted by Grete Howard 13:55 Archived in Iceland

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