Iceland may seem like a small island, and physically it is, yet this little island packs a big punch! We hopped on a 2.5 hr ferry ride from the Westfjords to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (cutting 5 hours of drive time), to explore our last bit of the land of fire and ice.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a beautiful region with surprising landscapes, history, and literature. It is here you will learn about the best known serial killer in Icelandic history, Axlar-Bjorn, in the 16th century and view the sub-glacial stratovolcano Snæfellsjokull, the entrance to a passage leading to the centre of the earth (according to Verne’s novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”).
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Traditionally cured shark is a national dish of Iceland. Many come to Iceland to seek out this notoriously foul-smelling food. So naturally we were excited when we found a whole museum dedicated to leaning about the traditions behind this dish and why it has been around for ages. It was much more meaningful than just to try it in a restaurant and not understand its history.
The famous food traveler, Andrew Zimmern, once traveled to this Shark Museum that’s found at Bjarnarhofn on the northern side of the peninsula. Here you can learn about the local Greenland shark from which traditional ‘hákarl’ or fermented shark is made. Greenland shark is poisonous if eaten fresh but fermentation neutralizes the toxin. The museum holds exhibits on the history of this culinary practice, family fishing boats, & processing tools. A small video is shown explaining the hunting and fermenting procedure. We got to taste a piece of the pungent shark meat. The shark itself is not bad, very fishy, but the ammonia smell and sour aftertaste are things that linger strongly- and not in a good way. After exploring inside, we took a walk behind the museum to the drying shed. This is where shark pieces are kept hanging as part of the fermentation process.
The two phases in the processing of the shark are burying and drying. The shark is first cut to chunks and placed in open containers and weighted down, often with stones. After 4-6 weeks, the chunks are hung up in drying sheds. The drying time depends on the temperature. During the burial phrase there is a substantial increase of bacteria within the tissue of the shark, which become very common. Most of these bacteria produce the enzyme urease, which converts the urea to ammonia. The drying process results in an extensive reduction of the number of the bacteria, in addition to the ammonia evaporating. At the end of the drying phase an edible product emerges, reminding one of strong cheese.
The Greenland Shark has been captured in Icelandic waters for hundreds of years and extensively since the 14th century. In the later part of the 17th century the shark was caught mostly for its liver. Shark liver oil was used extensively as lamp oil, particularly street lights, in European cities in the past. From 1830 to 1880 the Greenland shark was the most important economical fish in Iceland.
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Found on the cover of so many guidebooks, Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, is the most photographed mountain in Iceland! And you can see why… its unique shape, coastal location, and isolation make it stand out for tourists and locals alike. Add two waterfalls into the landscape and you have something extra magnificent! I didn’t think that we were going to have a chance to see Kirkjufell because of the weather. However, we were literally droving past this mountain for the third time before the clouds and rain let up to give us a view. Third times a charm, right?!
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Hellissandur: The Street Art Capitol of Iceland. It literally only takes about 45 seconds to drive through this quiet, remote town to catch the variety of colorful and distinctive murals that color it. It wasn’t something that we knew about beforehand, yet the bold “Welcome to the Street Art Capitol of Iceland” sign just beckons travelers to find the art. It was such a fun little town!
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!