Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.
Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.
When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.
This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.
Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.
Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.
And of course there are related movie posters.
A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.
Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.
You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.
And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.
The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.
Outside the farm you can visit the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.
In this form it almost looks appetising.
In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:
Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, or chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.
The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.
They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:
One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:
But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).
Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?