The first town of note on the north coast, whether you’re approaching from Búðardalur or from Borgarnes, is picturesque STYKKISHÓLMUR, with its brightly coloured harbourside buildings. The largest and most enjoyable town on Snæfellsnes, with a population of around 1100, it is renowned today for its halibut and scallops landed from the waters of Breiðafjörður, which borders the northern coast of the peninsula and is technically more a sea bay than a fjord, full of skerries and rocky islets.
The Stykkishólmur region was actually one of the first to be settled in Iceland, and the countryside here features in several tales, most notably the Erbyggja Saga. This strange story, thick with evil spirits, bloody family vendettas and political intrigue, follows the life of the morally ambivalent Snorri Þórgrímsson, a pagan priest and son of a Viking who finally becomes a champion of Christianity. Easily accessible sites from the period include Þingvellir, an assembly ground just south of the town; and the nearby mountain Helgafell, the final resting place for Guðrún Ósvifsdóttir, heroine of the Laxdæla Saga. In fact, it was at the foot of Helgafell that the first settler in the region, Þórólfur Mostraskegg, found his high-seat pillars; in true Viking seafaring fashion he’d thrown them overboard vowing to settle wherever they washed up. He named the nes (or promontory) where he found them after the god of thunder, Þór – hence the name Þórsnes.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the nineteenth century that things really got moving in Stykkishólmur, when a man by the name of Árni Thorlacius (1802–91) inherited the town’s trading rights from his father and became the town’s leading merchant, buying and selling all manner of goods, though predominantly fish. In 1832, he set about building Norska húsið (Norwegian House) with coarsely hewn timber from Norway, as was the tradition in the nineteenth century – Iceland then, as now, had little timber of its own. The building is still the town’s most impressive today, and houses a museum that attempts a potted history of Stykkishólmur; look out for the old black-and-white photographs of Árni and his wife, Anna, with whom he had eleven children, on the second floor, which has been reconstructed as their living room. Rather curiously, Icelanders remember Árni not so much for his commercial success in drawing the town into the modern age but for his pioneering weather reports from 1845.