10. Hveragerði-Keflavík

Hveragerði to Keflavík_travel notes 10

August 19th

Total distance covered:470 km  | 292 miles


We drove the southeast coast of Iceland faster than expected and decided to stay in Hveragerði. It was exciting to be in this town, as it is one of the communities I will investigate in further detail. The town is full of vegetation and steaming hot areas, so I was thrilled with the surroundings. As we were now only 28 miles east of Reykjavik we were closing in on our circumnavigation of the island. While we could easily have spent the entire day in Hveragerði, we only visited the central geothermal park (I couldn’t pass that up). We decided to take advantage of the rental car and continue to explore more peripheral sites.

The large geothermal park is centrally located within the town. The town itself is built above a hot-spring field. The entrance to the park is a geothermally heated greenhouse. This is a fitting opening as horticulture is a flourishing and important business in the town. There were more fences and railings in this park than we had previously encountered at other geothermal areas. However, this was the first time the geothermal area we explored was located in the center of a community. Here, houses abutted the fenced park. Previously the geothermal areas we experienced were situated in vast lava fields without human occupation. From remnants of old pipes to new pipes and holes spewing steam, this area offered a wealth of community and geothermal history.


Gullfoss (“gold falls”) is a waterfall that descends the Hvítá River in staircase-like cascades. At the final stage, the roaring water plunges at a right angle into a 105-foot deep crevasse. This spectacular sight draws flocks of tourists the average summertime flow 140 m³/s. There have been questions controversies as to whether this waterfall’s tremendous power should be used to generate electricity. This issue has sparked tremendous controversy throughout Iceland. Currently, however, the waterfall is owned by the State of Iceland and is protected.

On our trip from Hveragerði to Gullfoss, we were fortune in meeting Avi. He was traveling around the country by himself (well, he and his large backpack, which he lovingly referred to as his companion). Avi had been sidetracked in his travels due to his search for a “hot pot” the night before. He was trying to get back to a more populated area to catch a ride. Yes, there was a culture of finding the good “hot pots”! He told us that his favorite (other than the hot pots in the Mývatn area) was located where hot and cold rivers meet near a hiking trail outside of Hveragerði. This friendly hitchhiker had shared with us a “hot” gem, and I couldn’t wait to check it out!


Geysir was not gushing when we arrived. It had stopped spouting its 200 foot eruptions in the early 20th century. Some believe that Geysir stopped spouting due to the accumulation of rocks clogging up its opening. These rocks had been thrown into it by tourists who were attempting to set the geyser off. Others believe that these rocks, while damaging, were not the only reason for Geysir’s dormancy.The English word “geyser” actually takes its name from this place. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that “geyser” is, “a spring that throws forth intermittent jets of heated water and steam,” and it originates from, “‘Geysir’, hot spring in Iceland, from geysa to rush forth”. The geyser at Geysir is believed to have come into existence around the end of the 13th century when a series of strong earthquakes and eruptions occurred in the area. Today, while Geysir was dormant, Strokkur (another geyser in close proximity) shoot off smaller bouts of water and steam. Mudpots, steam vents, geysers and hot streams all populate the Haukadalur valley.



Hellisheiði Power Station is the newest of the five geothermal power stations in Iceland. Located in the Hengill region (very close to Hveragerði), this power station is a combined heat and power plant (CHP). The newness and expense of the plant was evident in the intricately designed and modern visitor center. We had to paid to visit the Geothermal Energy Exhibition show in the power station, but it was definitely worth the money! We were introduced to the building (descriptions of design intent included) and geothermal processes by a personal tour guide. Video, as well as multimedia touch screens, were loaded with information on geothermal energy, its historical uses and the current ecological factors in geothermal processing. While I thoroughly enjoyed the educational aspects of this exhibit, the undercurrent on the company’s (Mannvit) ideas on sustainable green energy was less appealing. The energy production capacity for the plant in December 2010 was 213 MWe. My goal is to be able to explain to all of you what this figure actually means.



The Blue Lagoon ( Bláa Lónið) is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, statistics indicate that more people visit the spa in one year than occupy the country. The lagoon is a geothermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavík. The steam from both the Svartsengi power plant and lagoon is visible from the Keflavik International Airport. Only 8 miles separate International arrival and this “hot” destination. Re-use of hot water resources and the geothermal aspect of the Reykjanes peninsula are key ingredients in the spa’s functionality. Super-heated water from the Svartsengi power station is used to produce electricity as well as to provide heat for the municipal hot water heating system. After the water has gone though this system then enters the lagoon. In other Geothermal plants I have encountered on this trip, the cooler by-product water is either injected back into the bore hole or left above ground in the landscape. This inventive re-use system provides recreational, social, and medicinal benefits for its users. The blue waters and black, silica-edged lava rock (along with an incredibly designed site and structure) create an incredible atmosphere that is other-worldly.


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Thvottalaugar (Washing pools): a historical “hot spot” of Reykjavik

 (source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

Even before Iceland’s geothermal waters were harnessed to produce energy, geothermal water was recognized for its important contribution to a community. Iceland’s Ancient records indicate that geothermal springs were used for washing and bathing. Cleanliness was considered an important factor in Nordic life. Carrying baskets of laundry was not a light task. If the distance to hot water was far from the homestead it was a great burden. Women gathered at nearby hot springs or hot streams to use the already heated water for washing. Laundering was hard, steamy, work, but it also served as time for ladies to socialize.

Norse poetic literature emphasized the importance of grooming and cleanliness. This example is from Reginsmal (The Ballad of Regin):

“Combed and washed | shall the wise man go, And a meal at mom shall take;

For unknown it is | where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

(source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

In towns with larger populations, laundering was an even larger communal event for the ladies and their children. Because there were many homesteads in these areas, washing often required walking a further distance.Thvottalaugar (washing pools) was a busy locale set to the east in Reykjavik. The road which led from the heart of the city to Thvottalaugar was named Laugavegur (washing road). This road was well worn by women carrying baskets and workers carting loads of wash.

Contemporary Laugavegur is the “major shopping” road of downtown Reykjavik. Traveling east along this road, travelers will find Laugardalur Park where Thvottalaugar remains today (although dry). Along with the gorgeous old infrastructure a structure and signage exist to describe the history of this site.

Thvottalaugar in its Laugardalur Park environs (photographs in October 2011)One of the first trial wells for geothermal water was sunk at Thvottalaugar between 1755, and 1756 by Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson. Between 1928 and 1930, more wells were sunk in the Thvottalaugar vicinity in pursuit of hot water for space heating. In 1930 enough geothermal water was recovered from these wells to heat Austurbackjarskili, a school in Reykjavik. The school was the first building in the city to be heated by geothermal water. Shortly after the school, the hospital, public pool and approximately 60 residential houses were connected to and utilized hot water from the geothermal pipeline originating at Thvottalaugar.

Vatnavinir Friends of Water recognize the importance of Thvottalaugar and have created a very interesting proposal for the area.


“The washing springs in Laugardalur lie at the centre of the history and development of the City of Reykjavík. Here, maids washed heavy loads of clothes, people and animals bathed, boys and girls learnt their first swimming strokes, experiements were made with cheesemaking and drilling for hot water for heating and electricity.

But steam no longer soars towards the skies and there is little to remind of old times other than stone walls by the dried up stream and grass covered washing tubs now long disconnected.

Vatnavinir propose the creation of a Geothermal Centre to honour the important history of water use in a vibrant way, e.g. by bringing to life the spirit of the old springs – the white linen blowing in the wind, the outlines of people in the steam, the smell of hot water and coffee.

Hot water may again be supplied to the springs and the stream (Laugalækur), now contained within an underground pipe, allowed to flow again along a part of its old channel linking the Botanical Garden and the old washing springs.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

The baths themselves are an education centre around hot water in a historical and geological context and are underground. Guests relax in hot pools while they learn about utilisation and origin of the hot water and geothermal heat through multimedia. In the evenings silence reigns – all screens are turned off and the bath house only used for bathing – but there could be occasional events in the evenings – story and poetry evenings, film screenings, concerts or even naming of children.

A public laundromat is also to be found here where guests and passers-by can wash their clothes. The laundromat is a historical museum on washing utensils and appliances but open to public use. Guests could choose between washing clothes on a washboard in a tub or in a washing machine from 1950. Simple refreshments, reminescent of the food washing women and travellers ate in times past, will be on sale – hot spring coffee and baked bread, fish, potatoes and meat. Paddling pools for children are in old washing tubs. The largest pool is open to the sky but beneath the present surface and white linen blows in the wind on lines above it creating a play of light and shadow in the pool.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

It is also proposed that a small steam power station be erected, which would supply the area with electricity. Thus the project – once upon a time began but never finished – would be brought full circle to its conclusion and the area thereby also made self-sustainable in terms of electricity.” (source: Vatnavinir)

Daylighting the stream and allowing geothermal heat/energy to stimulate this area, as it did in the past, is an extremely exciting prospect. I also see another important aspect to this historical rejuvenation as linking this steamy location back to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Not only is this path a historical reference, but it would draw people from the center of the city to this lesser known area. I believe Thvottalaugar has huge potential!

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