5. Reykjane-Akureyri

Reykjane to Akureyri_travel notes 5

August 15th

Total distance covered: 470 km  | 292 miles


Driftwood piles dotted the coastline as we traveled the eastern shore of the Westfjords. In particular, Steingrímsfjörður was filled with stack after stack of driftwood. After listening to Egils Saga Skallagrimssonar, an audio book I discovered online, gathering driftwood was a typical chore. During the age of Egils Saga, Iceland was still a land covered with trees. When the story told of collecting driftwood along the beaches, the task had not struck me as odd. Today, however, no trees stand near this coast. Yet here lay huge piles of logs. The task of collecting driftwood seemed as alive today as during the saga era. Where had this wood come from? Did Ocean currents bring in this bounty? Did the placement of this particular cove in relation to other land masses make it a good landing point? What would become of this wood? How would it be used? Who had gathered the wood and stacked it into piles?


Bara Hlin Kristjansdottir provides the beginning of the audio bookEgils saga Skallagrimmsonar free of charge. Bara has both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in comparative literature and uses these readings to “warm up” her voice. If you are interested in Icelandic sagas, I highly recommend listening to this. Being a non-Icelandic speaker, I have found the names of people and places long and cumbersome in text, often distracting me from the story. In the audio book, Bara handles the pronunciation allowing the listener to drift into the story with ease.



We reached the town of Hvammstangi before noon. This was where we had intened on spending the night. However, after a relaxing soak in the pool at Hotel Reykjanes the night before, we had both fallen asleep early and woken up early. Since we were back on Rte. 1, (the Ring Road) the larger road made traveling much faster. There was a much greater volume of cars traveling this road, changing the driving experience dramatically. The weather was grey and wet. So, we decided it was a perfect day for driving. There was no need for stopping yet. Onward to Akureyri! Nicknamed the “Capital of the North”, Akureyri has a population of around 17,000 people. This urban settlement is by far the largest town outside of the Reykjavík capital area. The past two nights, our meals of cheese, salami and crackers had been fun, but we were excited to get to an urban center with more options. During our foggy journey we continually encountered a plethora of sheep. Skagafjörður Heritage Museum focuses on 18th & 19th century rural Icelandic life. The Glaumbær Farmhouse is the main attraction. This complex consists of buildings from various ages. But, the house is believed to have been in its original location since the age of settlement (900 A.D.). The Farmhouse consists of 13 buildings, all constructed of turf, stone and wood. The walls are extremely thick, although they vary from one to the next. The rain and wind, on this stormy day, forced us inside the sod dwelling. The deep layers of turf,  set in a beautifully stacked herringbone pattern, provided incredible insulation. Inside the Farmhouse, it was quiet, cozy and dim. Turf construction was tradition in Iceland until around the 1900’s when concrete became the building material of choice. The book Independent People by Halldór Laxness describes rural Icelandic life through the tale of a poor sheep farmer in the early 20th century. Halldór’s descriptions of living in a sod house and living in a concrete structure are remarkable. This story, while depressing at times, is known for its social realism as it confronts the survival of people on isolated crofts/farms in a severe and challenging landscape.  A project I submitted last December “Thermal mass in Independent People” highlights quotes from the book that contrast these extremely different living conditions and experiences (sod + concrete).



Akureyri was described in the Bradt Guide to Iceland as “having gardens planted with gusto” and “streets lined with tall trees“. After days of experiencing relatively few plants and almost no trees, I couldn’t wait to see what this city had to offer in the way of vegetation.



Birch and Mountain Ash were the two most common tree species we observed in the city. While these trees were “tall” in comparison to other trees we had witnessed in the country, I would estimate the average size to be around 35 to 45 feet. It felt strange to be walking under a canopy after so many tree less days. Akureyri displayed well-kept, colorful flowers, in front yards and planters throughout the city. Seating options in the city center were inventive and memorable. Some seats were part of planters, some wove in-between trees, and still others stood out for their creative re-use.




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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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