6. Akureyri

August 15th

21 km  | 13 miles around Akureyri

Akureyri_travel notes 6

August 15th

21 km  | 13 miles around Akureyri

The grey weather of yesterday continued into today. Breaks in the clouds, offered us glimpses of the surrounding mountains.These mountains along with the city’s location, near the base of Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in central northern Iceland, provide the city with a protected harbor. They also make Akureyri one of the most important port and fisheries center for Iceland. But, I was surprised how difficult it was to acquire fresh fish. After searching the town on our own, we went to the tourist information center for assistance. The lady behind the desk informed us, with obvious regret, that last year, the final fish market in the city closed down. This brought about a bizarre realization: in a country where fishing is the highest economic contributor, I still have not seen a fish market. The lady was, however, able to point us in the direction of a small supermarket with a fish counter that fulfilled our fish craving. The building containing the tourist information center was stunning. Circular in shape, its structure wore thick, dark, basalt armor. These striking basalt walls were reminiscent of the formations we had recently witnessed in the cliffs of the Westfjords.

 

 

The first public park in Iceland was initiated by a group of housewives from Akureyri. In 1910, these women founded the Park Society with a vision to, “make a Park in Akureyri, for adornment for the town and as a recreation place for the inhabitants”. The Park Society was allocated 2.5 acres of “hay-field” by the municipality and in 1912, the Akureyri Park was officially opened. In 1953, the society disbanded, the city took over responsibility for the park. In this political transition, from society-run, to city-run, the park became a Botanical Garden, the first in Iceland.

Numerous additions to this “hay-field” parcel accrued over time creating the current 9-acre botanical garden. Grand axial paths lead to a circular nucleus with a pool serving as the focal point. Interstitial and peripheral spaces are interwoven with secondary paths. These smaller pathways have an ad-hoc feel. They provided an intimate setting and created an atmosphere of adventure and exploration. I was excited to see that the maintenance grounds, greenhouses and work spaces were included in this botanical garden. This inclusion of seedlings, tools and workers made visible the realities, processes, and care involved in maintaining this garden. Today, the botanical garden believes its most important task, “is to provide northern Iceland in general with trees, shrubs and perennials that fulfill demands upon beauty and hardiness”. Interestingly, there is no entrance fee to visit this exceptionally well-cared for botanical garden.

 

Kjarnaskógur Forest is a large area (almost 2,000 acres) northeast of the city. It’s dedicated to an experimental forest and nursery. In 1946, the Forestry Union acquired land barren land previously used for sheep grazing and potato growing. In 1952, planting of this land commenced. Since then over 700,000 plants of various species (approx. 80) have been cultivated. The most common tree species in the forest is the Icelandic birch (Betula pubescens) and larch (Larix sp.). I was also amazed by the large amount of lupine. The lupine appeared similar to the ones I am familiar with in Maine, except their leaves were smaller, and they were blooming in late August (in Maine they bloom in late June).

In 1972, the Town of Akureyri and the Forestry Union made an agreement to establish a public recreation area in Kjarnaskógur. In 1974, the grounds of Kjarnaskógur were formally open to the public. Today, the forest contains trail systems for walking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Signage in the park emphasizes the illuminated outdoor running/cross-country skiing path that traverses the woods for a little over a mile. With extremely short daylight hours in the winter, this lighting system provides the ability for year-round use. Playgrounds, as well as facilities for barbecuing and picnicking, create additional recreational aspects to this forest.

Driving into the forest, I was surprised to find a large, colorful playground. My preconceived ideas of what a “forest” would be, a place of trees, influenced my immediate distaste for this construction. It wasn’t until the end of our time spent at Kjarnaskógur that I began to appreciate the creativity and thoughtfulness of these gathering areas. Why shouldn’t a forest have play structures for children and a grilling commons for adults? The more contrived recreation areas were condensed into a single area whittled out of the trees. Bermed land created separate niches for picnic tables in close proximity to a larger grill court allowing for privacy. Paths for immersion into the forest also existed. It was very strange to walk through a forest that has been planted only 40 years ago. Moments of dense pine abutted meadows of birch. (For what reason?) I pondered. What an incredibly huge task: to plant a forest!

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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.

GEOTHERMAL CENTRE IN LAUGARDALUR   (source: Vatnavinir)

“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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