3. Húsafell-Patreksfjörður

Húsafell to Patreksfjörður _travel notes 3

August 12th

Total distance covered: 425 km | 264 miles + ferry


Light filled the sky when I fell asleep at 1 a.m. and it was still bright when I woke up a 4 a.m. We needed to get an early start to catch the ferry which departed from Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and would deliver us, 3 hours later, to Brjánslækur on the Westfjords. As we hit the road I noticed the full moon hanging in the sky. The moon, along with a sunset after 10 p.m. and a sunrise before 5 a.m., and the reflective light grey ground, made it seem as if darkness had never covered Húsafell. On our 3-hour drive to the ferry which skirted the northern shore of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we saw a total of 4 vehicles before we entered town. Few people were out, but there was no lack of sheep: literally hundreds of white, grey, and black bundles of wool dotted the hillsides and convened on the roads, using the markers as scratching posts.


Ferry rides provide a wonderfully different perspective of the landscape. An island girl by nature, I stayed above deck as much as possible enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and layers upon layers upon layers of land on the horizon. The journey was slow and the water was smooth as we crossed Breiðafjörður. The shoreline of the Westfjords appeared- it was hard to grasp the enormous scale of these cliffs and landforms- wow! Since arriving in Iceland my impression of large landscapes has been trumped time and time again… 

Látrabjarg is the most westerly point of Europe. These enormous cliffs, at their highest point, surge 1,300 feet above the ocean and are home to the country’s largest colonies of cliff-dwelling birds. It is also believed to provide nesting and breeding ground to the largest auk colony in the world, although I must admit I was enamored with the puffins. Driving around moutain passes with numerous 180˚ switchbacks, directly along the edge of steep cliffs, on narrow dirt roads was exciting to say the least. Just making it to this location felt like a great adventure. It’s hard to believe the adventures of the past- after they had traveled to these cliffs, people would dangle, suspended from ropes, over the edge, on the mission of collecting seabird eggs. Today, signage suggests that visitors approach the cliff edge on their stomach- being careful not to get to close, as they might damage the cliffs stability and this highly prized landscape. The lack of concern for a person falling over the cliffs was refreshing- fall over the edge, that’s fine, but don’t hurt our sacred landscape!


Westfjords- stunning in scenery and isolated. I grew up on Mount Desert Island, Maine, and lived for a few years on North Haven Island, Maine (an hour ferry ride from the mainland). I thought I understood  isolation, but what I had previously experienced was nothing in comparison. Here, only a few small “towns” exist and in some places miles upon miles past before a single dwelling came into view. A view, in Iceland has an entirely different meaning as there are almost no trees blocking one’s sight. This increased visibility also raised the question of privacy, or lack thereof. We passed one farmhouse sitting at the crutch of a massive fjord, braving the extremes. Adjacent to the house we noticed the john (outhouse).  For miles around everyone would know when the urge was calling- Mom and I couldn’t help laughing out loud.


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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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