2. Borgarnes-Húsafell

Borgarnes to Húsafell_travel notes 2

August 11th

Total distance covered: 164 km  | 102 miles (backtracking included)


Geothermal greenhouses – After a long night’s sleep, sunshine greeted us for the second day in a row. We were ready to make our way to Reykholt. The cultural heritage of this geothermal area is primarily based around saga writer and historian, Snorri Sturluson, who lived in Reykholt between 1206 and 1241. However, before we arrived in Reykholt, we were side-tracked by the numerous greenhouses setback from the roadway. U-turn! One of the towns I will investigate in detail on this trip is Hveragerði, which is known for its greenhouse culture. It only seemed fitting to stop at the first greenhouse we came to. A few lines of scraggly trees stood in front of the greenhouses. I wonder what these trees in a land of so few are doing. Is this to reduce direct sunlight for the plants inside, to set this business away from the road, for privacy? Either way I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. We drove down one of the dirt roads leading to the greenhouses to check out the scene. The first greenhouse we came to was FULL of red peppers. Monoculture greenhousing? Pipes lined the glass panels which made up the greenhouse. Pipes everywhere! There were pipes on the floor, pipes on the ceiling and pipes on the walls. After peering into the steamy glass panels, I noticed a worker in my vicinity. Similar to my experience at the power plant on the first day of my trip, once again, the worker did not stop me from poking around, nor did he greet or acknowledge me. This time I went over to speak with him to ask if I could go inside the building. I conveyed my excitement in seeing these geothermally heated greenhouses for the first time. At this point, I realized the worker had spoken almost no words to me. It occurred to me that all of my English blabbering might not be understood. A few moments later he smiled, opened the latch to the greenhouse I had been peering into and led me inside. In the three of us went: this friendly worker, me, and a Siamese cat- which apparently has free reign over all the greenhouses. The worker grabbed a basket of already picked red peppers and headed out, closing the door tightly as he left. It was humid, warm, and full inside the greenhouse. A LOT of pepper plants were packed into this greenhouse. The rows were tightly spaced and the plants were close together in small pots. Everything was very orderly and scientific-looking. There were larger pipes heating the greenhouse and smaller pipes in the soil of each plant. The watering system? After a few pictures, I gave the cat that had been standing next to me a bit of attention. I picked the cat up and headed out of the greenhouse. I let her down outside, unsure where she belonged, inside or out. I looked up to see the same worker smile and then continue his business. So, I think that interaction went well…thank goodness for cats! As we headed out we noticed a small self-serve produce stand next to the major road- what a treat, fresh vegetables.


Reykholt, Snorralaug (Snorri’s Pool)- The guide book wasn’t kidding when it said, “ tiny hamlet” in reference to Reykholt. After a few attempts we managed to find the acclaimed Snorralaug. According to Landnámabók, (The Book of Settlement) a medieval manuscript depicting Icelandic settlement in the 9th and 10thcenturies, a hot water bath was already in use at Reykholt in the 10th century. The tradition continued in the 13th century as Snorri Sturluson, a renowned saga writer, created a 13-foot diameter hot pool. Interestingly, an underground passage connected the farmhouse to the pool and created easy and direct access to this hot water. The descriptions I have read of Snorralaug suggest that this pool was a place for social gathering and great discussion among many scholars and literary men of the time. The age, culture, and reverence connected to this pool suggest the importance that steamy, hot pool gatherings have had on Icelandic society in the past (present?). Snorralaug is now part of a larger complex which also houses Snorrastofa (a cultural center devoted to the study of Nordic history and literature connected to Snorri), Reykholt Regional School, The Old Farmstead site, a cemetery believed to contain the Sturluson family, a church, a park, a statue of Snorri (a gift from Norway), and even a hotel. This complex basically IS Reykholt. Directly adjacent to this complex there were rows of greenhouses. Despite the inviting bench, unfortunately an uninviting sign read: Private.


Deildartunguhver is a thermal spring in the Reykholt area which brings to the surface 47 gallons of water per second: the greatest output of any thermal spring in the world! Since 1925 hot water from this spring has been utilized for central heating in Akranes, Borgarnes and Hvanneyri. The current distribution pipeline was constructed in 1979-1981 and runs a total of 46 miles. A large pipeline extended from a small structure over grasses and bubbling, steaming ground towards its place of distribution. Behind a large berm, which assisted in holding in massive amounts of steam and created an extremely humid atmosphere, was an intense display of water bubbling, gushing, and steaming from the earth. Something that struck me about this place was the vitality of the stunning green mosses which clung to the rocks directly adjacent to this superhot water. Directly adjacent to this spring we observed more greenhouses, explaining the self-serve produce stand next to the signage for Deildartunguhver. As with many sites up to this point, there were picnic tables – we enjoyed a lovely lunch of fresh vegetables, cheese and crackers in this bizarre atmosphere. While we enjoyed our picnic numerous bus groups came and went; this is obviously a place “to see”.

Hraunfossar + Barnafoss (Lava Falls + Children’s Falls) are located on the Hvítá (White River) a few miles outside of Husafell. A short walk on dirt trails brought us to both waterfalls. First, Hraunfossar where bright turquoise water gently fell from under the moss covered lava- stunning. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the warning sign, no rails to block the view like we might have in the United States, just an ideogram (the universal language) – don’t jump! We continued upstream to Barnafoss, where the river narrows and speeds up creating livelier splashing. This waterfall’s name comes from a tragedy: two children are believed to have fallen to their death crossing a narrow stone arch that once spanned the river and falls.

Hallmundarhraun Lava field + Surtshellir on the map appeared close to Húsafell, where we would be spending the night. However, we soon learned the importance of our map’s color coded system for roads in Iceland. For the most part we had been traveling roads marked in red (similar to the Rte. 1 / Ring Road), but to get to Surtshellir we traversed new color territory, tackling not only brown (dirt roads), but also yellow (perfect for ATV’s) trails. While our small 16-year old car handled this rougher trail, yellow: made for excitement even as we traveled at snail’s pace, experiencing lava fields with new respect. GREY–BLACK destruction? Was there life on this vast plane? We could have been in a movie about the end of the world; it appeared a MASSIVE asphalt paved urbanity (excluding the structures + people) had been bombed, leaving the ground DECIMATED: heaving and cracking as far as the eye could see. We appeared to be alone in this expanse, making the landscape evermore POWERFUL. Finally, off in the distance we spotted people on the horizon walking across the lava field, so far this was the only sign we’d found indicating Surtshellir (a 6,463 ft. long lava cave system). On foot it became apparent that interspersed with the course lava rock were pillows of lichen, but on closer inspection we were unable to find bugs or wildlife of any sort. A lone sign indicated we had indeed found the lava caves. Massive, stunning and a bit terrifying this underground tunnel system left us wondering what was beneath our feet (or not) as we hiked back to the car, giving a new depth to this vast grey rocky plane.  


Gamli Bær (The old farm house) was built in 1908 and proved to be an incredible place to spend the night. The grounds contained a church + cemetery as well as a newer habitation by sculpture and musician Páll Guðmundsson. Sitting at the bottom of a huge fissure which descends the mountainside Páll had created studios both in the ground and sky (tunnel and tower). His stone carvings which surrounded the property were stunningly powerful and alive. In the evening we were lucky enough to have our own private concert, we sat on the steps outside the church, while Páll played the Steinharpa. This musical instrument looks like a large xylophone and is made of stones found in the area. The stones sit unattached on the wooden framework. It turns out Páll has played with Sigur Rós in concert- check it out on u-tube!  Pall a Husafelli + Sigur Rós 


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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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