I have just returned from a few days in Akureyri, about 350 kilometers north of Reykjavik (I flew there), and at about 18,000 people, Iceland’s second largest town. And I think I have fallen in love—with the town. It is just south of the Arctic Circle, but climate and currents mean its harbor is ice-free all year—although they assure me that the lakes do freeze over for excellent skating. It is considered the best downhill and cross-country skiing in Iceland, just minutes from downtown. And yet, it does not feel like a “ski town.” It feels a solid community that is very aware of its heritage of being first settled before 900 AD, and which has managed to survive the cenuties and even thrive.
Upon arrival--to snow showers and a frigid gale--I quickly found the local coffee shop, the building with the turrets in the photo, warm and cozy inside with huge windows, excellent soups, pastries and coffee. And open until eleven at night. I spent both evenings there and it was packed, a complete social scene. The bookstore, very ample, is the store on the corner that starts with the E.
And I had dinner at the excellent local restaurant across the street:
Akureyri reminds me in a strange way of Port Townsend, somehow the feel. It has a lower city along the harbor
And an upper city, separated from the lower city by a bluff of trees and gardens (small planted trees, we are in the polar north here…).
Each day, I went early to swim in the large outdoor pool. I couldn’t take a photo of the pool unfortunately, but on the ponds in front, the ducks and swans congregated.
People say here that the swimming pool is to the Icelanders what the pub is to the English. Almost every town or village, regardless of how small, has a pool. If the area has geothermal—which means that heated water is essentially unlimited and free—they have heated outdoor pools in which everyone swims all year. Akureyri has just such an outdoor pool, but for the very cold winter days, there is an indoor entrance to the pool, you slip into the lukewarm water inside and can slide to the outer pool through a small door, meaning you never have to encounter the biting winter wind.
Beside the large swimming pools are always several hot pools of varied temperatures. This is where people congregate, chat, meet each other. For many people, this is their after-work ritual—just like the British pub—but the Icelanders, in this case, generally drink coffee not beer; as one Icelander told me, ”We tend to binge-drink on the weekends, but during the week, if someone drinks a beer, people begin to think he has a problem.”
Reykjavik has, of course, several pools. I have begun to frequent the oldest one, an indoor pool built in the 1930s, all classic tile and long, paned windows along the pool. It does, of course, have an outside hot pool, and the run-off water from the pool runs down the entrance steps so your feet are nice and warm as you rush, braving the elements in a wet suit, from the indoor pool to the outdoor hot one.
The house where I stay in Reykjavik is fairly near the water (as is most of Reykjavik actually) and walking distance to the “warm bathing beach.” This area offers various options: it is an actual beach with sand (although I think the sand was brought in…. most of the shore is dark, rugged lava and this sand is yellow). One cove is “normal” aka Arctic frigid, but some brave souls leap in there (which I did last time I was here, swimming around until hypothermia set in. Locals consciously train themselves, adding a minute or so in increments until they can survive a full half hour.). A second cove has a piped warm spring bubbling directly into it. This makes it almost as warm as Lake Washington, slightly better than the Puget Sound, but familiar in that the top two inches carry most of the warmth—I noticed that here, just as at home, people have learned to swim there very flat.
Above the beach is a long, shallow concrete hot pool facing the fjord. Lounging in its waters, you almost feel as though you are on the beach itself. Those who do not venture into the frigid cove smile in the hot pool as they watch the frozen frigid cove swimmers stumble to its warmth and sit comatose for a time until their bodies start functioning again.
This bathing pool isn’t open yet, but this morning I wandered around the hill that lies between us and it, and between gusts of sculpture fumes (sadly largely caused by pollution from a geothermal plant outside town), I could smell the spring.
But now, I sit at my window on my almost final evening of this visit to Iceland. My friend with whom I stay here in Reykjavik has just gone out to collect the early spring chives and dock from the garden. These she will add to our store-bought spinach for dinner. We are also having mackerel. Mackerel is a relatively new fish here, brought by the global warming; some people see with it new fish harvests and riches, others see that it is overwhelming the herring and leaving the puffins with nothing to eat. Fishing, economics, and environment are central to most discussions here.
The long shadows of twilight are beginning, but the sun has not yet set, a blue sky, and it is after eight in the evening. Winter has passed. This is when the days rush headlong to chase away the dark; they pass quickly the lesser and slower changes of night and day which we in the lesser latitudes know. If day is to achieve its midnight sun by the end of May, it can no longer dally with mere evening.
The birds have come, in the thousands, probably millions. I have the window open so I can hear their cries and clamor in their exuberance to pair and mate. The vibrancy of the birds is something different here, an explosion of life after the ice and dark. I think of the long journeys so many have taken to come here. Icelanders call the Raven their unofficial national bird because he stays all winter, but the swans and migrating ducks mean spring, a symbol and reality of regeneration as they shout and flap about in what appears to be pure joy. The daffodils and crocuses have also begun to bloom. And to think that when I arrived here less than five weeks ago, this ground was under snow and silent.
Ah, but now I hear and smell our dinner mackerel on the pan, so I must go. When you hear from me next I will be in a very different spring, in Britain.