“Hey guys, let’s go hang out in Borgarnes! I hear it’s a really cool place!”
Now when was the last time you heard that? Let’s be honest: probably never. The little town an hour and a half northwest of Reykjavík is usually no more than the first or last pit stop on a road trip out of town. Knowing there was surely more to it than meets the passer-by-eye, we decided to trek up and see what the deal was. As it turns out, we were completely surprised and delighted by how much fun we had.
THE CONQUERING OF LANDS
The Settlement Centre, Brákarbraut 13-15
Our first stop was the Settlement Centre, one the most boasted of Borganes’ attractions, opened in 2006 by actor and playwright Kjartan Ragnarsson and his wife. For some reason, I had some kind of preconceived idea that it was going to be all gimmicky, like a colonialist fair or a Civil War recreation. Not that that’s a bad thing! I love colonialist fairs, what with all the funny hats. But this wasn’t the case at all. The centre is housed in the two oldest buildings in town, set side-by-side and connected by a reception annex built right into the side of a hill. The design of the place ingeniously blends primitive nature with sleek modernism. One building houses a beautiful café and restaurant, with a delicious smelling buffet as well as a meeting centre, while the other one has the centre’s two exhibits.
The first exhibit on the settlement of Iceland was a rich and interactive history lesson that took us all the way from Viking shipbuilding to what now lays at the original settlement sites. The whole thing was quite impressive in its design and technological prowess, managing to create immersive spaces that didn’t feel contrived or tacky. The second room features a ship’s prow gently moving as if on waves and looking out to a circular panorama of the ocean, like a Viking mechanical bull. The exhibit continues with various diagrams, sculptures, videos and interactive maps with accompanying stories, filling ones head with all sorts of heroic and humorous tales. The entire exhibit took roughly half an hour to go through without stopping the audio guide.
The next one was the Egils Saga exhibition, which depicts one of the most notable Icelandic sagas, the one of Egill Skallagrímsson, whose family settled the Borgafjörður region. This exhibit is a much more theatrical and artistic representation of the tale with a multitude of wood sculptures, statues, dioramas and paintings lining the rooms. These depictions range from rustic folk art to medieval-style religious panels, but also mythical nature-based carvings and some supremely creepy characters made out of very authentic looking animal skulls. Although there’s surely a lot more to the tale, this is a great way to tell it.
My only issue with both exhibits is that without any panels to read, one is confined to the audio guide for information. Unless one decides to go through just to look without learning, the minimum time in each display is thirty minutes. Not to mention how it excludes the hearing impaired. Hopefully in the future they will print a guide booklet as an alternative.
MAGIC WITH STRINGS ATTACHED
Brúðuheimar, Skúlagata 17
Our next stop was just up the road at Brúðuheimar (the ‘Centre for Puppet Arts’). Spread throughout three small houses near the Borganes shoreline, this museum was a real surprise for my two cohorts and I, as this place was originally referred to us as a ‘doll museum’. Much like my prejudices at our first stop, my friend had the notion this was going to be a bunch of creepy, 19th Century porcelain dolls staring at us like corpses through sterile glass cabinets. In fact, this was a completely magical world of human-controlled creatures and characters created by German puppet-master Bernd Ogrodnik, curated with Hildur Magnea Jónsdóttir.
The enchantment began as soon as we made our way up to the loft of the main house. A peephole display revealed the set of ‘Nómi’, a film currently in progress, while popular Icelandic children’s character Einar Áskell with his dad and mouse hung out behind us. After rounding a couple of corners we landed in a room with a massive shadow-screen display of ‘The Jumping Mouse’ and a try-out station with hand-puppet instructional images on the wall. Needless to say, we turned into a bunch of big kids trying to make alligators and bunnies.
We then headed over to the next house which was full of sets from previously performed puppet shows, such as ‘The Little Match Girl, ‘The Magic Book’ and ‘The Pillowman’. Most extraordinary was the giant set of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ along with its hilariously phallic miniature counterpart. On the upper floor—which we nicknamed the ‘hot loft’—we found a bunch of workshop stations and a screening of Bernd Ogrodnik’s puppetry in action. In the third house we took a gander at the theatre, currently set up to show ‘Peter and The Wolf’, and tinkered around on the most out-of-tune piano in Iceland, begging to have an improvised experimental album recorded on it.
Bjössa Róló Park
After a little stroll along the shoreline, taking in the gorgeous sunshiny weather we were lucky enough to get, we headed up towards a park that everyone seemed to be talking about. Built by local handyman Björn Guðmundsson, Bjössa Róló is a playground made entirely of recycled and discarded materials. Brilliantly executed with slides built into the surrounding hillocks, a variety of swings, a jungle gym, spinning top and several lookout points, the place was swarming with children. If one is a bit too big to play on a hobbyhorse, it’s great to simply climb the rocks up to the top of the point and lookout at the beautiful fjord. It was enough for one of my cohorts to proclaim that she could move to Borganes.
DON’T FORGET YOUR SWIMSUIT
Hreppslaug Country Pool
Of course, no trip of any length in Iceland would be complete without a quick dip in some body of water. At the end of our marvellous and brain-stimulating day around Borganes we decided to venture ten minutes off-course for a very rewarding swim. Built in 1928, Hreppslaug pool is nestled in a little cove overlooking a field and is just about as quaint as they come. The admission centre is basically just a farm-shack with a few hooks and terrible water pressure in the changing rooms. The pool itself was really great though. It actually has something resembling a deep end (i.e. nearly two metres) and is refreshingly cool. The hot tubs were also totally funny, made out of small metal containers that looked like they came from the farm next door. We sat in our little metal tub, contemplating our great day, and thoroughly agreed that Borgafjörður is well worth the visit.