Published July 26, 2017
It’s the lunchtime rush. Locals and tourists flood Laugavegur like wildebeests to a watering hole–but I know something they don’t. FAttempting to escape Reykjavík’s busiest street for some peace and calm, I swing down Grundarstígur for a taste of cultural inspiration and a bite to eat.
I am going to Hannesarholt on Grundarstigur 10, a cultural center and a cafe in the former home of Iceland’s first Minister of State, Hannes Hafstein. Built in 1915, in the midst of a cultural surge, it was one of the first fifteen concrete buildings erected in Reykjavík, built when half the nation still lived in turf houses.
Can’t say no to cake
As I step into the beautiful old building, I am greeted by the smell of fresh coffee and bread wafting from the in-house bakery. Hannesarholt was officially opened to the public in 2013, and it serves as a reminder of what Iceland used to be. Ragnheidur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir, owner of the house and founder of the non-profit Hannesarholt, sits across from me in the restaurant and invites me to inspect their cake selection. Can’t say no to cake.
As an outlander living on the island, I have always wanted to explore Iceland’s history–and not that tiring viking shit, but modern history, and Hannes Hafstein is a key to understanding what this country is today. Believe it or not, you may have already met the famed Hannes, or his statue that is, which stands outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Lækjargata. It was paid for by the women of Reykjavik in the early 30s to celebrate his fight for universal suffrage. Born when Iceland was very much in limbo, First Minister Hannes led Icelanders through the industrial revolution and into the 20th century.
“When Hannes Hafstein came into office, Iceland was practically in the middle ages,” Ragga explains. “We had a run like crazy to reach modernity, as we were way behind neighbouring countries. Hannes was a prolific poet as well as a leader, who rallied the troops to build a better life. In addition, Hannes realised just how indispensable women were to our society, and made great strides in the fight for women’s rights”.
Remembering where we came from
Inside the building, period features add to the charm, complimented by old relics representing Iceland’s rich history.
Ragga bought the house to make a difference. “Hannesarholt is designed to help us remember the past and cultivate the best of us in the present. We want to give younger generations a deeper historical context to help them understand where they fit in.”
As well as being a cultural hub, the house boasts a fantastic vegan-friendly menu that uses local produce. I tuck into a homely slice of apple cake, while thinking about lunch. “We take environmental responsibility very seriously. Did you know that we’re the smallest company in the world to sign the Paris agreement?” Vala adds, who is chief of operations in the house and overhears our conversation.
The past in poetry
After a coffee break, I head upstairs to fill up on knowledge. “That’s Hannes’s desk,” Ragga explains. Letters, illustrations and poems dot the walls and I am transported to the past. “Hannes used his poetic power to make a difference in our society. He was like a motivational speaker, encouraging Icelanders to embrace the future.”
“He brought the telephone to Iceland, introduced compulsory education for all, the secret ballot and women’s right to vote, among other vital changes which he brought about.” I watch a 12 minute documentary in one of the meeting rooms on the second floor, about Hannes Hafstein and the formative years of the city. Photographs tell more than a thousand words, and this is offered to visitors free of charge, provided the room is available.
Hannes’s poetry speaks to the soul, exploring nature’s absoluteness in an industrial time to inspire the masses. Ragga begins to recite a poem with authenticity:
“I love the storm that sweeps through the land, and brings new joy to thicket and strand. Withered old timbers, they break and they fall, but the birches have faith in the force of the squall.”
With her teacher’s hat on, Ragga explains the poem’s meaning in layman terms, “yes it’s windy, yes it’s cold and you may be miserable but the storm is good. It clears the way and sets the scene for something new.”
A cultural affair
I begin to draw parallels between Ragga and Hannes. Ragga oozes infectious enthusiasm and a disposition to share knowledge–a lot like Hannes. Alongside shelves laden with books, Hannesarholt provides a rich programme of cultural events and holds regular performances in the music hall.
“We have Icelandic sing-alongs, lectures, performances and exhibitions. We have events which bring together the arts, academia and the generations. The house offers closeness and conversation, and active participation in events.”
Ragga also believe that this is more than just a house–it is a place that can help visitors connect to something remarkable and powerful.
“This house has a lot of energy. You feel as though you have somehow been nourished by spending time here, and come closer to the cultural roots. Hannes always embraced new people and new cultures. Everyone is welcome here – Icelandic or not.”
“Remember whose shoulders we are standing on”
She begins to recall how she felt on opening day, as this house truly is her passion. “I leaned up against the wall and felt as if I could sense the pulsing heartbeat of the house. I promised to always respect that.” I feel something similar. Despite living in the city for several months, I haven’t experienced Hannesarholt’s unique energy anywhere else.
Ragga leaves me to ponder. Upstairs, I take a moment to read Icelandic poetry, before stumbling up the creaking staircase to the attic. Here kids can play whilst their parents receive a little sanity with their cup of coffee sitting in the armchair close by.
I couldn’t help but crawl into the children’s reading space in the attic. I sit and flick through children’s books with Icelandic translations of European classics. Ragga’s words resonate, and even as a foreigner, I feel connected – “remember whose shoulders we are standing on”.
Ever the glutton, I head back downstairs to join Ragga for lunch. I struggle to make up my mind, but opted for the lentil burger with salad. Salty olive pesto accompanied freshly baked bread. Leave me here and don’t look back.
Feeling the need for cultivation, I ask Ragga about the upcoming programme of cultural events. “We have a whole host of activities for Gay Pride in August and our autumn programme kicks off with Culture night on the 19th of August.”
Before leaving, I make plans to join the next Icelandic sing-along so I can say that I have experienced something authentic while in Iceland. Overcome with contentment, I start heading home, but not before making a quick pitstop outside the The PM office to pay homage to my new best mate Hannes.
Standing in stone
Standing by the proud statue, one of Ragga’s stories plays out in my head. She told me of a conversation between her children when they were young. “Looking at the statue, my son asked – do we turn into statues when we die? My daughter was quick to comment. ‘No we turn to dust’. They figured out that men turned into statues but women turned to dust. This is interesting since we mostly tend to see gestures towards men in our cities. I think we need to match them with more statues of women.”
I think Hannes would agree.
Hannesarholt is open every day from 11:30 until 17:00, and 10pm on Thursdays. For a full programme of events, visit www.hannesarholt.is