Television personality and Akranes native Sigrún Ósk Kristjánsdóttir once described her home town as “a postage stamp.” While this town of about 6,000 people is certainly off the beaten track, the Reykjavík bus company Strætó hf has recently extended its city bus service to include Akranes. This means you can now travel to Akranes, which is 49 kilometres from Reykjavík, for the same 250 ISK you would pay to take the bus to the mall, making Akranes one of the best travel deals within Iceland.
Akranes was first settled in 880 by Irish settlers (the more well known of whom are a pair of Irish brothers, Þormóður and Ketill Bresason), credited as creating one of the first uniquely Christian settlements in Iceland. The Celtic heritage is honoured each second week of July in Akranes with Irish Days, a seven-day family-oriented festival. The attractiveness of the area as a settlement is readily apparent as you head into the town – a wide, relatively flat peninsula flanked by a long sandy beach, Langisandur, along the north coast and the bowl-shaped Mt. Akrafell to the east. Like many other “small” towns in Iceland, it’s experiencing something of a construction boom – new sites for apartments and houses are being cleared in the eastern part of town – but unlike other coastal settlements, Akranes is also fairly spread out. So much so that I actually managed to lose my way while wandering the streets of this town.
My first stop was Café Galito, a coffee shop-cum-bistro featuring standard fare for reasonable prices. On ordering what I thought would be a standard Swiss mocha, I was surprised to find one of the best Swiss mochas I’ve ever had, as real chocolate – not chocolate syrup – was used to flavour it. The drink alone was worth the bus fare.
I spoke briefly with Gunnar Hafsteinn Ólafsson, the chef, who told me that he trained as a chef and worked in Reykjavík and Stykkishólmur, but returned to Akranes. When asked why, he said, “This is my home town. The housing was pretty affordable, too, and it’s a good place to raise your kids.”
I asked Gunnar if he saw a lot of tourists in Akranes.
“Not as much as when the ferry was still going,” he said. “Then you would see downtown filled with tourists in the summertime. But I think with the bus coming up here we should be seeing more of them.”
Completely unfamiliar with area, I asked what there was to do in Akranes.
“Well the Sports Museum of Iceland is here,” he said, “and there’s the historical museum. Oh, and you should definitely check out the rock museum.”
“Rock museum?” I asked. “Is that like Iceland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?”
“No, I mean like rocks. Stones,” he said. “There are four or five museums, and they’re all right next to each other.”
Gunnar gave me directions, telling me to look for an old ship as a landmark.
As it turned out, Gunnar wasn’t exaggerating – all of Akranes’ museums are situated right next to each other, sometimes even sharing the same building, which definitely saves you a lot of walking-around time.
A Guide to Football Town and A Troll King’s Master Bedroom
The first museum I visited was the Folk Museum at Garðar. Here you can find memorabilia from Settlement times to the early 20th century. As I was completely alone in the museum, I could explore at my own pace. What makes the Folk Museum at Garðar unique is its layout: you don’t walk in at Settlement times and end up in the 1950s. Instead, the rooms are divided more by theme than period: one room featuring musical instruments had everything from medieval violinesque devices to 12-button accordions; another showed fishing implements, including various and sundry harpoons used for whaling throughout the ages. The jewel of the museum is supposedly the “Field Mouse” (a 1946 Renault sedan won by a Jóhannes J. Bachmann from the Tuberculosis Patients’ lottery the same year), but I found myself more interested in the Victorian-era medical tools, the collection of manual typewriters, and the replicas of the unfeasibly tiny beds that people used to sleep in during the Middle Ages.
I had originally wanted to see Garðarhúsið, the first cement house of its kind built in Iceland or any of the Nordic countries for that matter, but as it’s built on the grounds of a cemetery where a funeral was already in progress, I decided instead to head down to the other museum building.
Next door was a building housing the Sports Museum of Iceland, the Icelandic Topographical Museum, and the previously mentioned Rock Museum. Ingibjörg, who had lived as far afield as Copenhagen before returning to her home town to work in the museum area, proved an excellent guide as she took me through all three museums.
The Sports Museum of Iceland is done entirely in Icelandic because, as Ingibjörg explained, “Few people are interested in the history of Icelandic sports apart from Icelanders themselves,” although guided tours in English are available. Akranes is a fitting location for such a museum as the town’s football, ÍA, has won national championships enough times to make Akranes known as “a football town.” A couple points of interest: Vilhjálmur Einarsson won the silver medal for Iceland in the triple jump at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Here, the three steps he planted are recreated in bronze, with the exact measurements between them faithfully reconstructed. The strides between them are so great that you get the feeling that Mr. Einarsson was probably no shorter than most office buildings. Also on display is a memorial dedicated to World’s Strongest Man Jón Páll Sigmarsson, including a bicycle that he folded several times with his bare hands, just to prove that he could.
In the next room is the Topographical Museum. The most interesting part of this museum is the collection of maps from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. As Ingibjörg explained, “Before 1900, there wasn’t any way to land a ship on the south coast or even get very close to it, so most of the time, cartographers simply guessed what the south coast was shaped like.” And, of course, no medieval map would be complete without drawings of fantastical beasts, and Iceland’s waters apparently hosted more than a few. Everything from giant stingrays to fire-breathing whales were to blame for the disappearances of ships that ventured up this way in the Middle Ages. Once the museum heads into the 20th century, you can see old surveying equipment on display, as well as some pretty interesting “then and now” aerial shots of locations such as Jökulsárlón and Surtsey.
The conclusion of this tour brought us at last to the Rock Museum. This is essentially one large room, and looks a lot like the master bedroom of a troll king – crystals, petrified wood, and volcanic rocks of vibrant colour cover the walls. In the centre of the room is a cut-away display of the tunnel that runs under Hvalfjörður. Seeing just how much water and rock the tunnel burrows underneath gave me the chills. As if reading my mind, Ingibjörg said, “There is a seismograph at the bottom of Hvalfjörður. During the Independence Day earthquake of 2000, the tremors didn’t even register. You see these layers of crystal rock? They act as cushions, absorbing the vibrations caused by earthquakes.” My mind sufficiently at ease that I wasn’t going to be buried alive on my way home later that day, we moved passed jasper and rock crystal – the most common crystal found in Iceland – and then to some sulphur on display. Ingibjörg explained that at one time, the exportation of sulphur to Europe was a major industry in Iceland.
“There’s a diary from the year 1270,” she said, “that says that this sulphur was used in European churches. Priests would toss some sulphur into a censer – poof! – to more vividly depict for the congregation what Hell was like.”
At the end of the tour of the Rock Museum, she showed me some small clear crystal embedded in black rock.
“If these crystals had formed at just 100°C hotter, they would have been diamonds,” she said. I nearly felt sorry for them.
The ship that acts as a landmark for the museum area, Sigurfari, is the only cutter still in Iceland. I was curious about exploring it, but when Ingibjörg told me that you can only walk around on the deck of the ship, as the wood below deck isn’t very strong, I decided to skip it. I thanked this very helpful guide for her time and headed into town.
Compared to Akranes, Borgarnes is just a Burg
The point Gunnar had made about Akranes being a good place to raise children is a valid one. As I walked around town, it seemed as though there were five children for every one adult, all of them playing, climbing over mounds of snow and, on two occasions, skipping. The predominance of kids would give one a creepy, Children of the Corn vibe if they didn’t seem so happy.
At the centre of town, on a traffic roundabout, is a statue of a fisherman called, appropriately enough, “The Seaman,” which was erected in memory of drowned sailors. The sea is a constant in this town. As you walk the streets that cut through the two-story buildings of this sprawling isolated city, the homes seem to end in waves. In many ways, this gives Akranes the feeling of being an island itself.
Having visited my fair share of small towns in Iceland, Akranes certainly is unique. While most towns its size in Iceland have a rural feel to them, there is something distinctly blue collar about Akranes – it has the bustle of a city despite its size, giving it a more cosmopolitan feel than nearby Borgarnes or even Mosfellsbær. This might be because of the rapid growth spurt the town is currently going through, one that isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. But my more romantic side would like to believe that Akranes’ charm stems from the fact that it started out unique, both culturally and religiously, and remains an anomaly to this day. Whatever the reason, Akranes is a town that has a lot to offer everyone – from the first-time visitor to the seasoned tourist of Iceland.
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