Akranes: The Great Unknown Across The Bay From Reykjavík

Akranes: The Great Unknown Across The Bay From Reykjavík

Rebecca Conway
Photos by
Hrefna Björg

Sitting in the office on a rainy afternoon after several days reeking of the mundane, Hrefna and I take a solemn oath. We will take hold of our heartstrings, seek adventure, and head into the uncharted territory of the west. We will go to Akranes, a city 45 km and a bus ride away from Reykjavík!

Akranes-Borgarnes (38 of 49)

Though not often seen as a city of adventure, Akranes is, for many, uncharted territory. As far as we can tell, the Grapevine has only done one other travel piece on Akranes in over a decade, and I have never heard a tourist speak of a day, or even an afternoon, in this oft‐ignored city. In my year and a half living in Iceland, I had only seen signs for it. That is, until our solemn resolution for adventure.

With a population of a little over 6,600 people, Akranes is the ninth‐largest city in Iceland, and by no means as remote as many towns in the more northern regions. Hrefna, Grapevine photographer and my beloved travel buddy, even lived in Akranes for five years.

Akranes-Borgarnes (42 of 49)

Akranes-Borgarnes (45 of 49)

The lighthouse whisperer

While Akranes is often disregarded in tourism ventures, there’s a quotidian mechanical beauty to it, with its pastel‐painted smokestacks, endless rows of pipes, and boats bobbing up and down in the harbour. Compared to tourist hotspots in the rest of Iceland, Akranes is an understated kind of pretty. Rather than marvelling at chunks of glacier, deep canyons, or crazy rock formations, we find ourselves driving around, checking out the city’s houses, factories, and people.

Akranes-Borgarnes (44 of 49)

Akranes-Borgarnes (43 of 49)

If we had more time, we would have stopped at the golden sand beach Langisandur and Akranes’s museum centre, which houses the Akranes Folk Museum, the Icelandic Sports Museum and the Mineral Kingdom. But, alas, we had an important appointment to make: we have to pick up a renowned Akranes native, lighthouse‐repairer Hilmar Sigvaldason.

Though he made an acting debut in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, Hilmar is best known for his efforts to cultivate interest in the two lighthouses in Akranes. After applying for funding, he worked to renovate and sustain the old lighthouse, a small structure perched on the coast of Akranes. While not currently open to the public, it sits next to Akranesviti, a larger, newer lighthouse, in which visitors like us are able to explore.

Akranes-Borgarnes (35 of 49)

“The lighthouse is like my baby,” Hilmar proudly declares, as we step into Akranesviti’s lobby, which is filled with paintings, logbooks, maps, and souvenirs. He points to an artistic rendering done by a local newspaper, in which the old lighthouse poses like a bodybuilder, and the new lighthouse squeals like a small child in Hilmar’s arms.

Akranes-Borgarnes (39 of 49)

Hilmar seems proud of his parenting skills, the ways he’s cultivated a larger, more extensive interest in the once‐ignored lighthouses. “People used to drink and do drugs in the lighthouses,” he says, “but then I decided to apply for funding and fix them up.”

A beacon for art and music

Hilmar’s ardour for the lighthouses fell into place alongside his other interests, among them music. He notes that before his interest in the lighthouse, he mostly just listened to bands like Pink Floyd. But once he discovered Akranesviti’s nice acoustics, he started looking for and listening to other artists, especially local ones, inviting them to play and record there.

On top of concerts and recording sessions, Akranesviti also incorporates a series of art exhibitions into its three levels. As you climb the lighthouse, the exhibition circles the interior, inviting you to examine the work instead of strolling past. We move up each of the floors, finally climbing through a hatch to a deck wrapped around the tip of the lighthouse.

Akranes-Borgarnes (41 of 49)

Akranes-Borgarnes (40 of 49)

The view is stunning—on one side lie the colours and sprawl of modern‐day Akranes, and on the other, a sweeping view of the ocean and the nearby mountain of Akrafjall. It’s windy and cold, but a poem on the side of the lighthouse keeps me outside for a few extra minutes. As translated by Bernard Scudder, the poem reads:

Don’t I keep telling you
To go easy
With the pastels
It could be considered
Especially if
The moon and the mountain
Are in the frame
I mean
Who do you reckon would believe
Those theatre‐pink shadows
That elf‐blue sky?

Akranes-Borgarnes (47 of 49)

Akranes-Borgarnes (46 of 49)

Most striking, especially as I type it out, is the poem’s lack of punctuation. It fits the common perception of the city perfectly: Akranes is, for many, a punctuation mark between Reykjavík and the places beyond. Very few people stop, and very few people want to stop; after all, it’s much easier to turn right towards Borgarnes after the Hvalfjörður tunnel and avoid it entirely. But, just as the poem culminates in a question mark, so does our adventure. We leave with a budding curiosity about what other treasures the city holds; wondering to what other unknown places Akranes’s rusty industrial pipes could lead.

Note: an earlier version of this article stated that an artistic rendering of Hilmar and the lighthouses was completed by a radio station, rather than local newspaper Skessuhorn. The article has been amended.