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Playing Hooky in Hveragerdi
A real insight into small - town Iceland
The "tourist attractions" aren't all they're cracked up to be .
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This was supposed to be our final full walking day in Iceland, but I opted out. Partly this was because of the combination of the plan and the weather forecast: 11 miles including stream-wading under a forecast of "light rain, heavier later"… ?
Nah! Not today.
Partly it was just: it had been a busy week, and I just wanted to chill. (Our illustrious leader whispered "If I was a client I'd be bunking off too".)
So, a short (two-hour) walk around town would be my limit.
Two whole hours? In Hveragerdi? How?
That exclamation will mean nothing to you, unless I start by explaining a little about where I was. Hveragerdi is about 45 km along Route 1 westwards from Reykjavik. It's a small town, population about 2,300, comprising a "cluster of low buildings" or a seemingly "dull grid of boxy buildings" depending upon whether you choose the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. Both books indicate that there is a little more to the town than that – but only a little. Both highlight the geothermically heated greenhouses… well, we'll come t them in due course.
What you need to know at the outset is that under UK definitions the place would scarcely struggle above "village" status.
But size isn't everything. Nor should you believe everything the guide books tell you. Tell me something… why do you travel? What is the point of going wherever it is you go?
For me, it is simply to look and to see and to ponder… what, how, why?... and sometimes just to look and admire or decry… oh yes! of course I travel with an open mind and not a preconception in my bones (yeah right!) but I also travel with my own tastes and preferences. I look at the clothes and homes and art of the natives and think "I love that" or alternatively "Bloomin' heck mate, I mean, come on..!" My point is: my "point" to travelling is basically just about being nosey. I want to see how they do it. I'm as happy looking at domestic architecture as I am great monuments; I love peering over fences into private gardens more than wandering through landscaped parks. I want to know about local myths and legends; I buy children's books to catch their fairy-stories. I want to know how folk live, how they work, what they do on their day off.
All that 'wow' natural landscape stuff is only part of the equation. A major part, but only a part. Sometimes, I want to 'stay home with the locals'.
So, it was in this spirit of having a day playing hooky, a day to myself with no commitments that I set off under grey skies with "light rain, heavier later" looking entirely probable, to have a mooch around Hveragerdi and just see what might be to be seen.
To begin with I headed up the main village street and around the park. Park. Now there's a word that conjures up a multitude of images. Vast landscaped expanse, or tiny enclosure of kiddies' roundabouts and slides. In this case: somewhere between the two. It's a tiny space trying to give the impression
of size by having winding paths and tree-lined seating areas. It's no bigger than a traditional London "Square" – but far more fun. The quirky flower beds and living sculptures caught my eye. Sadly bedraggled after the week of rain, the bear, the throne and the honey bee were still recognisable and gave a taste of what they'd have been like in all their glory.
From there it was a short skip down to the Varma (the Warm River) for a shot of the local Foss – totally unspectacular, unless you have my water obsession. Two gents were gearing up for fly fishing and I couldn't help thinking they were pushing their luck. The water is very shallow at this point.
Back to the park, and I then followed the road, up past the public swimming pool, only 25 metres and built on a natural spring, but still where the first Icelandic Olympians trained, ignored the gates to the agricultural college and carried on.
The area above Hveragerdi is known as the valley of steam, and it doesn't take you long to see why. Immediately above the limits of building there's a small area of hot springs to investigate. The danger notices are in English, but all of the useful information is only in Icelandic – which might tell you all you need to know about the perception of tourists in these parts.
Round about here I spotted a track leading uphill, which is presumably where my more motivated colleagues have gone. Fortunately I'm not in my boots or I'd have been tempted to follow. (No sign of the rain as yet.) "Fortunately" because I hadn't intended "to walk" – so while I had contemplated the boots, I would have left the rest of the kit behind and as the day progressed that would have proved a very silly combination.
Instead, wary of my shiny white trainers on the ash-path trail, which would have marked me out as a tourist if my tendency to photograph the locals' gardens didn't already do so, I kept to the lower track winding down towards the golf course and back to the road into town.
Here I encountered the much-vaunted swarm of midges, on the only day my recently-acquired headnet and normally-carried Mosiguard are back at the hotel. Obviously! I did my much-celebrated "PigPen" impression for a few hundred yards until I got to leave the river behind, and a local couple heading in the opposite direction took over as prime midge target.
The road swings straight back into town, but as I was on an amble not a mission, I hung a right and started to wander the back streets.
This is something I'd advise anyone to do who finds themselves in a small town with time to kill. Have a street map just in case you can't keep a centre-bearing in your head, but basically just wander. Looking at the houses and gardens of ordinary people is just as entertaining as the grander versions, and probably tells you more about local culture.
Icelanders have a quirky take on garden design. My favourite was definitely the blue Wellingtons tree, but a flock of bird-houses on stilts takes some thinking about. As usual farm implements and working detritus had been turned into garden ornaments, but I'm not sure I've seen a rusting threshing machine mounted on a gun carriage before and I loved the four-foot-high horseshoe Christmas cone.
Mostly though, I looked at the houses themselves. A week or so ago, back in Reykholt, I'd been told that Icelanders are not remotely materialist – although they do like to spend money. At the time that seemed a huge contradiction. Now I wasn't so sure. Now I thought: for non-materialists these guys sure have some fantastic homes. Eventually it clicked. It probably wasn't the "stuff" that they cared about… it was the beauty. All of the homes were different. Even in the newly built blocks of 'starter apartments' as samey and sorry as anything we throw up, the inhabitants were beginning to stamp their mark. Very little of what adorned their property came out of a catalogue. Much of it looked like it came out of the primary school or grand-pa's shed… and was all the better for that… which is not to say that the area didn't also have some seriously accomplished carvers and sculptors.
If you're ever in the neighbourhood – go have a nose around.
Back On The Beaten Track
Realistically, though, for those without my nebby-nose tendencies, what is there to do for the average tourist in Hveragerdi?
Of course there is the golf course, and trails lead up out of town into the steaming hills around. For the less-energetic, there isn't a whole lot to keep you occupied for very long.
The hotel, the tourist centre, or any local guide book will provide you with a map of the town. Study it closely. And be honest! Any town that feels the need to mark the Shell Service Station as one of its highlights is in trouble. Even the much-vaunted "Eden" seemed to be struggling this year. The greenhouse was virtually empty at the height of the season, although the services section (café and tacky souvenirs) seemed to be holding its own.
The original greenhouses that warrant all the enthusiasm in the guides are a little ways up the hill (and on my eventual route back into town). They are worth a sentimental walk-past. This was the first place on earth where it was realised that you can tap into geothermal heat, use warm-water irrigation and glass houses to protect from the local weather systems… and grow really interesting food. The houses are one of the town's claims to fame. Books written a while ago will speak of them glowing eerily orange at night.
The fashion seems to have passed. Presumably it's now cheaper to import the very few veg the locals seem to feel the need to put on a plate. Most of the greenhouses are still standing, but they're looking very much the worse for wear and neglect. One or two live on producing flowers for house and table. The only ones I saw producing food left me speechless. Where else in the world will you see, in July, leeks and rhubarb being grown under glass?!
Listasafn Art Museum
For such a tiny place Hveragerdi does seem to have a thriving
Pictures of Hveragerdi
Hveragerdi - steam valley
arts centre. What you get out of the gallery is pure pot luck. It is a local resource and in that respect has to be commended. It offers courses as well as a decent space for local artists to exhibit their work. It is a spacious, airy and well-lit exhibition space. There are three main galleries supported by a café and library-cum-resource-centre. There is no permanent collection and so you get whatever happens to be on offer that day. My personal visit was summed up by a passing comment from a fellow-tourist: "I don't understand".Modern art does that to me too.
I think I "got" the piece where you looked through a peep-hole in a bathing hut to watch a film of snowdrops being covered in snow, a glacier building then melting and the arrival of the jet aircraft and the motor car, all to a backdrop of sound and feeling drawn out of wind and seascape and thundering rock music.
I didn't quite "get" but for some reason still loved the tent. An old-fashioned ridge tent, white-fabric, arctic-issue no doubt, but too thin for real use in any kind of weather, anchored down by pseudo-rocks, and lit from inside to throw a shadow tableau of our explorers and their packs tumbled inside.
"Diptych" just confused me. A series of classic artworks (Escher, Velasquez, Van Eyck) all depicted as JPGs on a laptop screen with the keyboard forming the second panel of the diptych. Deep and meaningful, or cheap and pretentious? Search me.
A recording of a performance piece that had a number of heads emerging from a complex structure of cubes mounted at odd angles sounded interesting and satirical, but sadly my German has lapsed and I couldn't keep up. I also couldn't help wondering if it made any more sense to the locals. Subtitles would have helped. So would a shorter performance time.
For me the best exhibit was one of the smallest. It's entirely possible that, once again, I missed the point entirely, but I enjoyed it immensely. It was a postcard album. The cards were facsimiles so that we got to see both face and reverse – the pictures and the messages. All were of stormy seas, surf, "the churn", before the storm and so on. Most of them were from the States. All were form the early 20th century.
A simple collection of postcards. Many of them had never been sent, but it was the ones that had that I enjoyed so much. "This is what the ocean was like last night" scrawled a childish hand, "Norm was sick on the boat. Love from your brother…"
I couldn't recommend Hveragerdi as a destination in its own right… but if you've flown into Iceland long-haul, it'd be a good place to recover from the flight and get your bearings before heading out to explore. Conversely, it's also a great place to get back in touch with civilisation if you've just come down from the north the hard way, cross-country. Definitely worth a stop-off and a wander about.
Apparently tours of the agricultural college can be booked, check with the Tourist Information Centre in town.
The swimming pool is open daily – but if you're staying at the Hotel Ork, you don't really need to know that. (And if you're not, you probably should be!)