Return to Iceland, Pt. 7

A Day in Akureyri

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Our plan was to explore Akureyri on foot and leave the car behind for the day. We took our time getting up and ready, then set out for breakfast. Our route took us past the community pool and down a bike path to Kaffi Ilmur where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and bottomless coffee. I imagined peering out from the cozy security of the cafe, through the little window above our table, and watching snow drifts build up outside.

The town remained very quiet. It seemed to be mostly tourists who were up and about. We wandered along the storefronts on Hafnarstræti, pausing to hang with the trolls, and picked up some postcards at a gift shop. We went down to the water, then over to Ráðhústorg, the city square, where residents have gathered and celebrated events for many years. Here, the ground was covered in yellow and orange leaves; we took a moment to appreciate the fall colors from a park bench.

From there, we headed for Akureyrarkirkja, looming high on its hill above town. It owes its distinctive, angular design to Guðjón Samúelsson, Iceland’s first trained architect, who also designed Reykjavik’s landmark Hallgrímskirkja. We went halfway up the steps before we got irritated by someone’s drone buzzing overhead. I don’t mind drones too much, but I find it disrespectful and potentially hazardous to fly them above people, especially when I have no way of knowing the skill level of the pilot.

Akureyrarkirkja is part of Guðjón Samúelsson’s work to develop an Icelandic architectural style.

akureyrarkirkjaWe continued on toward the botanical garden, which took us near the Akureyri Junior College, built in 1904. In the past, students called the way down Eyrarlandsvegur “the path to destruction” – where the temptations of the town, such as drinking and dancing, awaited – and the way up to the school “the path to education.” New students walk the path in homage at the start of their first semester. Nearby, we encountered an orange and white cat on the sidewalk – which path he was walking, I don’t know!

The botanical garden looked rather somber; it seemed we were visiting in a less than ideal season. Plants and bare branches seemed to droop in anticipation of winter. Some fall color remained, though, and we ambled along the paths, enjoying our quiet surroundings. We wandered through sections dedicated to arctic plant life and native Icelandic plants. Most of the signage was in Icelandic, thwarting my attempts to read them (I love info signs). At the gate we met another friendly tabby, who was soon distracted by birds in the garden, but submitted himself to Katelyn’s attentions for a short time.

We retraced our steps down Eyrarlandsvegur and came across a sign about the first television signal to be picked up in Iceland. In the 1930’s, two men conducted experiments to receive television signals on equipment largely developed on their own (with some supplementary parts from the UK). On a screen no larger than a few inches they received clear broadcasts from London’s Crystal Palace Studios, and this at a time when radio was still novel in the country.

scale with grenades on one end and water bottles on the otherWe walked around Akureyrarkirkja from the opposite side and checked out the art museum. The receptionist let us know that admission was free, which was a nice surprise. Most of the museum was closed for renovations, but there were two exhibitions open to the public: Balance-Unbalanced by Rúrí, an Icelandic artist, which featured scales and other analog devices demonstrating the tension between natural resources and human systems like economics and war, complete with ticking clock sound effects; and Mood by Friðgeir Helgason, displaying film photographs from road trips in Iceland and Louisiana, some of which were surprisingly similar in either theme or content. While many of the scenes seemed mundane or showed some form of urban decay, his appreciation of these two seemingly disparate locations came through in his photography.

Not quite ready for lunch, I thumbed through the museum guide, and thought Davíðshús – the home of Icelandic Poet David Steffanson – sounded like it could be an interesting glimpse into a person’s life. After a bit of walking, we found it closed, unfortunately; though we did see some charming houses in the neighborhood. A family pulled into the driveway next door and we joked about whether they might let us check out their house, instead.

We headed back the way we came, swinging by the post office for stamps (closed), and getting lunch at the hot dog wagon (open!). Kristjan’s Bakari just across the street provided donuts and coffee which we took back to the AirBnB. On the return walk we noticed some interesting buildings, including one with a square-and-compass icon. There was no other identifying information about it, and I realized it was probably a freemason lodge. Mysterious!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon writing postcards and relaxing. Our housemates seemed to have checked out and we finally met our host, Ágúst, as he tidied up their room. He was perfectly pleasant and pretty much left us to our own devices.

With the postcards out of the way, I turned my attention to booking a whale watching tour for the following day. I’d been worried about it because I thought we might be off-season and three hours was a long time to spend on a boat in arctic waters without seeing anything. On the other hand, it looked like the weather would hold steady at least until the afternoon and the winds wouldn’t be too strong (a concern because high winds mean choppy seas). Finally Katelyn suggested we just go for it. I made a reservation with North Sailing and hoped for the best.

Ágúst let us know that he was planning to have his girlfriend over for dinner, meaning that the kitchen might be tied up; I don’t think we were up for cooking anyhow, and we eventually returned to town for dinner at Bautinn. The chilly weather had us ordering soup and bread again, though this time, I couldn’t resist the skyr for dessert. Despite being classified as a cheese, it tastes something like greek yogurt, and has a thick, creamy texture. The dish was topped with a blueberry compote that balanced the skyr’s somewhat sour flavor. Skyr is becoming more widely available in U.S. grocery stores if you feel like trying it!

Skyr originated in Norway and has been an Icelandic tradition since the time of the settlement.

After dinner, we stopped at Te & Kaffi, where we shared a small teapot and did a little book browsing. Our trip was now two-thirds complete. We could hardly believe it; it seemed we’d just landed a few days ago.