Elliðarárdalur, Reykjavík’s Central Park

Posted on 30. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

e024A secret oasis of Reykjavík, Elliðarárdalur, can be found only a short bus drive away from downtown. Well, when I say secret it actually means something more like “this is a place the locals certainly know of but visitors barely ever visit and that’s a shame”. It’s a popular place for walking, jogging, biking, horse riding, salmon fishing, bird watching, picnicking and even just sunbathing if the weather is good. Besides those the area also hosts Árbæjarsafnið, one of Reykjavík’s most interesting museums, almost-wild rabbits, huge lupin fields, waterfalls… in short Elliðarárdalur is like an oversize, overgrown park.

e036The area takes its name from the river Elliðará that runs through it starting from Elliðavatn and ending at the sea. At the start of the 1900’s one of the first hydroelectric plants of the country was built there, and in fact it’s still there for those interested in the history of the area. The valley is quite open for walking* – you can literally climb one of those waterfalls I mentioned (but at your own risk, the stones are slippery and the water is cold)!

*The only exceptions are the areas that flood in the spring.

arbæ068Árbæjarsafn sitting atop a hill.

One of my own personal favourite places of the area, one that can take a whole day to properly see, is the aforementioned Árbæjarsafn. It’s a museum of Icelandic houses from different eras and different classes, all carefully moved and rebuilt there. You can visit an old turf house, a turf church even, a wooden farmer’s house, houses of the wealthy, a goldmith’s shop, a printer’s shop, a candy store, a school… and inside the houses you’re allowed to climb on the different floors and look around freely. The museum staff is usually dressed in a historical fashion to better fit the surroundings, and of course you’ll also get to see farm animals as well: horses, cows, Icelandic sheep.

arbæ061After I took this photo the black and white sheep in the front went inside one of the houses and peed on the floor… so beware, unforeseen dangers may lurk in this paradise.

The museum also hosts a small but very thorough exhibition on the different types of Icelandic national dress. They’ve also included short descriptions of each, some tidbits about the background of each dress type, from which era they date and so forth. Unlike many other countries, in Iceland your family’s home area does not define your dress, the differences are only in how old each dress type is and which one you can afford… some of them can be painfully expensive!

arbæ027A view from inside the printer’s house. The tables have a full selection of the artisans tools always on display. They also have some examples of the works such as this one:

arbæ037Innileg hamingjuósk = deepest/best well-wishes/congratulations.

Íslenskt tækifæriskort, erlend mynd = Icelandic greeting card, foreign picture.

arbæ034Carefully in the staircases! Icelandic stairs were typically steep and narrow, a little more than ladders. Take your time climbing up and watch your head, the ceiling may at some places be lower than you thought.

arbæ033A typical bedroom, a little ascetic but beautiful. I especially love that little bookshelf above the window. There’s also something about this particular shade of blue that feels really Icelandic to me…

arbæ048Here’s something else that’s very, very Icelandic: a Scout house. Each of those shelf-looking things is a bed, or more correctly said several beds. The wall at the back holds in total 12 beds, three sideways and four up, and the one on the right hand side 8 more! According to a local legend one of these beds is haunted by a ghost that will get very violent if someone tries to sleep in its bed, too bad no one knows which one it is.

arbæ028Here’s the little shop, one of my favourite places to visit. My love for traditional candy may or may not have something to do with this but I’m still going to recommend it to everyone, there’s more to it than sweets.

(The sweets are excellent though.)

lup068This is another thing you’ll no doubt see a lot in Iceland, vast, endless, purple fields of lupins. In most places you don’t actually get to go too close to them, either because stopping your car on the side of the road is dangerous and/or impossible or because they’re on private ground and behind a fence. Not so in Elliðarárdalur, here you can walk right into the field if you like!

But why lupins? It’s all to do with preserving nature and fighting against both the forces of it and previous, human-made mistakes. Lupins are especially planted in areas where erosion risk is high because they both tie the soil down with their roots and return nutrients to the ground. Naturally they’re also beautiful to look at, but in some areas the lupins will eventually have to make way for trees or other plants once they’ve served their role in stabilizing and fertilizing the ground. The lupin fields of Elliðarárdalur just might be here to stay though – at least I hope so!

How to get there: if you’re renting a car just drive down Miklabraut – you can’t miss it. You can also take a bus from Hlemmur, 3 and 12 will both take you right next to the area. To go visit Árbæjarsafnið don’t get off the bus at the Elliðarárdalur stop but sit all the way past Mjódd and a small suburb area. The bus stop’s name is Árbæjarsafn.

Happy First of Summer!

Posted on 23. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Hveragerði, very, very early in the morning. The summer half is light all day and night long!

Summer is finally here! I mean it did snow a few times today and the night before was freezing, but that’s just good luck according to old beliefs, it’s said that if winter and summer freeze together the summer will be good. Sumardagurinn fyrsti, The First of Summer, divides the year into its warmer half just like the first winter day in the autumn dips Iceland into cold season.

In the old Norse calendar there were only two seasons, and it might make a lot of sense if you think that one half was for growing and gathering food for the other. Of these the first day of summer was greeted with celebration because it heralded the gentle weathers and an end to the gloomy one, and people could count one more year to their lives. At this time your age was defined by how many winters you had survived and no wonder, in Iceland in particular life was tough in the winter.

The weather could kill you and if it didn’t you still wouldn’t have it easy. The houses may have been warm but the air inside was horrible because it didn’t change (there was a ventilation system of sorts, but it was basically just a hole through the wall and had to be plugged for the majority of the time so that the house stayed warm), people went around with shoes made of skin that wet through quickly, food was scarce and not necessarily that appetizing and one stomach virus could be all that was needed to send someone to an early grave. The darkness took its toll as well in a time when no outdoor lights were available and sun barely came up for months. It’s maybe no surprise that Icelanders really looked forward to the warm season.

To this day you can occasionally find old postcards with strange summer-greetings on them. They may even have a Christmas-themed picture on them but the text behind joyfully wishes the recipient a happy summer instead. In old days Sumardagurinn fyrsti was indeed a celebration on the same level as Christmas is now, if not even more important, and Icelanders did not care that much whether the religious images fit the festival. To make another interesting comparison the First of Summer used to be the time when people gave each other gifts, much like Christmas is now!

Somewhere by Road 1 on the south side of Iceland.

When is it?

All traditional Icelandic holidays from the old calendar change place each year, so Sumardagurinn fyrsti cannot be exactly pinpointed to one particular day. It’s the first day of the first summer month Harpa and takes place between 19th and 25th April, the first Thursday after April 18th. It’s a national holiday which means that very few shops and services will be open, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling in Iceland at the end of April! For the following three years the dates will be:

2016: 21st April

2017: 20th April

2018: 19th April

What happens on this day?

First and foremost – barbecuing. Icelanders love grilled food and some would cook like this all year round, but this day in particular is celebrated by digging out the grill and throwing in some lamb. You can literally smell The First of Summer by taking a walk outside!

Other activities vary greatly but it’s not unusual to do something outdoors (as long as the weather allows). My FB feed suggests people liked to take long walks, go bicycling, attend the Ásatrú celebrations (link), take lots of photos (of course), and I think one person mentioned plans for going for a dip in the sea, which must have been absolutely freezing. There was also a fight downtown that was advertised in advance and you could book a place in it, but don’t worry, the whole battle was arranged by a local clothing company that sells outdoor wear and the weapon was… water (link). Whichever team could empty their storage of water on the other team first won! When asked about their reasons behind the idea the answer was simply:

“Okkur langaði eftir svona langan vetur að fagna sumrinu.”

(= After such a long winter we wanted to embrace summer.)

Who could fault them for thinking this way, after all the winter was one of the exceptionally harsh ones, so bad that it’ll most likely get a name. Icelanders only do this is the winter was near or downright catastrophic so that should give some idea of how it was like… personally I say good riddance to the coldness! Happy summer to all of you, dear blog readers!

One of the things I’m really looking forward to – the camping season! Photo taken at Hamrar camping site in Akureyri.

 Gleðilegt sumar!

Cod Wars.

Posted on 16. Apr, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

HMS Scylla and Odinn collision. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Did you hear about that time when Iceland, a country with no military, beat the British Royal Navy three times in a row with 7 small coast guard vessels? If you ever visit Iceland you probably will hear of it – the Cod Wars, as they’re called, are a source of national pride.

Like the name suggests it all began with the right of fishing near Iceland. The original source behind the wars was actually not Icelanders but the Danes, at a time when the invention of the steam engine made longer fishing trips a possibility and Denmark began to worry about the British fishing very close to Iceland. Denmark therefore declared a fishing limit of 50 nautical miles around Iceland and enforced this with their own navy, arresting and fining British fishing ships that entered the area. The UK never acknowledged this rule, but as the whole world soon plunged into the First World War matters were left to lie… for the time being.

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The sailors’ magazine Víkingur with a bit of war propaganda. The men pictured are “Iceland’s guardians against British violence”, according to the text.

Fast forward to the year 1958. Both World Wars now over, Iceland was an independent nation and fishing was still one of the major industries. The first Cod War started by Iceland declaring they were expanding their fishing waters from 4 to 12 nautical miles, to which the UK responded by sending 4 war ships to protect the British trawlers. Iceland sent their Coast Guard into action, all 7 vessels, and things heated up quickly with ships firing at and ramming each other until two months later the countries finally came to an agreement.

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Memories of the cod wars by anne beaumont on Flickr.com. A net cutter.

Peace lasted until 1972 when Iceland again declared a new expansion to its area, now 50 nautical miles wide. History repeated itself: the British ships attempted to continue fishing with the help of the Royal Navy, but this time Icelanders did not stop at simply trying to shoo the British trawlers away – they employed net cutters with which they cut the nets off of the ships. A particularly amusing anecdote regards ICGV Ægir meeting a ship that, instead of giving their name, played Rule, Britannia! at them via the radio. One net cutting round later the ship finally identified itself as Peter Scott, besides some foul language and a fire axe thrown at Ægir.

Many collisions later this Cod War, too, came to an end in 1973, the reason behind the ending much the same as with the first one: it was simply too expensive for the UK to keep thousands of men and several large warships constantly in the Icelandic waters. Meanwhile Iceland faced no such expenses, having only a handful of small vessels and a couple of hundred men whose job was patrolling the coastal areas anyway.

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Cod wars by Luc Van Braekel at Flick.com. A net cutter in action.

The third Cod War followed at the heels of the second one, beginning in 1975 when Iceland decided to expand their fishing area to 200 nautical miles… and understandably the UK, once again, did not feel comfortable with the decision. The third Cod War proved the fiercest of all three, with more net cutting and more collisions and fights breaking out between ships. A particularly severe battle happened between V/s Þór and three British tugboats Lloydsman, Star Aquarius and Star Polaris, but to this day the accounts of who rammed whom and who did it first differ greatly: it’s certain though that the V/s Þór suffered damage and almost sunk, and that it fired a live round at Star Aquarius.

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The museum ship Óðinn holds lots of interesting stories…

After this and another, similar occasion, the British side ordered its ships to a more careful approach, not least because fixing the ships after collisions was proving expensive – it would seem that the British ships actually suffered worse damage than the Icelandic ones. Things would probably have gone thus for longer had Iceland not threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavík, at which a deal was again reached and the British ships agreed to stay out of the Icelandic area.

Despite everything all three of the Cod Wars ended in total only two casualties. One Icelandic engineer died while making hull repairs during the second one and one British sailor was injured when his trawler’s nets were cut off and he was hit by a hawser during the third. Some would add though that among the real casualties of these wars were actually the British fishermen who lost their livelihoods and the north fishing industry that suffered heavy damage as a direct result of the wars.

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Today all that remains is V/s Óðinn, a former coast guard ship turned museum, parked next to the Marine Museum at Grandagarður, Reykjavík. It’s quite an experience to visit and well worth the price of the ticket in my opinion, and it has specialties such as a presidential suite to look at. I warmly recommend it if you ever happen by, and should you be here during the annual fishermen’s day you’ll get in for free!

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It might be a bit crowded on Sjómannadagurinn though! :D