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Home Conforts And Cosmopolitan Culture

A weekend of art, food, music and culture in Akureyri
11.6.2014
Words by John Rogers
Akureyri, located on Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjafjörður, is often referred to as Iceland’s second city, or “the capital of the North.” With a population of just under 18,000, “city” is probably pushing it a bit, but Akureyri is a thriving and charming place nonetheless.

Down by the water lies a well-preserved ‘Old Town,’ with various historical houses, the oldest of which dates back to the 18th Century. At the top of a steep stair, an impressive, solemn church looks impassively over the fjord, a stone’s throw from the compact downtown area that boasts a modern swimming pool, a range of shops, restaurants and cafes, an old-style cinema, and a steep, winding street nicknamed ‘Listagilið,’ or “Art Valley,” after its galleries and institutions. The town is peppered with curiosities, from small ones like the seemingly legendary Brynja ice cream store, to the hulking Hof building—a round, sculptural hall that's a bit like Akureyri’s very own Harpa.

The Akureyri Backpackers hostel is located right in the heart of this area. The ground floor houses a cosy bar with a basement kitchen for those who prefer to cook for themselves, and showers one flight further down. Hitchhikers arrive in packs, heading for the sleeping bag dorms with their backpacks and clattering camping gear in tow, with others showing up fresh from the tiny airport, lugging their wheelie-cases up to the large, peaceful fourth-floor rooms. It's a perfect base to explore the town—homely, spotlessly clean and totally welcoming.

On my first night, the Northern Lights forecast is high. I pop out onto the balcony to see an arc of bright green dancing across the sky, and my heart leaps. Pulling on some woollens and rushing downstairs to go and find a dark spot, I proceed to spend the next hour crunching through the snow in search of a darker viewing point. The mission ends in abject failure, as the coastline has bright streetlights to the town limits, and even in the heart of the Botanical Gardens, where my leg goes thigh-deep into a snow drift, there’s a floodlit cafe. I traipse home under the now-dark skies shivering and sopping wet, realising the balcony probably had the best view in town.

The Life Aquatic

The next morning, I skip the basement shower room and head to Akureyri’s wonderful swimming pool instead. With hotpots at 38, 39, 42 or 43 degrees, it’s a great place to start the day. There are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a slide and play-pool for kids, and a fiercely hot steam room. Half of the town seems to fit inside the pool area, with various families and couples socialising, relaxing and chitchatting in the hot water, some for hours at a time. Everyone knows everyone, and I feel some curious glances as a newcomer. I get the feeling that Akureyri’s close-knit community perhaps mirrors Reykjavík’s recent past.

Making my way back to the high street, I can’t help but smile to spy the familiar faces of Mammút on a fly-poster. Having arrived with an empty diary and an open mind, and not knowing a soul in the town, I’d imagined being “alone” here, but it turns out they’re playing a show at the Græni Hatturinn venue this very night, right next door to the hostel.

The venue turns out to be a real gem—it’s an atmospheric music venue of the type that Reykjavík keeps losing to property developers lately. There are various tiers of table seating, giving an enjoyable revue-bar feel, with a long and well-stocked bar wrapping down the right hand side. The locals have turned out in droves, and dressed up for the occasion. Mammút thrives on the stage of a packed house, turning in a performance that has the throng cheering heartily before getting up their newly purchased vinyl records signed by the band.

The after-party shifts to a charming bar called Götubarinn, which has a piano, open to anyone who wants to sing and play in the middle of a plush basement room. For those seeking a quieter time, there are several lounges and cosy nooks to hide in. The night ends in entertaining sing-alongs and in-depth conversation with accommodating and tipsy locals, who seem intrigued by my presence, an unexpected e-cig-puffing Englishman, as company for the evening. The atmosphere is one of unrestrained small-town rejoicing, and everyone has a great time, pouring out into the streets glowing and happy.

Seafood Heaven

Akureyri has a wide variety of places to eat, from cheap bakeries and sandwich shops to sushi bars or fancy restaurants. On my first night, I try Strykið on the sixth floor of a building on the seafront, which offers views across the fjord and a mixed menu that includes sushi, burgers, and traditional fare. I opt for grilled salmon, which is sadly a little bland for the price, cooked face down so the hot-grill texture is wasted on the skin rather than the fish itself. However, the service is good, and I’d have been curious to try a few other dishes.

On the second night, I go to the cringe-worthy-named "Kung Fu" sushi bar, and get a huge plate of salmon and tuna sashimi, maki and nigiri for just 3,000 ISK. It’s pretty empty, but they serve an extremely appreciative, penniless drifter while I’m there, which makes me like the place more as I listen to him loudly praising their generosity and chit-chatting with the staff as he guzzles down the food.

On the final night, I cave in and try Rub23, the town’s gourmet restaurant, which allows diners the chance to customise their meal by picking their preferred meat or fish, and then the flavoured “rub” they’d like applied. The flavours extend from Coriander & Garlic and Texas BBQ to more exotic concoctions like Moroccan Caribbean. I go for a mouth-wateringly juicy arctic char tempura starter, followed by Creole cod. The bright red dining room, the careful presentation and attentive service are all on the par with excellent food. Rub23 is hard to fault. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.

A Healthy Harmony

Every month, several of the town's galleries have synchronised openings, and the people of Akureyri come out to socialise, mingle, sip wine and stroll around the new shows. As luck would have it, I arrived on the day of the April openings. In a basement space beneath the city gallery, a show of sculpted music notation-points is opening, with a live performance; at Sjónlistamiðstöðin and across the street is a group show that features artists responding to the cracked paving slabs on Listagilið itself. There’s a quite amazing amount of cultural activity to take in for a town of this size, even just scratching the surface over a three-day visit. Setting foot in any of the galleries leads to many conversations with the overwhelmingly friendly and chatty art folk.

Akureyri is a town that still seems like there’s a healthy harmony between visitors and locals, in a way that Reykjavík is perhaps losing from the sheer volume of tourists. For anyone seeking a picturesque and sedate weekend outside of the capital, this little seaside town is a pleasing mix of remoteness, natural beauty, homes, comforts and cosmopolitan culture.

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Flights to Akureyri provided by Air Iceland, book flights at www.airiceland.is or call +354-570-3000.

Accommodation provided by Akureyri Backpackers, book accommodation at www.akureyribackpackers.com or call +354-571-9050.

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