mánudagur, apríl 24, 2006

paradise at hveragerði

One of the most magical places in Iceland has to be the Laugaskarð swimming pool in Hveragerði. The colorful little town of Hveragerði is 40-minute hop over a mountain pass from Reykjavík, but always a different world. The weather, for example, is often completely different: sometimes in the summer it's drizzly and cold in Reykjavík but then balmy sunshine blankets Hveragerði.

The town takes its name from the hot springs ("hver") that steam and bubble right under the ground of the whole valley. In many places, such as at the sidewalk going into tourist trap Eden (Iceland's answer to Wall Drug, South Dakota) the hot water and steam just bubbles right up through cracks in the concrete. Unstoppable.

All this energy means free heat for a lot of greenhouses, and it seems that every second building in town is a greenhouse, well-stocked with grow-lights for the dark days of winter. We get a lot of perfect red tomatoes and shrink-wrapped cucumbers from the Hveragerði greenhouses, all winter long. And most of our houseplants come from the humid greenhouse at the back of Eden, a green and leafy sanctuary in the middle of chilly and slate-grey winter afternoons.

But back to the pool. It's one of the oldest in the Land, and the hot water comes straight out of the ground nearby, filled with effervescent bubbles. It's a small-town pool without the crowds of the city pools in the Vík. It's got a 50-meter lap pool with a deep end that kids can do belly flops into. It's got a neck-deep hot pot with a take-no-prisoners massage machine. It's got a shallow hot pool that's the right temperature for hours of sky-gazing lounging. And, it's got the steam room to end all steam rooms: a concrete box, fronted with glass block, that is built directly on top of the roaring hot spring that feeds it. There is no temperature control, so entry is at your own risk. It's so steamy that visibility is only a couple of feet. And the smell is powerfully sulphuric: sulphur and other minerals from the steam condense on the soggy wooden seats. That steam is a cure for what ails ya, from head colds to hangovers. There's nothing it can't fix.

Yesterday after swimming laps, doing diving-board face plants, shooting baskets, and steaming myself silly, I ended up in the neck-deep hot pot, where a pending conversation with two fellow soakers bubbled under the surface like the subterranean energy. It was just waiting to happen, and then it got rolling. It was a classic Icelandic conversation, involving people, places, and connections between the two. We covered living in Boston, being a sailor for Eimskip, living in Reykjavík versus Hveragerði, my understanding of Icelandic, the defense of Iceland, and American foreign policy. It was great to feel a part of the Sunday afternoon society at the timeless sanctuary of the swimming pool at Hveragerði.

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