Thursday, September 6, 2007

Nordnatur Days 8-9: In which Akureyri celebrates its birthday

After our trip to Holar, we headed back to Akureyri for the rest of the course, and the rest of my time before heading south. It also so happened that we arrived back in Akureyri just in time for the city to celebrate its birthday weekend, so we had a “day off” (no boats or lectures) to enjoy the city’s celebrations. This was also the final weekend of the summer-long arts festival in Akureyri, so most of the town’s celebrations centered around art, ranging from openings of fancy art exhibitions at some of the galleries in town to a street market in the town center where local artesian sold hand-made jewelry and knitted clothing and decorative goods and such.

I wasn’t really as excited to see lots of art as to just wander around town and watch the people and the carnival rides, but I did go to one of the exhibition openings, at the Ketilhús gallery. Between the art being very modern (i.e. I didn’t get it) and all the explanations and the opening speech being in Icelandic, I don’t think I properly appreciated the artistic significance of the exhibition. But there was something cod-related even here – one of the artistic pieces was a cod head preserved in a scientific collection bucket (like I said, the art was a little too modern for me to understand). And I enjoyed listening to the acoustic guitar performance that was somehow part of the opening, and got to feel very classy standing around with the free glass of wine they gave everyone who came through.

In the afternoon, though, I left the town and the art to go on a hike in the mountains outside town, where hiked up to a lake where we could do yet more fishing – this time fly fishing for Arctic charr. It was a little cold and windy, but a good day for hiking and a beautiful place.

Here’s the view looking back down the mountain and across the river valley at the bottom where we started from:

And this is the view almost from the lake of the jagged ridge at the very top of the mountains we were hiking towards. They say there’s a guestbook and a bottle of cognac at the top of the very pointy peak, but I didn’t climb it to find out (apparently in the “old days” Icelanders would climb it just with a rope around their waist and a buddy to belay, but I wouldn’t try it without modern climbing gear).

And this is the lake we reached at the top, fed by a small river running through an old glacial valley.

I didn’t actually try the fly fishing myself, partly because I was cold once we stopped hiking and partly because I’ve discovered that I don’t really like fishing “just for fun” – even in catch and release, sometimes the fish is poorly hooked and can’t survive, and I like either being able to then take it home to eat or at least have some sort of scientific purpose so that I don’t feel like the fish died just so I could have fun. But I got to watch lots of fishing, and even see my first live Arctic charr.

These guys actually knew what they were doing, and in some spots seemed to catch a charr nearly every time they threw the line in the water.

Here’s Sabine, who was fly fishing for the first time, with her first catch.

After hiking, I went back to town in the evening to see the final festivities of Akureyri’s art and birthday celebration. They closed off one of the main roads in the downtown area for a jazz performance by the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band at a bandstand set up along the side of the road, and the whole street gradually filled with people listening so that by the time they finished and the sun had set, the town was pretty much packed.

The jazz was followed by a show that went down the main street of town and into the town center that was some combination of parade, musical performance, and street play. I couldn’t quite figure out whether there was a story behind the whole thing (and it wasn’t just me – the woman I was with knew Icelandic, and she was as confused as me), but it was quite a show. First, a ship full of actors dressed as ghost pirates and lit by heavy spotlights came through the main street of town in a mini-parade. The crowd lined both sides of the streets, and there were lots of people on the rooftops of the stores throwing confetti and waving flags as they passed.

As the ghost ship arrived in the town center, everyone’s attention then turned to a grassy area on the side of the street where there was a play (although that’s using the term loosely) based on Don Quixote. Or at least, there was a giant turning windmill projected on a wall and a man dressed to look rather like Don Quixote who tried to pole vault over a wall to a woman dressed up in a flouncy dress and a curly blonde wig, and a performance with some lines and overemphasized acting in a style that reminded me a bit of middle school plays and Odyssey of the Mind performances. I’m really not sure, though, how the story fit with a camping trailer descending from the sky by a giant crane to music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I figured it was best not to ask questions and just call it art.

After a woman had emerged from the trailer and emptied the down out of a large number of pillows (again, not quite sure why…), everyone’s attention turned back to the ship of ghost pirates, which had now taken up a position in the town center and turned out to be a ship of ghost pirate musicians who played a rather excellent fast fiddle piece. And just as the music finished, a fireworks show began, with fireworks set off from the roofs of the buildings all around the town center.

It was an excellent fireworks show, too, with crescendos and decrescendos and thematic sections and an arc to the whole performance, which finally ended by lighting red flares (the same used on ships at sea) on the roofs of all the buildings.

Even if nobody was quite sure what it was all about, nobody complains about an excuse to have a good time. When Icelanders decide to have a festival, they sure know how to do it right.

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