Where Vikings trod: Rooted in history, stridently modern – the Faroes beckon
Published 20/09/2012 | 07:50
As our Atlantic Airways flight from Gatwick banked sharply to avoid unseen precipitous cliffs, the swirling mist suddenly lifted and there, just a few hundred feet below us, was the miniscule island of Mykines, suddenly basking in brilliant sunshine, an emerald gem set against a sparkling blue sea.
Beyond lay an enticing necklace of sister islands, large and small.
Somewhere in the Aegean? No!: Don’t let the Greek-sounding name fool you, Mykines is one of the 17 inhabited islands in the Faroes group, a North Atlantic archipelago, way out in mid-Ocean, north west of the Shetlands, south east of Iceland.
The Faroe Islands seem dauntingly remote, even inaccessibly mystical to those who have never been there. They must surely be bleak and forbidding, you might surmise. But when I stood in the middle of Tórshavn, the archipelago’s bustling capital, which is set on Streymoy, the tiny country’s largest land mass, civilisation seemed right at hand, Piccadilly just down the road, all mod cons present and correct, and, at least for the moment, I felt like I was at the centre of the known universe.
Lust for life seems as big and bold as the oftimes eye wateringly bright reds, blues and yellows of the houses that dot the landscape. There’s plenty of space to breath. Landscapes are sweeping, skies big, mountains imposing, cliffs spectacularly sheer. It’s a place that makes you ache to get up and out into the great outdoors.
Tórshavn, has at its core a waterfront old town – Tinganes – packed with traditional grass-roofed, black-tarred, wooden buildings but is at the same time a lively metropolis where hi-tec reigns, commerce booms and everything you might need materially is readily available at hand.
You can even buy English-style fish and chips from a stall in the town centre, opt for a proper Italian-style pizza, enjoy Japanese-Faroese fusion at the chic little Etika (www.etika.com), which serves beer from the new Okkara brewery, or go upmarket with a candle-lit supper in a restaurant whose chef knows all about mis en place and what to do with wild asparagus and coriander – or, for that matter, breast of puffin stuffed with cake and wild berries, air-dried lamb, fish caught just a tide ago and haunch of wild deer.
Leif Sorensen, the man in the kitchen of the much-lauded Koks Restaurant (www.koks.fo) at the comfortable Hotel Føroyar (www.hotelforoyar.com) – which enjoys a panoramic, hilltop location that gives diners fabulous views over the town’s busy harbour to the islands beyond – learnt his craft at Copenhagen’s Noma, repeatedly cited in Restaurant magazine polls as the best restaurant in the world.
Guests at this recently modernised four-star hotel get discounts at other restaurants across town, owner Johannes Jensen being a strong proponent of everyone in tourism working together for the common good.
Tórshavn has excellent shopping and lively pubs and clubs too – try Café Natur for a nightcap in a traditional pub ambience. Somehow this place seems bigger, more metropolitan and more a part of the big wide world beyond than you would expect from a city of just 18,000 people stuck in the middle of a watery nowhere.
How’s this for a modern infrastructure? The islands are strung together with a network of bridges and 19 tunnels, two of the latter passing under the sea, including the 16-km long Vágetunnelin, which links Leynar with Fútaklett – and there are long-term plans for five more major tunnels to be added, including the 20-km long Gjártinnilin, which will connect Sandoy and the capital with Suóroy, the most southerly of the big islands. The existing tunnels ensure that 80 per cent of the population is already connected by road.
The under-sea tunnels are unmanned toll roads – you have three days in which to pay the charge at any of the islands’ petrol stations.
The total population of the Faroes is just 48,000 – and there are twice as many sheep as there are people! Unemployment is low, standard of living and quality of life both high, with no extremes of wealth or poverty and the healthcare and educational benefits of being a Danish dependency. They trade with the world, especially in fish and woollen products – the chic little Gudrun & Gudrun boutique having recently been propelled to UK fame by BBC 4’s ‘The Killing’ drama.
World’s oldest parliament
Though its known human history stretches back to the time when Vikings used the islands as a stopping place on heir epic voyages between Scandinavia and North America – and the Faroese parliament, the Logting is claimed to be the oldest in the world, having been founded in AD 825 by settlers from Norway – this is a stridently advanced modern country.
True, lots of houses have turf roofs but that’s because they are less likely to be ripped off in harsh winter gales than are tiles, slate or tin sheets – and they provide better insulation. Not that the weather, those gales apart, is that extreme. A location astride the Gulf Stream, 350 miles north west of the Scottish mainland, creates a climate much like our own, though wetter, with frequent sea mists. Snow is rare, except on the hilltops, and it is unusual to drop below freezing – but don’t forget to pack waterproofs. Summer temperatures can reach the 70s, but never forget, wind chill factors can be savage and here you can experience all four seasons in a single day – and it might happen twice! No wonder there’s a virtual dearth of trees.
Despite the rigours, the islands are a great place for hill and coastal path walking and for cycle touring too, two-wheeled adventures offering ever-changing scenery, smooth roads and light traffic – plus that usually mild if oftimes damp weather that rarely demands gloves and overshoes. Though waterproofs are de rigeur, the rain rarely lasts long, rainbows abound and while winters are dark, with very short days, at other times there are plentiful hours of sunlight – especially in mid-summer when the far northern latitude means people are still out playing golf long after midnight has chimed.
The scenic background for such activities is simply amazing. Inaccessible near sheer basalt cliffs and towering sea-stacks are papered white with fulmars, kittiwakes, gulls, gannets and other seabirds – and, where it’s not bare rock, it’s all so amazingly green.
This is a land of tumbling streams and towering waterfalls, with icy, crystal-clear water – a place where salmon spawn and the hardy local breed of black-faced sheep, with their ginger-coated lambs, munch on lush grass, alongside wild ponies and cackling geese.
Places are made, of course, by the people who inhabit them and I discovered something of the Faroes’ fascinating and complex human history. This was a mecca for marauding Vikings and it was one of those who settled rather then simply passing through – a man by the name Sigmund Brestisson – who introduced Christianity a misty thousand years ago.
The Icelandic saga ‘Faereyingasaga’ tells the story of the struggle between the heathen chief Tróndur and the Christian Sigmund who, beaten in battle, jumped into the sea and swam to safety only to be discovered exhausted on a lonely beach where he was done to death by a farmer ever since known as Tórgimur the Wicked. Sigmund had been supported by the Norwegian king Olav the Holy who soon became the Faroes’ patron saint.
Rooted in poetry and music
Its not surprising that the people are rooted in poetry and music – the latter not only live but much recorded. This is one place where record shops not only still survive but prosper.
Each July 28th, on the eve of St Olav’s Day, which marks the defeat and martyrdom of Olav in 1030 at the Battle of Syiklestad, the Faroese people march through the streets of Tórshavn with horsemen and the national flag – a red and blue cross on a white background – at their head, to eventually arrive at the Logtingiô parliament building.
Rowing races, each boat crewed by eight oarsmen and a cox, are another time-honoured tradition and some such events, that at Liervik, on Eysteroy, being the biggest, have a supporting round-the-town bike race.
The British took the islands in World War Two to prevent them falling into German hands and our servicemen are fondly remembered by the locals, who have a lot of time for us, despite the fearsome ‘Cod War’ disputes of the 50s and 60s.
You will come across roadside bunkers and long abandoned gun emplacements that serve as reminders of our army’s presence and links, especially with Scotland in general and the Shetlands in particular, are still very strong. To this day, the locals are addicted to Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate.
It’s said that the first British soldiers to land were greeted with: “You are invading us… but welcome!”
An evocative little museum at Miõvágur tells the story of the British ‘occupation’ – a truly fascinating saga if it is founder Karl Jóhan Nielsen – a born storyteller, as are so many Faroese – who is showing you round.
There have been Russians here too, stranded aboard rusting old fish-factory ship hulks abandoned by their bankrupt owners in the early days of their nation’s troubled post-Communist free-for-all free-market experiments.
The generous nature of the locals is reflected in the way they kept these poor young homesick men fed and watered for months, gave them a memorable time at Christmas and eventually raised public subscriptions to repatriate them to their homeland.
And generosity is what you can expect as you explore. If your hire bike has a puncture or mechanical trouble, passing motorists will stop to offer help and a lift back to civilisation. Farmers will invite you into their homes to sample the potent local beer and to chew on a strip of whale blubber or dried mutton – which has ben hung and dried for a year – and there’s a warm welcome and lots of tales to be told in every watering hole.
Island hopping is recommended and most of the bigger ones are now, or soon will be linked by undersea tunnels, representing an amazing infrastructure investment that reflects local prioritising of the common good. Ever since it was founded, hundreds of years ago, the miniscule farming community of Gázaldur (just eight permanent residents, two or three times more in the holiday season) was only reachable by boat or over a dizzyingly hazardous cliff path. Now they have their own 1.7-km long tunnel, blasted through the headland at a cost of many millions and paid for by the state out of funding provided by Denmark and the EU.
World’s oldest wooden house
Not to be missed is a walk from Tórshavn to Kirkjobur, the islands’ ancient spiritual heart and the location of the ruins of St. Magnus Cathedral and of Roykstovan, which is claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited wooden house in the world – home to 17 generations of the Paturson family. Should the walk be a bit challenging, there are four bus services daily. The bus service is free and, what’s more, is equipped with wi-fi.
Another option is to relax aboard the graceful old sailing schooner Norðlýsið (‘Northern Lights’), chatting to skipper Birgir Enni as a fair wind takes you from Tórshavn across to the island of Nólsoy where a massive jawbone from a whale guards the harbour and stands as testament to the creature which has for centuries provided the core of the Faroese economy, amid so much recent controversy – the islanders’ riposte to criticism being that they only hunt sustainable species, that everything is shared out fairly among the community, that nothing is wasted and that the whales have enjoyed the freedom of the seas for their lifetime whilst so many of the animals the rest of us consume live in cramped cages and, in many cases, never even get to see daylight.
A far bigger vessel – a car ferry built for rough mid-winter conditions – will take you to the dramatic, finger-shaped island of Kolstoy, the most southerly of the 50-odd-mile long archipelago’s inhabited islands.
Legend has it that a ‘seal woman’ was captured here and was forced to marry a farmer’s son. Eventually, she found her seal skin and was able to return to the grey Atlantic waters.
Myth and legend abounds, much of it the inspiration for works coming out of the artists’ village of Mikladalur. At the nearby Kallur lighthouse, just outside the village of Trøllanes – bizarrely famed for its haggis – skilled blacksmith Mikkial Joensen is reviving an old craft as both a tourist enterprise and a commercial undertaking, making all manner of ironwork to traditional designs or bespoke order and displaying a selection of ancient tools and techniques. This working museum is part of the Canadian-based Ecomusee project (www.ecomusee.com) and is backed financially by the Faroese Industry Department – reflecting the islanders’ determination to preserve their heritage and be at the forefront of innovation at the same time.
“We have our own language, our own heritage, our own money and postage stamps and while we are a Danish dependency we have had home rule since 1948, stand on our own feet and have our own sense of destiny,” Guðrið Højgaard, the new director of Visit Faroe Islands told me proudly.
In some old brochures I came across, Tórshavn bills itself rather extravagantly as not only “The Smallest Capital In The World” but as “The Hub Of The Universe”, adding: “A town where visitors still are guests and where guests still are greeted as friends. A special place in the world. A special experience in your life” – but there’s really no need for bragging. As I discovered for myself, these glorious, magical islands speak for themselves – they are a lot more than just an obscure name on a BBC shipping forecast.
Roger St Pierre travelled to the Faroe Islands as a guest of Atlantic Airways, Visit Faroe Islands and the Føroyar Hotel, which overlooks the islands’ capital, Tórshavn.
How to get there
Atlantic Airways is the national airline of the Faroe Islands and operates a twice-weekly summer service to Vágar airport from Gatwick. Flights run Monday and Thursday until September 17. In winter it is necessary to fly via Copenhagen.
Unfortunately, the long-serving Smyril Line car ferry service from Aberdeen via the Shetlands to the Faroes no longer operates though there is a regular car ferry service run by the same company from Denmark.
How to get around
There are car hire desks at the airport and the islands have plenty of taxis. Due to the superb roads and light traffic, cycling is especially recommended – bicycles can be easily hired/
What and where to eat
Just like in the UK, native cuisine is usually encountered in people’s homes, rather than in restaurants where the fayre is international – with Chinese and Italian especially popular. Faroese specialities like puffin, dried fish and air-dried mutton occasionally find their way onto the menu an the better hotels.
Koks restaurant at Hotel Føroyar is rated among the leading restaurants in the Nordic countries. Hotel restaurants are consistently of good standard as are the coffee shops and locally produced ice cram is very good.
What to speak
Faroese is a Scandinavian language with Viking roots and some similarities to Icelandic. Everyone speaks Danish and most have at least a working knowledge of English.
What to spend (and tip)
As most of life’s needs have to be imported, the cost of living is high. Eating out is costly and, for health and social reasons, there are very high taxes on alcohol. Faroes’ knitwear is simply superb – and currently at the cutting edge of fashion, for men, women and children alike. Thanks to ‘The Killing’, Faroese jumpers are much in demand.
The local lace is exquisitely delicate and makes a nice gift.
Tip as you would in the UK. The country has its own currency but Danish kroner are also accepted and most transactions are by credit card.
Sunvil Discovery offers three and four-day packages and longer breaks in the Faroe Islands.