4 09 2012
If there’s one defining moment of our stay in the Faroe Islands, it’s soaring above the 18 rocky outcrops that make up this tiny country. Looking down on mankind from a helicopter could even be one of the most defining moments of my life. It’s one of those classic moments isn’t it; running from the chopper as the grass is blown to the floor and the blades rotate above? Or maybe as a teenager I watched too many episodes of Flying Doctors.
The woman next to me isn’t even looking out of the window. But then she probably does this all the time. You could easily delude yourself you are living the dream here. Helicopter travel is heavily subsidised in the Faroe Islands; people use them like buses. And in winter it’s the only way to get on and off some of these scattered islands. In fact it cost me less to fly from the capital Torshavn to the island of Mykines than it costs to get the bus to my nearest town at home.
“Look down there,” says my neighbour, who is suddenly paying attention. It’s lucky I’m good at lip reading because I can’t hear a word with the ear defenders on. But I follow her gaze; peering out onto the choppy white horses surrounding vast rocky silhouettes. The sun spotlights the bay behind us, while the North Atlantic is a carpet of deep blue; miles of ocean, with nothing between us and America. Except for Mykines. Mykines is home to just over ten people, and in the summer, many hundreds of thousands of puffins. It’s the most westerly island and possibly the loveliest of the eighteen, with its rich grass, steep cliff paths, and small settlement of colourful, wooden, turf roofed houses. We immediately stride off, holding our vertigo in check as we feel our way down slippery cliff side with the help of rope handrails. We crouch to watch the puffins fly from their burrows in search of food, and then crawl along a precipice to view a colony of gannets. We wind up at a lighthouse, where the world seems to stretch out before us. The helicopter is long gone and the only sounds come from the cry of the sea birds and the waves.
The Faroes, not the Pharoahs
I know what you’re thinking. Where on earth are the Faroes? And before you ask, they’re not in Egypt. “We get that a lot” one of the locals tells me when I meet him for dinner. In fact the Pharoahs and The Faroes couldn’t be more different for climate, culture, music, language, geography. The Faroese archipelago is located halfway between Scotland and Iceland. All but one of the islands are inhabited. While they are volcanic islands, they don’t have any of the weird landscape of Iceland. Compared to their Icelandic neighbour they are lush with pasture and follow the rhythm and pace of centuries past. They remind me of remote Scottish islands
But then, no Scotsman I know would be prepared to climb onto the roof of the Hotel Foroyar with a lawnmower unless there was alcohol involved. Around the capital, Torshavn, that’s where you’ll find the gardeners; tidying up the traditional grass roofs above your head. The grass roofs give the city charm, adding to the impression that Torshavn is more seaside town than metropolis.
There’s a tranquillity and simplicity here; the world turns slowly, with casually dressed workers having coffee in harbour side cafes and the fishermen chatting while they sell their catch of birds and fish on the front. Tourists can even wander around outside the government buildings in the old town; our kids peer through the windows of the nearby parliament building where if you are lucky you can literally see policy being decided. Yet the city manages to run an impressive ferry line across the North Atlantic, as well as an airline, radio and TV network. Not bad for a community of just under 50,000 people.
Connecting with itself
No matter how delightful the capital, it’s always a joy to leave the city behind and get out into the countryside. In The Faroes this involves a certain amount of island hopping; some islands are connected by scary one way tunnels where you find yourself playing chicken with the oncoming traffic. Connecting the islands up as the population has dwindled has been a priority of the Faroese for some time. No point on any of the islands is more than 3 miles from the sea and there are local ferries of all shapes and sizes; our boys were particularly delighted to find themselves returning from Mykines on a speedboat.
Unspoilt island life
We head off to the north of the island of Eysturoy, to Gjógv, a small village with no more than 30 inhabitants where we stay in Gjáargarður, a grass roofed bed and breakfast. It’s one of the most visited villages on the islands, due to its unusual harbour, tucked away into a cliff forming a unique and breathtaking viewpoint. When the mist lifts, we clamber around the rocks to find cubbyholes to shelter us from the wind, and then head out past the church to view the haunting statue of mother and children staring out to sea; marking the disaster in 1870 when half of the men of the village were lost. The sea is intimately connected with life and death here.
Part of the beauty here is that there’s nothing here
On the second day of our stay in Gjógv, we bike over the mountains from village to village. It’s dramatic riding up the hill and back down to the sea on the other side of the mountain. Unusually today there is no wind, but the hair pin bends provide enough thrills. In 2007 these islands were declared the best in the world by National Geographic Traveller Magazine. And it’s easy to see why.
The islands and villages are quiet, traditional and largely unspoilt by development. Sometimes there are only one or two families inhabiting the smaller villages. Some, like Mykines, don’t have roads or cars. Tourism here is about wandering the villages, looking at the sea and taking wild walks on cliff tops. It’s about watching local people do what they do, about enjoying unspoilt nature. It’s all pretty much how island life was and should be. Even the sheep are friendly. Too friendly perhaps; one of them attempts to join us in our car.
We finish our ride from Gjógv, with a 300 metre ride down into the village of Funningur; probably the oldest settlement in the Faroes.
“Where’s the coffee shop?” asks Matthew.
“There is no coffee shop.” I say.
That’s part of what makes this country so special. The big attraction is there are no big attractions. And adventure is entirely what you make it.
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