The Faroe Islands (Føroyar in Faroese; Færøerne in Danish; Faroes for short in English) aren’t exactly one’s first choice of a holiday destination. When I told my friends I was going to the Faroes for a long weekend, the reactions I received were something similar to: “Oh, the Faroe Islands. Great. Where are they exactly? In Portugal, right?” Most such conversations would end in an undisputable “Oh, I know. That’s where they kill the dolphins!” After which the question invariably arose WHY I would ever visit a place as barbarian, especially situated in the middle of nowhere.
But it was partly the obscure location of the 18 Faroe Islands (of which 17 are inhabited) that persuaded me to visit. The Faroes lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway, lost along the 62th parallel in the secluded part of the North Atlantic. The islands are admittedly not the easiest destination to reach. Although served twice weekly by direct flights from London during the summer, it is primarily Copenhagen that connects the Faroes with the world for the rest of the year. Which makes sense, as the Faroe Islands remain a part of the Kingdom of Denmark (as they have since 1388), albeit enjoying substantial self-governance.
“Why the Faroe Islands?”
I wouldn’t blame anyone for asking that. The answer is a rather long story dating 10 years back to my favourite subject at school – predictably, geography. Until at least a few years ago, certain Latvian schools would dedicate a full year of geography classes exclusively to the Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Don't get me wrong – it was not a random choice, as the Nordic region is historically and economically important to the Baltic countries.
The Nordic region is made up in an interesting way. Besides five sovereign states, it includes the so-called autonomous provinces: Greenland, the Faroe Islands (both belonging to Denmark) and the Åland Islands (belonging to Finland). There is also Svalbard (belonging to Norway), which, strictly speaking, does not have an autonomous status – but sits far enough from the metropolis to be vaguely regarded as self-governing.
I was always fascinated by our Nordic geography classes. The study material was expanded to include not only the pure-case geography but also cultural and political facts about the region. For example, we had to memorise each country's highest peak (excluding Denmark, which did not turn out to be particularly high). Or we would study what each parliament was called (the Icelandic one was the oldest in the world and the Finnish one possibly the most unpronounceable). Or did you know that Hans Christian Andersen’s home town was Odense, on the island of Funen? Or that Vatnajökull, translated as "the glacier of lakes", was Iceland's biggest glacier? In short, a lot of fun used to be had at our Nordic geography classes. One day I will come up with a fully-fledged post just about that.
To business though; why the Faroe Islands? Just because people do not often go there! In the last six years, I have visited all five Nordic countries and even lived in Sweden and Finland for a while. I have not managed to set my foot in a single autonomous province in the Nordics, however. The Åland Islands I have sort of seen from the ferry on my way from Turku to Stockholm, and doubt I will come rushing back. Greenland and Svalbard have been on my dream list forever, but remain painfully expensive to get to. That only left the Faroe Islands, which, compared to the Arctic territories of the Nordics, were actually just around the corner from London. I had to visit urgently, end of story.
And there I was – boarding an Atlantic Airways flight at London Stansted, destination Faroe Islands!
Day 1: Let the journey begin
The queue for my flight at London Stansted airport could not have been longer than 60 people. Interestingly, all of them were carrying substantial amounts of luggage. I immediately theorised that (a) the Faroese passengers could not have been too spoilt for options back home and were coming back from a regular shopping trip to London; and (b) the non-Faroese passengers were too spoilt for options back home and were carrying all personal necessities with them, just in case. Either way, my skinny backpack looked rather optimistic in comparison.
"May I ask where you are travelling today?" asked an elderly lady outside the security belts, a "UK National Statistics" badge shining on her chest. "Oh. The Faroe Islands? How unusual". She hesitated for a few seconds before taking a note of my destination in her survey form; the "Faro Is." was what she eventually wrote down. I guess my statistical entry will be excluded as an extreme outlier.
For an airline of a nation of 50,000 people, Atlantic Airways made an impeccable impression of timeliness and quality of service. Like other Nordic countries (except Denmark), the Faroe Islands have a state monopoly on alcohol sales, managed by a company called “Rúsdrekkasølan”, or simply “Rusan”. I had therefore been advised to fill up on alcohol while in the air. Two rounds of drinks were offered during the 2-hour flight, which the Faroese seemed to take with full seriousness. Given the fact that alcohol was only legalised in the islands in 1992, this hardly came as a surprise.
Alcohol aside, the Faroese obsession with football is not a secret to anyone. The Atlantic Airways’ inflight magazine (ambitiously titled "Atlantic Review") informed me that a certain Gunnar Nielsen was the first ever Faroese footballer to play in the English Premier League, on 24 April 2010. The fact that he saved a goal shot by Dane Nicklas Bendtner could not have been emphasised enough. I can only imagine the full scale of the Faroese joy – nothing short of a national celebration!
On arrival, I was going to ask the passport officer to stamp my passport, as a memory of the Faroes. I did not have to ask, though; every EU passport was being stamped as a rule. Unlike Denmark, the Faroe Islands are officially not part of the European Union.
The transfer from Vágar airport to Tórshavn took about an hour. On the way, we passed two long tunnels and a shorter one. Back in the days, only ferries interlinked the Faroe Islands; today, two undersea tunnels connect the key islands, and projects are being made to build tunnel access even to the most remote islands in the south, Sandoy and Suðuroy.
Twilight was setting in as we approached Tórshavn, the Faroes’ capital on the island of Streymoy. "Would you like to stop here?" the driver suddenly asked, and slowed down. Blue clouds were covering the harbour; more windows were lighting up as the darkness was falling. "The smallest capital of the world", the driver said, his smile glowing with pride. With 18,000 inhabitants, this is indeed the title Tórshavn is most frequently associated with.
I checked into Hotel Tórshavn and was out again in minutes. Past 11pm, Tórshavn was only beginning to get properly dark. The Faroe Islands' location in the North Atlantic means that summer daylight is blissfully long; unfortunately, it also means notoriously dark winters.
Day 2: Exploring Klaksvík and Kalsoy
My first day on the Faroes began in an early morning bus to Klaksvík. Situated 70 km from Tórshavn on the island of Borðoy, Klaksvík is the Faroes’ second largest town and the central point of Norðoyar, the Northern Isles. The latter are made up of six islands (Kalsoy, Kunoy, Borðoy, Viðoy, Svínoy and Fugloy). I was hoping to dedicate my Friday to at least Borðoy and Kalsoy.
A handful of locals were already waiting for the bus. Glancing curiously at me, they exchanged greetings and latest Faroe-wide news. The Faroes are a small, close community where most people know each other by family name, if not in person.
Klaksvík was quiet, with barely a soul outside. Around 9am, tourist shops were still shut but supermarkets were open. Numerous fishing and leisure boats filled up the harbour. A large church was clearly visible on an elevated part of town; it turned out to be Christianskirkjan, the largest church on the entire archipelago. Unfortunately for Lonely Planet, the travel guide had missed the church altogether in its recommendations for Klaksvík, instead christening the town as “a little short on sights”. Interesting how one could ever miss the country’s largest place of worship – and an impressive building at that.
I continued my tour by hiking along a mountain trail to Klakkur (414m), the peak which Klaksvík owes its name to. Random sheep were peeping curiously from both sides of the road; brisk locals were dashing back and forth. The path came onto a small viewing platform and seemed to end there – but, just as I was turning back, a man leading a small girl by the hand passed me by. They walked through an old gate (which I thought was used for the sheep) and headed further uphill, not at all confused by the absence of a path proper. I did not ask for a second invitation and followed them.
Cotton flowers sat scattered around me, fronting up the dramatic Norðoyar peaks rising out of the surrounding fjords. The soaked, spongy grass bounced to my steps. It is said that it is always raining in some part of the Faroe Islands. Forty percent of the islands' electricity is produced from hydroelectric sources; the humidity is high at all times, averaging 90% annually in Tórshavn and peaking in August due to the frequent fog.
On top of Klakkur, I caught up with the father and daughter I saw previously. Both smiled at me. "Er du fra Danmark?" the man asked. I shook my head. "I am from Klaksvík originally”, he continued in English, “but live there, in the capital. Copenhagen". The Faroes remain part of the Danish realm, and many Faroese choose to study, work and live in Denmark.
My next stop was the island of Kalsoy. Lying west of Borðoy, Kalsoy is connected to it by a 20-minute car and passenger ferry. Pictures of this distinctly shaped island frequent travel guides for the Faroe Islands. Long, narrow and crowned with a succession of dramatically abrupt peaks, Kalsoy is rightfully nicknamed as "the flute".
From Kalsoy’s Syðradalur harbour, I continued to Trøllanes, Kalsoy's northernmost village. Five different tunnel segments (all fearlessly narrow and barely lit) jointly known as Kalsoyartunlarnir cut through the mountains along the way. Despite being small, Trøllanes was among the prettiest villages I saw on the Faroe Islands.
My final destination on Kalsoy was the Kallur lighthouse, a 40-minute hike north of Trøllanes. Unsure where the lighthouse was, I climbed about half-way up the Borgarin peak and took a right turn. I must have clambered too high, however, as Kallur was looming far below me. Merely a white dot from where I was standing, the lighthouse was or seemed much smaller than I had imagined. I headed down slowly, praying not to be sent flying downhill. After one of those Faroese rains, Kalsoy’s grass-coated hills were slippery and dangerous.
Suddenly I spotted a pretty white bird sitting in a niche in the rocks below. It was a fulmar (the most common bird species on the Faroes) and looked like it was brooding. As little room for manoeuvre as I had, I did my best not to disturb the beautiful creature – and stepped upon a small rock to its side.
The next moment, I felt the ground collapsing under my feet. The earth and the skies swapped several times; I hit the ground, turned over and slipped furiously on my stomach along the grass, further and further down the steep hill. Just one thought blinked briefly in my mind; that it was all over. My hiking obsession had cost me my life.
And then the crazy motion stopped; shocked, I pulled myself up. My clothes were stained in mud and grass; my mouth and nostrils were full of soil. Half of my nails were broken, the right foot was twisted and beginning to swell, and a massive blue spot was covering my right shoulder. And Nikie, my camera? It was lying in the grass beside me, and looked slightly dirty but perfectly undamaged. I got away easily.
I wondered if anything in my backpack was broken and took it off. My hands started shaking when I saw it, covered generously in a bucketful of wet soil. It was clear I had landed on my back – which, had it not been protected by a backpack, would have been in much more trouble than it was the case. I thanked God for being alive. Finally I understood the whole seriousness of "Never Hike Alone" posters I saw earlier in the airport and Tórshavn. I'll never hike alone again. At least on the Faroe Islands.
Such was the state of shock I was in that I did not turn back immediately but continued to Kallur. Surrounded by six different headlands, it was a most beautiful viewing spot – but I cannot say it was worth the dramatic fall. I kept palpating my body to make sure, yet again, that nothing was broken. Or missing.
Limping, I semi-hiked back to Trøllanes, caught a minibus to Syðradalur, a boat to Klaksvík and – finally – a bus to Tórshavn. The entire transfer took me exactly three hours. In the meantime, the skies had cleared up enough to let through the occasional blue, and even a handful of rays of the cold Atlantic sun. I was hoping the next morning would bring brighter weather. I was also hoping my swollen foot would heal enough for me to walk like a human again.
Day 3: Exploring Northern Eysturoy and Vestmanna
My foot was much better the morning after. Sadly, I could not say the same about the weather – depression-inducing tap of raindrops was what I first heard upon awakening. White mist was covering Tórshavn, and I wondered if we'd see anything at all during the tour. It was too late to retreat though – the guide, Sámal Bláhamar of Tora Tourist Traffic, was already waiting downstairs with the rest of our 7-people group. He smiled when I asked him what the forecast was for the day. "I'll bring you where the sun is shining!" was the answer. "There is always a place on the Faroe Islands where the sun is shining".
And he was right. The weather on the Faroes is changeable to the extreme. As we drove north, the rain first turned into drizzle and then stopped altogether – finally giving way to beautiful sunshine. The legend goes that the British troops (which occupied the Faroes during World War II) referred to the islands as the "Land of Maybe" due to their whimsical weather.
Our two primary destinations for the day were the northern part of the Eysturoy island and Vestmanna bird cliffs. We made quick photo stops in numerous locations on our way, including Hósvík, við Áir, Hvalvík, Oyrarbakki, Funningsfjørður and Funningur. Sámal was a jewel of a guide, readily answering the endless questions our group was showering on him.
It was around lunchtime when we reached Gjógv, a village in the north-east of Eysturoy. Literally translated as the “East island”, Eysturoy is the second largest of the Faroe Islands both in size and population (11 thousand people). “Gjógv” is the Faroese for “gorge”, and the place was in fact named after a 200m long sea-filled gorge, which creates a natural harbour there. Often referred to as the "prettiest village on the Faroes", Gjógv was wonderfully peaceful and calm. Local children were playing in chilly streams carrying mountain water to the sea. An old sailor was grilling freshly caught fish on the rocks. In front of me, two ladies were painting ocean views in watercolour. I took a picture of one of them, and she smiled. "I'm not from here" she said in English. "I'm from the capital". Was she from Tórshavn? The lady smiled again. She was from Copenhagen.
Our drive continued to the western part of Eysturoy. Past the Faroes’ highest peak (Slættaratindur, 882m) and the archipelago’s northernmost football stadium, the road led on to the Eiði village and further down to Brúgvin um Streymin, the bridge connecting Eysturoy and Streymoy. Numerous motor boats were making their way south, the wakes spreading rhythmically in the sun. "They are sailing to the Ovastevna festival on the island of Nólsoy", Sámal said. "But if I saw this many boats all heading the same direction on any other day, I'd think they had spotted pilot whales somewhere".
After about one hour's drive, we finally reached Vestmanna, a pleasant Streymoy village with the population of over 1,000. The Vestmanna bird cliffs along the north-western part of Streymoy is what makes the village so popular with the visitors. Many tour operators on the Faroe Islands time their own tours with boats departing to Vestmanna bird cliffs. Indeed, the place looked almost as busy as Tórshavn – and definitely livelier than Klaksvík.
As it happens on the Faroe Islands, the weather had the last word in shaping our plans. The famous Vestmanna bird cliffs were so thickly embraced in white fog that we had no choice but to turn away and head towards the eastern side of the island of Vágar instead. The skies overhead were criss-crossed by numerous white dots – the famous birds so many enthusiasts come to watch on the Faroes. High-rising grottos were looming majestically in front of us. Had it not been so cold and misty, the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean could easily have belonged in the Mediterranean.
Tired after a day's adventure, most of us were struggling to stay awake on the drive back to Tórshavn. Sámal did everything to bring us back to life. We stopped in a village called Kvívík and were forced out of the car – to encounter a pleasant surprise of a mixed Danish/Faroese choir. Out in the sun stood the singers, pointing hands to the skies and singing away in unison, to nobody in particular. Truly a scene never to forget!
We then passed the Norðradalur village and its magnificent views over the smaller islands of Koltur and Hestur, back into Tórshavn. The capital was a most beautiful sight – covered in rays of splendid sunshine splashing through the clouds and reflecting in the harbour. I wished the next day, too, would be as nice. But then again, one can never know on the Faroes.
Day 4: Exploring Sandoy and Nólsoy
Sunday brought with it the fresh supply of white mist, but our group (miraculously unchanged from Saturday) had already learnt to be philosophical about the Faroese weather. From the tiny Gamlarætt harbour, we took a ferry towards Skopun on the Sandoy island south of Streymoy.
In Skopun, we were introduced to the world's largest post box, about a hundred times the normal size. Unfortunately, it did not look like there were any letters inside waiting to be delivered – in a place as small as Skopun, I doubt if even a regular-sized post box would ever be full.
We stopped in Sandur, the largest population centre on Sandoy with 600 inhabitants – and were unexpectedly greeted by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of SEV, the Faroes' main utility company. It was Sámal's surprise. Having heard I was involved in the electricity sector, he thought it would be a good idea for me to meet some relevant locals! It must have been the first chairman of a national utility company I had ever met. And will meet in a (possibly) long time to come.
Having previously been educated as a doctor and held the positions of the Mayor of Sandur and the Minister of Social Affairs of the Faroe Islands, Páll á Reynatúgvu turned out to be a multi-talented individual. As if that was not enough, he had also played for the Faroes in international football matches. There may not be that many people in the islands, but active individuals they certainly are!
From Sandur, we drove on to the villages of Skálavík, Húsavík and Dalur. Like elsewhere on the Faroe Islands, each settlement had a coastal location. Before the roads and tunnels were built, the villages – and indeed the islands – were only connected by boats. Wonderful sunshine had by then made its way through the clouds. Its reflection in the long stretch of Húsavík’s pristine sandy beach was absolutely timeless.
"Welcome to the mainland!" were Sámal's words as our little ferry reached Streymoy. As small as the Faroe Islands are, its largest island is indeed “the mainland” when compared to smaller surrounding ones.
I spent my last few hours on the Faroes on the island of Nólsoy, a 20-minute ferry ride from Tórshavn. The Ovastevna festival was over, and only the lonely canopy was playing traditional Faroese music to the few remaining locals in Nólsoy's namesake settlement. The familiar white mist was setting in. I walked through the village and the surrounding hills. In the low visibility of the mist, the feeling was most surreal. People, houses, rocks, birds and the ocean – all emerged suddenly out of nowhere, like stage decorations.
It was time to return to the real world of London (view the full Flickr photo set for the Faroe Islands). Or perhaps it was the real world that I was leaving behind? Could anything be more real than the sound of the bird's wings up in the misty skies? Than the narrow fjords reflecting grass-covered hilltops and windswept cliffs of the surrounding islands? Than thousands of sheep grazing in perfectly green pastures freshly sprinkled with Atlantic rain? As the promo video for the Faroe Islands goes, “They have not moved much in the past millions of years... and are still standing out there, waiting to enchant you”.
And I was enchanted. God knows I was.
So enchanted I was by my visit that I returned to the Faroe Islands a year later. Read my second blog story about the Faroes, The Faroe Islands: Second time around.
View my photos from the Faroe Islands: the first visit to in August 2010 and the Ólavsøka trip in July 2011.