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Why? Some of you might remember my last year’s visit to the Faroe Islands: a short stay with lasting impressions and resonating consequences. Back in London, I wrote a story about my trip, not expecting it to score beyond moderately versus my posts on popular destinations like Venice or Rio de Janeiro. After all, very few people in my wider circles knew what the Faroe Islands were – with about half later admitting to have mistaken the Faroes for the Portuguese Faro, anyway.
I don’t blame them: the Faroes’ location is best described as remote. Composed of 18 islands varied in size, the archipelago sits in the North Atlantic Ocean at the latitude of 62°00’N, away from Europe’s mainstream travel routes. Its closest mainland territories are Iceland to the northwest and Scotland to the south – or, strictly speaking, not really mainland at all.
Discovering my Faroese side
Life does occasionally bring pleasant surprises. Within minutes, the Faroes blog became my all-time most popular. Thanks to Sámal Bláhamar, a Faroese tour guide, the link to the story appeared on a local news portal and took a phoenix flight through the internet. The Faroese Tourism Board listed the post in its recommended readings. The Faroes’ enthusiasts from all over the world suddenly seemed to know me. Even the Danish Embassy in London (and their grandmother) got in touch. It was like everyone remotely involved had read that story.
Most importantly, the blog was picked up by the Faroese Society in London, marking the beginning of our very special relationship. In the past year, I have met the Head of the Faroese Representation in the UK, sampled local delicacies at a Faroese Christmas gathering and celebrated the Faroese Flag Day with members of the Faroese government. In a nutshell, I have strangely become part of a rather exclusive community in London – that of the Faroe Islands.
It is not a surprise therefore that my second visit to the Faroes had to be planned soon. When to go? Atlantic Airways, the Faroese flag carrier, fly direct to London only in the summer, Copenhagen being the sole gateway to the islands for the rest of the year. As tempting as the Faroes are in the winter with their occasional glimpse of the Northern Lights, it is the summer when the weather is decent enough for large public events. Unsurprisingly, most festivals take place between early June and mid-August. Including Ólavsøka – the largest Faroese celebration and certainly a good time for a visit.
Celebrated on 29 July, Ólavsøka (literally Olaf’s Wake) takes its name from St. Olaf – formerly a king and now the patron saint of Norway. Almost a thousand years ago, the Faroe Islands were one of Norway’s tributary territories. The archipelago has since drifted under the Danish Realm where it has an autonomous status and Denmark maintains control of matters like foreign affairs and justice. But the Faroe Islands’ historic links with Norway are revived every year on Ólavsøka, commemorating what is believed to be the day of St. Olaf’s death.
Numerous festivities take place in the capital city of Tórshavn. It all begins on 28 July – the so-called Ólavsøka Eve – with a big parade followed by the national rowboat racing competition. An old saying that every Faroese is born with an oar in hand gets put to the test as hundreds of men and women compete in boats of various sizes to the cheering of thousands of viewers flocking to Tórshavn for the occasion. The Faroes’ population just undershoots 50 thousand, and about half as many islanders study and work in larger countries. A fair share of those expats travel home for Ólavsøka – which, similarly to Christmas, is seen as a good time to catch up with family and friends.
My flight landed late and I only caught the closing moments of the competition. Sámal Bláhamar picked me up in Tórshavn. Through the capital’s busy streets, we walked towards the Parliament building from where I continued on my own. “By the way”, I heard Sámal say behind me, “Good luck tonight. Many are known to find a girlfriend or a boyfriend on Ólavsøka”.
I shrugged sceptically and pretended to be entirely preoccupied with my phone. Sadly, not even that was on my side: in a series of welcome messages from my Faroese friends, one sounded strangely familiar. “Be careful”, it read. “Cupid often works overtime during Ólavsøka”.
What was the whole world going on about? Rather entertained by the shameless local superstitiousness, I turned my attention to Tórshavn’s people. Most locals were wearing the Faroese national costumes – including the children who decidedly made for the cutest participants of the festival. Their ability to run around in long skirts and thick waistcoats without making too much mess positively impressed, too.
As the night drew near, fewer and fewer children remained in the streets. Their place had been taken by an older – if only slightly – crowd of teenagers emerging outside from the various house parties. In the best traditions of the Faroese hospitality, strangers greeted each other by offering a sip of their drink. The men’s national costume is apparently designed to honour that old custom. A closer look reveals a wider gap between the waistcoat’s two top buttons: just enough to slip that flask of liquor through.
Come midnight and Niels Finsens gøta, Tórshavn’s central street, was full of festive looking folk, most with beer in hand. It wasn’t always like that: just years ago, sales of alcohol during Ólavsøka were heavily regulated. The Faroe Islands are known as a conservative society where strict public norms take time to loosen.
Public norms aside, I hear you say: what about the famous Ólavsøka cupid? To keep this blog short and sweet, I suggest we do not dwell on the rest of the night and fast forward to 29 July. As a final word of advice though, not even the fiercest of cynics should underestimate the romantic powers of Ólavsøka.
With some consideration for the party diehards of the night before, the formal part of Ólavsøka does not begin until after 10am. The members of the Faroese Parliament, clergy and major civil servants proceed from the Parliament building to Tórshavn Cathedral (Dómkirkjan), where a service is held to symbolise the close links between church and state. The small cathedral is tightly packed during the Ólavsøka service, which the national television broadcasts live across the archipelago.
I never imagined Tórshavn so crowded: thousands of locals and visitors literally flooded the streets of the world’s smallest capital. Fronted by Bishop Jógvan Fríðriksson and Prime Minister Kaj Leo Johannesen, top officials soon emerged from the church and made their way back to the Parliament. After stopping to take in some al-fresco choir singing, they settled in the Parliament building, where the Prime Minister’s speech officially kicked off a new parliamentary year. The ceremonious part of Ólavsøka was over.
It is estimated that around 10 thousand people, or 20 per cent of the Faroese population, travel to Tórshavn for the Ólavsøka festivities. This means that the number of people in the capital shoots up to at least 30 thousand for two days, leaving the rest of the archipelago somewhat deserted. My quick trip to Vestmanna was a spooky experience: the town I remembered so full of visitors to the world famous bird cliffs barely came across as inhabited. Tórshavn was certainly the one place to be during Ólavsøka.
As every year, the culmination of St. Olaf’s festivities fell on midnight, when a thousand-fold crowd descended onto Tórshavn’s central square to perform a joint a-capella recital of precisely 20 Faroese songs. Starting with the national anthem, the songs varied in length and cheer; my favourites were Aldan (The Wave), a powerful version of Annika Hoydal’s 1979 classic, and, unexpectedly, the Scottish Auld Lang Syne relayed to Faroese lyrics (Hvør skuldi gamlar gøtur gloymt). Had it not been for the humid +11C weather and the curly ð’s scattering the verses, the occasion could easily have fit a New Year’s party.
The singing took around an hour, but the main fun had not yet started: for it is the midnight dancing that really makes Ólavsøka. The Faroese chain dance is a direct descendant of the medieval ring dancing performed by a group of people hand-in-hand behind a leader who sings the verse (skiparin in Faroese). Over the centuries, medieval ring dances have all but disappeared from Europe as the church saw a threat in their pagan origins – and today survive only on the Faroe Islands.
I quickly felt dizzy from watching the dancers: crowds of people below my viewing spot on top of a fence turned into a mass of moving heads and hands, all swirling rhythmically to the narrative. The steps were simple (two forward and one back, as one heavily inebriated local next to me popularly explained), but the mood of the dance varied with each story: softer for sad lyrics, merrier otherwise.
On and on the dancing went, intensifying with each verse. The atmosphere was wonderfully festive. I smiled and thought it was lucky that the space between the dancers was so tight: most people around me had visibly spent most of the day drinking. Like true survivors, they were determined to last until the wee hours of the morning. My Ólavsøka was however over. Till next year, at least!
Imagine my utter admiration when, around 7am the morning after, I found the streets of Tórshavn still not entirely deserted as dozens of party animals were fighting their last battles. A familiar face or two blinked out of the fading crowd, but there was no time for tearful reunions: my ferry to Suðuroy was already leaving.
Literally translated as South Island, Suðuroy is indeed the southernmost of the Faroes. It is also the archipelago’s most remote island and takes a 2-hour ferry journey from Tórshavn to reach. Most passengers that morning were the natives of Suðuroy conveniently returning home from Ólavsøka. Needless to say that all of us slept soundly during the entire voyage.
In hindsight, one day for Suðuroy is perhaps ambitious but good enough for a taster of the island. From the port, I headed to the village of Sumba – a gateway to Cape Akraberg, the Faroes’ southernmost point. After making my way through dissolving mist past dozens of freely wandering sheep, I hitched a ride to Suðuroy’s second largest settlement, Vágur. Strangely dubbed lacklustre by a certain guide book, the cosy Vágur marks the start of some excellent hiking trails.
With hours to spare until my ferry, I continued from Vágur to the village of Fámjin. The 2-hour walk covered some dramatic scenery past Suðuroy’s high peaks (Borgarknappur and Borgin), mountain lakes and ubiquitous sheep. Mist was king at the heights of over 500 meters, making the elusive mountain path nearly impossible to follow. Rather timely, a helpful local emerged out of the fog – as if by magic – to put me back on track. Warmth and hospitality of Suðuroy’s people has become the island’s unofficial trademark and is legendary around the Faroes.
As if to confirm this reputation, another local wholeheartedly drove me from Fámjin to Suðuroy’s northern villages. We picked up his sister in Hvalba, waved to his nieces by the roadside in Tvøroyri and greeted his wife and children in Krambatangi. Within barely 20 minutes, my driver met six of his family members in three different parts of the island – nothing unusual for a small community like that of Suðuroy.
The last day of my trip brought a visit to the most westerly of the Faroe Islands. Most birdwatchers will know of Mykines. The rocky island may have the year-round population of only 11 people, but is home to thousands of birds – above all, the puffins. Their burrows densely cover the western side of Mykines, making the catching of the birds – which the locals say are extremely delicious to eat – a relatively easy task.
If Suðuroy is the Faroes’ most remote island, then Mykines certainly ranks among the least accessible. In the winter, it is only a 3-weekly helicopter that connects Mykines with the rest of the Faroes; and the summer boat services are entirely reliant on weather, itself highly uncooperative.
As if there were any doubts about the perilous nature of the surrounding ocean, a monument to drowned sailors loomed solemnly on an elevated patch of land facing Mykines’s namesake village. The plaque bore the names of other departed locals, most of whom found their deaths falling off the cliffs while catching birds or gathering sheep.
The main attraction of the island is a small islet of Mykineshólmur separated from Mykines by a 35 metre deep gorge. A sturdy steel structure enabling the crossing is believed to be the world’s only bridge across the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of seabirds find their homes in the steep cliffs surrounding the lighthouse at the far end of the islet – the first sight of many boats approaching Europe from the west.
My second visit to the Faroes came to a cosy end in Kollafjørður with a wonderful dinner in a family setting. Environmentalists are kindly requested to skip the rest of this paragraph: the most controversial of the Faroese delicacies, pilot whale meat (tvøst) and blubber (spik), were both duly supplied. While the latter is certainly an acquired taste, I recommend slipping a piece of potato between thin slices of each for an authentic Faroese “sandwich”. Skerpikjøt (dried mutton) is also worth trying; keeping your eyes firmly fixed on the person across the table makes the experience somewhat easier to, well, digest.
As the Faroes’ famously rugged contours were disappearing in the mist below, I momentarily wished that I, too, had a family to visit there every year. Be it the archipelago’s eerie isolation, the sheer unpredictability of its weather or the landscapes – so splendidly windswept in a dramatic North Atlantic setting – one thing holds true. There is something irresistibly enticing about the Faroes, which draws back even a seasoned traveller.
Read my last year’s blog story, The Faroe Islands: Europe’s best-kept secret.