The Faroe Islands
So many cheap tourist brochures, often written in badly translated English, boast about experiencing nature. “Get close to nature”, “Enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by nature”, “Connect with nature”…you know the type. Rarely, in my experience, are these promises fulfilled. Usually, ‘nature’ is there, but perhaps in a cage, perhaps being photographed by 400 other tourists or maybe even stood next to a new mine or logging facility that has sprung up in recent years. Almost never have experiences of nature lived up to my hopes and expectations. This probably all sounds rather ungrateful, and I don’t for a second forget that I have enjoyed far more than my fair share of memorable moments in places of incredible natural beauty. My point is that there are very few places I have been where I have thought; “This is too much. Too much nature. I want less nature”. Almost nowhere that the experience really lives up to the hype.
The Faroe Islands have intrigued me for a long time. Being the strange person I am I often scan maps or atlases of the far north and have always wondered about the tiny speck of land that sits between Norway, Iceland and Scotland. Technically a part of Europe and Scandinavia, the only time any of us hear about the Faroes is in the shipping forecast, which documents its punishing climate and its storms. What did these islands look like? Why did people live there? What was life like in the middle of the north Atlantic?
Earlier this year I finally bit the bullet and booked flights on the Faroese national airline, Atlantic Airways, for early April. As our plane (one of only three in the airline’s fleet) was taxi-ing out to the runway the Captain mentioned that low cloud and fog were covering our destination and that we would try to land but it was weather dependent. Right from the start of our trip nature was showing its hand. As a slightly nervous flier I was not thrilled by the idea of seeking a diversion airfield in the middle of the Atlantic. I temporarily amused myself by the thought that we would probably be forced to land in Scotland meaning I would have paid £200 to end up back in the UK. But as it happened we were able to land safely on Vágar airport’s unusually short runway (there isn’t enough flat land in the Faroes for a full size one) despite the appalling visibility. An hour’s drive and one sub-sea tunnel later and my companion and I had arrived at our grass-roofed hostel, a short drive from the Faroe Islands’ main settlement, Tórshavn.
Over the course of our week in the Faroes we travelled extensively, staying in different places on different islands as we went. The transport infrastructure across the archipelago is unbelievable and all the main islands are connected either by regular ferry services or by sub-sea tunnels. The latter were deeply unsettling to drive through, particularly at first, as they plunged steeply downwards for what seemed like miles into the earth’s crust. We later discovered that more tunnels are being built at the moment and that these will be the longest of the lot at 11km and 20km respectively. This represents an absolutely enormous investment by a nation of only 48,000 people. Such long sub-sea tunnels cost hundreds of millions of euros, sums of money that a tiny country should be unable to invest in this infrastructure. So how can they afford it, and why?
The answer to the first question is Denmark. The Danish kingdom still encompasses the Faroes and their tax regime subsidises the islands’ existence, despite a strong Faroese desire for independence. But Danish support does not explain why the islanders are engaged in such a tunnelling frenzy? In the 1990s the Faroese economy crashed, forcing many islanders to emigrate and never return. The government realised that if their islands were to survive in the 21st century as a self-sufficient and autonomous nation they needed to be economically viable. To do this, they needed to become a well-integrated and continuous community rather than a collection of isolated villages and sporadic towns. This is why the Faroese have invested so much into tunnelling through their mountainous home, why they will drill through two miles of basalt just to connect 50 people to the rest of the country. It is as sure a sign as any of the islanders’ determination not just to survive on their rocks in the ocean, but to thrive and, ultimately, without the help of mother Denmark.
Impressive as the Faroese transport infrastructure might be it was not the reason I had wanted to visit the islands. The main draw for me had been the photos I had seen, mainly on the internet, that showcased incredible scenery; everything from dramatic sea stacks and cliffs to pretty waterfalls and unbelievable amounts of bright green grass. It seemed like the Faroes was a place that I might be able to ‘experience’ nature. Their official tourism website certainly claimed as much.
I could go on at length about all the different places we visited across the archipelago and all the things that we saw, but there are two moments in the trip that stand out as being particularly worthy of mention. The first was on our second day, when we decided to leave Tórshavn and head north to a tiny hamlet called Saksun.
Saksun is basically a collection of huts and a small church nestled above a cove that used to serve as a harbour. Shifting sands eventually made the inlet too shallow to allow boats in from the ocean and so the village became little more than a summer outpost for shepherds. But its decline means that it now stands as a well-preserved example of what many Faroese hamlets would once have looked like, with all the huts made out of only stone and turf (there are no trees in the Faroes). In summer these grass-roofed buildings look like the dwellings of Tolkien’s hobbits, impossibly green and cosy. They are also ‘green’ in the environmental sense, blending in with their surroundings, discreet examples of man and nature living side by side. I’m sure their carbon footprints are miniscule too..
We discovered at Saksun that April is a winter month in the Faroes. Spring, we were assured by locals, starts without fail on the 15th May each year, and not a day sooner! Consequently, the grassy huts were still dead and brown and the view was altogether much bleaker than in the tourist guidebooks. Gale force winds and rain lashed us as we arrived and it took 15 minutes (+ an entire packet of chocolate biscuits) before we felt ready to get out of our car and face the elements.
It took considerable effort just to open the car doors and when we did the whole place roared with the sound of wind, waves and waterfalls. We walked up behind the huts, to a viewpoint where all the brochure photos of Saksun are taken. While they weren’t looking their most photogenic, the huts’ situation was still incredible, looking down into the steep cove where the Atlantic surf could be seen crashing onto black sand. The atmosphere created by the stormy winter weather was one of fury and power. It is difficult not to fall victim to hyperbole in describing the scene. In every direction that we looked the elements seemed to be battling one another for dominance. Waterfalls roared down the hill sides only to be picked up and flung back on themselves by the wind. Moody hill tops still clad in snow stared down the clouds that raced towards them from the sea, disappearing behind layers of mist whenever a shower was driven across them. Discernible amongst all this the pounding of massive waves beat out a rhythm against the cliffs like a bass drum. It was intense.
We lasted about an hour until the weather beat us back into the car and we headed for Tórshavn once more. As we drove down the glen on the single track road we stumbled across more massive waterfalls, including one two-tiered example that crashed down right next to the roadside. The amount of water flowing off the land was phenomenal, far more than you would expect for such a small watershed.
The second day I want to describe was our visit to Norðoggjar or, in English, the Northern Isles. This was the place that really epitomised Faroese scenery for me.
Seen on a map Norðoggjar collectively look like an enormous bear’s paw, with long fingers pointing north towards the Arctic and deep fjords carved in-between them by the sea. In search of another tourist brochure classic my companion and I wanted to reach a famous lighthouse at the northern tip of an island called Kalsoy, which required our longest sub-sea tunnel yet and a short ferry from the fishing port of Klaksvik. For those willing to endure a cold wind the views from the crossing were fantastic; snow-capped hills poked out of the sea in every direction, their peaks linked by immense ridges with tiny villages sheltering in their corries.
Kalsoy itself is an amateur mountaineer’s dream. It is essentially a straight line of mountains with a knife-edge ridge for a backbone that runs its entire length. If the wind ever dropped it looked possible to travel the length of the island on top of this cerated edge; the views would have been unbelievable. Until the recent infrastructure push the Faroese communities on this island were effectively isolated from one another, positioned as they are in individual hanging valleys with mountains separating each one. Now, however, a road ploughs straight up the middle of the island, bulldozing through each mountain in turn (I cannot even imagine how much it must have cost..) before eventually culminating in the tiny settlement of Trøllanes.
The drive to Trøllanes was possibly my favourite of all time and one of the highlights of the Faroe islands for me. It helped that we did it on our only sunny day but even so it was impossibly scenic. Every valley we swept through offered a different view east to the neighbouring island of Kúnoy, which holds many of the Faroes’ highest mountains. The sea in between was an incredibly rich blue, darker than the azure of tropical paradises but somehow equally alluring. It provided a wonderful contrast to the brown land and grey cliffs that rose steeply from it. Despite the sunshine it was still blowing a gale as we drove and in the stronger gusts the wind would whip up great plumes of spray, carrying them over the sea for a hundred metres or so. Sometimes the squalls would spin the spray into what looked like white tornadoes that would swirl over the surface until the gust dropped them and moved on.
Five tunnels later and we emerged above Trøllanes, on the shoulder of the mountain which gives the village its name. Despite my enthusiam for the previous vistas it was clear that Kalsoy had been holding onto its trump card until now. The village itself was like all Faroese settlements; it looked like toy-town. Tiny colourful houses and a distinctive Nordic church huddled at the base of the valley with a small river running through the buildings. Further up the slope the land had been cultivated into a patchwork of tiny fields which were being grazed by the multi-coloured Faroes sheep. It was all very feudal. Above these pastures the grass became too poor for sheep and house-sized boulders lay strewn across the land. Higher up still and the plants died away completely to leave a rocky tundra below the immense theatre of the mountain itself. Right near its peak the rock had weathered to give the appearance of two humanoid figures crouching before its summit. Presumably these were the trolls.
We made the short walk from Trøllanes to the tip of Kalsoy in search of our lighthouse, arriving at the side of the most massive cliff I have ever seen. The wind was still ferocious so climbing across a narrow ridge above the sea to get to the lighthouse was terrifying, but once crossed the view was certainly worth it.
Around the cliff fulmars soared on the gale, completely indifferent to the storm they were flying in, and across the landscape the elements were still locked in their endless battle. Water beat against rock, rain lashed grass, snow piled into mountain tops, each of them marshalled by the wind which howled its fury loudest of all. It was as if the Faroe islands had angered the Atlantic by daring to exist so far out in the sea and the ocean punished the land for its impudence day after day. But though the land has been carved into slices by years of this onsalught it still stands bold and defiant, facing down the northern seas with Europe’s largest sea cliffs. Both Kunoy and Viðoy islands to the east of where we sat culminate in sheer rock faces eight-hundred metres high. To see them in person is remarkable; they belittle the Atlantic waves that crash around their feet.
Ultimately the ocean will have its way with the Faroe islands, weathering the rock down to nothing and reclaiming its small area. On that particular day in Kalsoy though, it seemed to be the land that had the upper hand. As we walked back to Trøllanes its bulk sheltered us from the wind and its mountains carved holes in the cloud, allowing the sun to poke through and warm us.
Such moments of tranquility were rare on our trip. In general the Faroese climate buffeted us and pushed us around like a schoolyard bully, literally knocking us off our feet from time to time.
Infact the analogy could be extended to the Faroe islands in general; this place pulls no punches. Everything is bigger and better (or worse) than should be possible in such a small place. The scenery, the mountains, the waterfalls, the weather, they all conspire to give an experience that is raw and powerful. It is a land that seems better suited to Norse mythology or Game of Thrones than to 21st century Europe. Above all it is a place where you really will experience nature; the whole landscape roars with it. If the Faroese could harness even a fraction of the power unleashed on the islands they would be a renewable energy giant.
The Faroe Islands are closer to the UK than to any other country. This archipelago is on our doorsteps, just not in a direction we travel very often. If you can put up with a miserable climate then go go go and see it for yourself. I am confident you will not be disappointed.
(Please check out my Instagram if you would like to see more photos from the trip)