Richard Gannon: The Faroe Islands - Sheep islands
These thoughts were giving me chills, but the ticket had already been bought.
In the plane there was a young couple of Faroese flying next to me. They were coming back from vacations that they had spent in the Mediterranean. The girl clearly wasn’t taking slight turbulence well so she was silent almost the entire trip while her companion turned out to be a pretty sociable man with a great possession of English. The guy told me that he, just as the majority of islanders, likes travelling outside their homeland and tries to discover at least one new state a year.
Our jet had a leisurely flight over England and Scotland to make the course towards Iceland. Storm began and the sky became shut with thick rain clouds. An archipelago emerged somewhere beneath and our plane began coming in for landing. At first it seemed to me that were landing directly in the ocean, but the pilot skillfully turned the steering wheel and softly landed the vessel on a narrow road, snuggled closely to mountains.
There is only one air strip on the Faroes and it is situated on Vágar Island. It was built by British military who were residing there after World War II. There were four thousand of them with only two thousands of locals. For the time of their stay Englishmen were even allowed to stick to left-hand traffic. Originally only military planes landed on the islands but since as far back as 1963 the airport started serving civil flights.
I stepped out of a small terminal of the airport to find myself in an open area: herd of sheep passed by, flock of birds flew past; passengers were dissolving at the same time. Some of them left by a city bus or took a taxi, others reached nearby town by foot. I stood for a while on my own and then headed to Sandavágur on Shank’s pony.
This is why that spot evoked interest in me: once a year coats waters of the town acquire scarlet color. It happens due to the fact that locals arrange an event called Grindadrap – whale hunting. Sailors drive them to the bay and perform a massacre afterwards. The event has non-commercial nature. Meat of animals is equally distributed among citizens of the Faroes. I was later being assured that this way islanders control whales’ headcount – by killing up to a thousand individuals annually. Otherwise they allegedly will eat all the fish in the area.Photo a57.foxnews.com
It wasn’t easy to walk a narrow earthy track. Ocean was shimmering by the steep on my left, autos kept passing by. One car drew my attention, the one that managed to drive a number of times back and forth within the time of my short walk. It was an old noisy dirty Mazda. In one of those trips the driver stopped by me and offered to give a free lift to the settlement. Owner of the rarity turned out to be a Pole who performed cargo traffic between airport and the capital of the Faroes – the city of Tórshavn. He came to the islands many years ago looking for a bride but failed to do that so far.
When looking for my hotel I came across a pretty large football field. On one side of it boys were kicking the ball about, on the other – local girls were playing. Sports are exceptionally popular in the Faroes. Islanders take part in international handball, rowing and volleyball competitions. But still, it is football that majority of locals prefer. Both professional and amateur teams train in the field as nearly as every day. And since it is situated by the water, there is even a special employee who collects balls that fall into the water from a boat.
I got carried away looking at kids playing when suddenly it started raining. Prickly drizzle. I shifted my glance into the sky to get surprised. There were dozens of rainbows emerging and disappearing around me, large and small, nearby or far at the horizon. I’d never seen so many rainbows at together.
Finally I made it to my hotel. In the lobby I saw another guest, just like me. He was going for a walk and told me that owners were out and would be back late in the afternoon. The tourist left and I was left alone in somebody else’s house. It felt weird that owners of an establishment would leave doors open just like that. The Faroese seemed to be unafraid of burglaries or any other kind of crimes. My sensations were soon confirmed by observations. They didn’t close doors almost at all and left car keys inside vehicles. In addition, the accepted foreigners easily and lightheartedly, were eager to talk and acted very naturally.
Vacant prison testified to the fact that everything was peaceful on the island. I was told that short time ago a Russian was kept there, some hellbender of a sailor. But even he didn’t spend much time under lock and key, and it went with comfort, too – the inmate was using web access provided by the prison and watched cable TV.
I got tired of waiting for the owners so I called them. There at the counter I found several Danish coins and put it into a pay telephone to contact the hosts. They came in quickly, showed me the room and told me how to get to a famous landmark of the islands – waterfall that lands in the ocean falling from a mountain top.
Inspired by the upcoming trip, I put on rubber boots, grabbed a raincoat, an umbrella and a flashlight. But it was getting harder to walk with every step. The rain was literally pinning me to the ground and I was lifting my legs off wet soil with difficulty. Having decided to postpone a trip to the waterfall, I took a turn to the town of Miðvágur. There I found a small restaurant called “Nest”. Its whole menu consisted of hamburgers and pizza. I ordered banana pizza and started waiting. I was amazed with how lively the place was as for a town with 1000 people of population. Doors of the “Nest” were almost never closed. Clients kept coming and coming to get their pizzas. I started to get a feeling that all islanders conspired right off the bat to eat this particular Italian dish that night.
On the second day of my trip I headed for the capital – Tórshavn. I opted for a bus to get there. The ticket turned out not to be cheap but views out of the window made up for every penny spent over and above. Since the Faroes are located on 18 islands, they are interconnected by dozens of bridges.
All the landmarks of Tórshavn can be walked around in two hours, me, however, I extended gloating of a small and cozy city to 6 hours. Having stayed a bit longer by the monument built to honor the visit of the Queen of Denmark in 1874, I went to a city park. A brook with crystal-clean water flew there, trout glimmering with its scales in it. It seemed that should I have put my hand into the water, I would have definitely caught several fishes.
There are almost no trees on the Faroes. Because of strong winds they cannot get attached to the ground with their roots. So, there is grass as far as the eye can see. Even on rooftops. This is the way islanders save heat and decorate their dwellings.
Wandering around the capital I came across Art Centre, statue of Jesus Christ, wooden church with a very high bell tower, fountain and the Nordic House. In the latter one you can read latest newspapers, use Wi-Fi and lavatories for free and have a cheap snack.
I ventured a pretty short walking trip from Tórshavn to Kirkebøger. I passed by a cemetery, fishing warehouses and headed to where civilization was less and less visible. I was moving up the hill, turning back occasionally to look at the way I’d gone. Amazing silence surrounded me. Sounds of neither water nor wind could be heard there; noise of the city and the road couldn’t reach me. Complete emptiness of the sound. My inner voice seemed indecently loud and heartbeat sounded like peals of thunder. I attempted to calm down and froze, having dissolved in this miracle of silence. It was heaven.
Unlike heaven, there are no snakes on the islands, but there are a great lot of birds instead. Over 200 species of feathered tribe. Some of them inhabit the islands permanently, other come to make it through the winter. They partly nest in the rocks therefore it is better to observed feathered tribe from the sea. Together with other tourists I ordered a boat and we set on to admire cliffed coast. Everyone was hoping to see a petrel.
A small boat accommodated 30 tourists and all of us embarked on a 2-hour long trip. Strong wind was blowing and in a short time our small yet proud “ship” began being carried away to open ocean. We were told to hang on and I have to admit they did it very timely because we were tossed to and fro pretty sensibly. Anyway, experienced shipman mastered waves and we sailed to a more or less calm bay. Guides made it our duty to put on helmets and warned that we should mind our heads first of all. Over 400 meters of rock were hanging over us. Luckily, we did without a rockfall. Dampness and cold did their part – I was chilled to the marrow and constant wave-fighting wouldn’t allow concentrating on birds’ watch. I attempted at taking a picture but almost dropped my camera because of swell. When I conclusively gave up on capturing something, a small yet very amusing bird with orange legs and multicolored feathers approached me (editorial note: Arenaria interpres). It was flying around the boat and examining us, people, with equal interest.
When back to harbor, I felt extremely washed-out so I headed directly to my hotel for some sleep.Photo dangerous-business.com
There are no railways on the Faroes, but there are a lot of bus routes instead. They trail along narrow mountain tracks, run through tunnels and even connect the islands to Denmark. When in one of the tunnels I was struck by how bright and colorful it was there. Multicolored lights kept flickering around and it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a party in such a tunnel. Our driver explained that flickering lights, that resemble disco ones, aren’t there by accident. Bright light is supposed to relieve stress of a long underground trip and distract passengers from panic-prone thoughts.
However, peak of pleasure can be achieved there using other means of transport – helicopter. It is used to access remotest regions, during rescue operations and to entertain tourists. I took advantage of it and offered myself for a short trip. That was my first helicopter ride. There were a couple passengers besides me but I moved myself closer to pilot and watched with amazement how earth was flashing beneath with bright grass cover, fancy colorful roofs and huge number of sheep.
Having landed, I relished hot coffee and tried famous local cinnamon pie. Then I stepped by a bank and was unpleasantly surprised by a too large commission on currency exchange – 5% of total amount. But what could I do – selection of banks on the Faroes isn’t large.
My trip was coming to its close and I decided to dedicate one day to Nólsoy Island merely 4 kilometers to the east from my hotel. I had to get to it on a ferry – a pretty big one as for such a small island. 10 local citizens were going together with me and they were looking at me a bit puzzled, trying to figure out what a foreigner forgot on such a small piece of land. It turned out to be… deserted with only sheep scurrying around. Suddenly I stumbled upon a small cabin. I learned that it was a water reservoir to gather it after rain and channel to a neighboring village using downward construction. I headed there to grab some hot coffee or even have a snack at an eatery. No sooner had I found a suitable place and got the aspired drink, I almost choked on it. A woman on a monocycle rode past me. I had never in my life seen anything like that. A pretty corpulent islander was very graciously balancing on one wheel and even managed to give me a salutary bow. When I started talking to her, I learned that she had only recently moved there, when she had got married and that she had caught fancy for a monocycle after a circus show by one of visiting companies. To conclude with, she told me where on the island I could try some tasty rhubarb jam and I had nothing else to do but to follow her advice. Having easily found the mentioned place, I ordered home-made delight; it was served with waffles and coffee. With great pleasure I consumed sweet treats and inquired as to what else to see on Nólsoy and I was sent to stuffed birds maker.Photo insidehook.com
His name was Jens-Kjeld. Chicken with bold necks were walking in his yard. I knocked on the door but no one opened. Instead, neighbors answered to tell me that the owner of the collection left for a different island to find another bird for his work.
Slightly disappointed, I made my way till the end of the island. On its highest point I saw wind power generator. A little lower I noticed parts of another wind machine. I was later told that local citizens began mounting them on their own initiative to make the island independent in terms of energy. But in the course of the process they faced certain technical difficulties so they postponed mounting of alternative energy source till better times.
Currently Faroe Islands use 60% of renewable energy sources. Mainly, hydraulic power stations and pretty new wind turbines. In part, they import oil. But this small community plans a transfer to 100% use of natural forces in the nearest future.
After my week-long stay on the islands it seemed like I explored as nearly as every centimeter of this wonderful land. I saw numerous birds, endless sheep herds, got to know many good-natured Faroeses and even learned a couple of words in Danish. I experienced magic of complete silence and awe in the face of the element of raging water, tried a very tasty cinnamon pie and shared sorrow with the owner of the café over the fact that the islands gradually go the way of dodo by losing own citizens. Young people these days more often than not reach out for the continent. I huffed and puffed about haste to her but deep inside I was sure that life on Faroe Island would never be over and Nordic fairytale would forever attract new and new admirers of the beauty of this harsh land.
Facts about Faroe Islands:
The islands are not included into Schengen Area despite being a part of Denmark.
One of the islands of the archipelago is uninhabited.
Sheep breeding is the principal article of islanders’ income. According to most recent calculations, livestock constitutes 80 000 zooids.
Main export products of the Faroese are: fish, karakul, fluffy feather of petrels and eiders as well as woolen items.
Houses of the Faroese are painted either red or black, some roofs hide beneath thick grass cover.
Cover photo prinlume.com