Like a Puffin in Winter: Escape to the Faroe Islands

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In my return to the blogosphere in 2018, I am breaking from my traditional posts. This time, I wanted to share more personal story (mainly photos), from my time in a remote archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, far from the Pacific. Tourists to the Faroe Islands are rare in winter, as many places are closed until spring or even summer. But, with time on our hands and travel plans taking us to Europe from Sydney, I decided this would be our moment to experience the unspoiled beauty and history of the Faroe Islands.

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Map of the Faroe Islands; credit: Mysid

Some Background

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation with autonomous powers and responsibilities within the Kingdom of Denmark. With a population of almost 50,000 people, and about halfway between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands have been touted as “Europe’s best kept secret.” It has always been a tourist destination for bird lovers; for our adventure, we wanted to hike, explore Viking history, and enjoy fresh seafood. Compared to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, Viking sites are not as prolific or promoted. And more so than tourism, the fisheries sector is critical to the nation’s economy and way of life.

Since the late 19th century, fishing has been the primary source of income for the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands has strict regulations on its fish farming industry, with the goal of creating the most sustainable production in the world. Overall, fish and fish products represent between 90 and 95 percent of total export value. We ate cod dried and fried, salmon smoked, and miscellaneous fish pâté. We were unable to find and try other local delicacies, including fermented sheep, puffin, and whale.

Day 1 – Vágar, Streymoy & Eysturoy

Travel options into the Faroe Islands are relatively limited; particularly during winter, flights typically arrive and depart when there is the most daylight, between 12-2pm. We flew from Copenhagen; in winter, there are also flights from Iceland and Scotland. For those adventure-seekers with a lot of time, there is a ferry that takes more than a day of travel from Denmark or Iceland. Shopping at the duty free store at the airport is essential, because stores can be few and far between. I recommend stocking up on Föroya Bjór beers, which are brewed locally.

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For our first tourist site, we went to perhaps the most famous photo opportunity – Gásadalur – to view the Mulafossur Waterfall and the island of Mykines from afar. Gásadalur has only a handful of houses and a small parking lot for tourists making the walk. Mykines is an uninhabited island reachable by ferry. It is known for being an important puffin colony, but not during the winter.

Originally we tried to pack a lot of adventure into day 1, but winter daylight hours got in the way.

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From Gásadalur, we drove across increasingly dark, icy roads to the next island of Eysturoy to visit the Vestmanna Saga Museum. The museum was supposed to be closed for winter, but we arranged with the owner, Gunnar, to have it opened just for us. Arriving late and with no working phone, it was lucky that we found a friendly local originally from Australia who happened to know Gunnar and gave him a call. The Saga Museum was a gruesome experience, not for the faint-hearted or small children. Wax figurines detail important and gruesome historical events in the history of the Faroe Islands, including the country’s conversion to Christianity.

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Vestmanna Saga Museum

Next we drove to our accommodation in Leirvik. Without navigation or access to Google maps, we asked for directions at the local petrol/grocery store to our street. While the attendant couldn’t help us, one of the fellow shoppers was kind enough to drive us to the house. Our VisitHomes accommodation came with a 15% coupon for the Bowling Alley – which was the only restaurant open in winter! They served up huge portions of local fried cod and chips. 

Day 2 – Eysturoy

To maximise our daylight, we left Leirvik before the sun came up at 9am. We attempted to drive to Slættaratindur to climb the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands (882 m). From the top there is apparently a fantastic view of all the Faroes, and locals traditionally do this hike every year (in warmer months). Unfortunately, at a key turnoff, the road was iced over, with a sign warning the road isn’t cleared during the winter. Without chains for our tires, we didn’t risk driving up the mountain.

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Next we drove north to the east coast town of Gjogv, which dates to the late 1500s or earlier. Its name translates to “gorge” because there is a 200m gorge that runs through it. There was an old church (like in every town) dated from 1929, and a factory producing prefabricated concrete materials. It looked like the sheep ran the town, with almost no one else outside except for a couple of factory workers. We trekked up the side of a mountain, to enjoy the view, and to the beach. The one cafe in town said it was closed until June, but they did have a public water closet open.

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A Note about Driving

To drive in the Faroe Islands, you need to be attentive to the elements: the wind, hail, roads weaving left and right, sheep crossings, giving way in tight, dark tunnels, and distractions from the amazing views. Particularly around Funningsfjørður, where there are mountains in all directions. We used Unicar to rent a Citroen Cactus; for two people and a few days, it was perfect. Tire chains might have been helpful, but they also could have gotten us into unnecessary trouble.

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We picked our next location based on the extremely helpful Visit Faroe Islands guides. We hiked for several hours, starting from the grassy land in Hellurnar up to snowy terrain and the top where we could see over to Fuglafjørður. The grassy portion was dominated by sheep (and their droppings). It was challenging at times, as we faced hail, icy rock scrambles, and snow. We encountered only one other couple hiking in the opposite direction, which made it slightly easier to find the path via footsteps in the snow. From the top of the first section, we could see salmon fish farms, common in many towns.

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Salmon Farming in the Faroe Islands

The seas surrounding the Faroe Islands are perfect for wild Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) from northern Europe, with steady cool temperatures, clean water, accessible fjords, and strong currents. The production is in average around 50,000 tons of farmed fish in round weight. In almost every suitable bay you can find farming like in the picture above.The Faroese aquaculture industry accounts for more than half of the country’s total export value, and produces the most salmon relative to the population with 1.5 tonnes per capita. There are 3 main companies producing salmon in the Faroe Islands – Bakkafrost, Marine Harvest, and Hiddenfjord. We enjoyed the local smoked salmon.

 

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Before nightfall, we drove to the southern end of Eysturoy to Runavik to see Lake Toftavatn. We didn’t have enough daylight or energy to go for a walk around the lake, so snapped a quick photo.

Day 3 – Viðoy, Borðoy, Kunoy, Eysturoy, & Streymoy

For our final full day, we started by driving to the northernmost settlement in the Faroe Islands, Vidareidi on the island of Viðoy and watched the sunrise.

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According to Visit Faroe Islands, “In the 16th century Viðareiði was home to a fabled priest’s wife, Beinta. This woman is a primary inspiration for the main character in Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s novel, Barbara. Because of the vicarage’s historical placement in Viðareiði, the village has been a cultural centre for the north-eastern part of the Northern Isles through centuries.”

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Perhaps my favourite juncture was the crossing between Norðdepil on and Hvannasund on Viðoy.

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Traveling south from Viðoy, we went to Klaksvík on the island of Borðoy for a hearty sheep stew at Fríða’s. Klaksvík is the second largest town, which has Viking-era remains at Úti í Grøv.

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From there, we drove back to Leirvik to see the four buildings of ruins of Toftanes, which date to the early 10th century. The largest building was a 72-foot longhouse shared by animals and humans, once covered by a roof of turf and birch bark. There was also a smaller house, 43 feet by 13 feet, with a single wall of stone, and two smaller buildings. Many of the thousands of artifacts found at Toftanes are displayed at the Historical Museum; some items include: bowls, glass and amber beads, juniper ropes and rare bronze items, including a brooch and a pin.

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Just before sunset, we made it into Tórshavn for our final night. Historic sites included the area known as the Tinganes, the site of the oldest parliament in the world (dated 825) and Skansin, a fortress dated from around 1508.  

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The downtown is very walkable, with many boutique shops.

Music in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands has one record label, Tutl, founded in 1977 and a thriving music scene (I’m told) mainly in the summer. The G! Music Festival is one of the most popular. At the Tutl record store in Tórshavn, the attendant helped us with recommendations and played some local records over the store speakers. We already knew about the folk metal band Tyr, so were looking for something different. We came across a music video by the band Hamferð, and were excited to find their music in store. You can read more about music in the Faroe Islands here.

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Tutl Store in Tórshavn

We were planning to try Barbara’s Fish House for dinner, but it was closed for winter; so, we opted for smorgasbords.

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Day 4 – Streymoy & Vágar

For our last activity, we drove out of Tórshavn, south west to Kirkjubøur, one of the Faroe Islands’ most important historic places and the southernmost town on Streymoy. Ruins from the unfinished Magnus Cathedral date from about 1300, and it is the largest medieval building in the Faroe Islands. Saint Olav’s Church is the oldest still used church of the Faroes dating from 12th century. Finally, Kirkjubøargarður, is the oldest still inhabited wooden house in the world from the 11th century.

One of my photos of our stop in Kirkjubøur was featured on the cover of the Bush Telegraph, our local community magazine.

People of the Faroe Islands

While they are not present in my holiday photos, we met very friendly, courteous people across the Faroe Islands. The first person we met in the country happened to be a woman from Australia, and the next person was a Faroese man who had lived in Sydney and brought back an Australian wife. That was a little striking given that almost 90 percent of the population are native Faroese, descendants from the Norse (Scandinavian and Gaelic) that settled the islands in the 9th century AD. Danes compose the largest non-native population at 7%, with less than 3% of the total made up by nationalities of more than 80 countries [Philippines (0.34%) Icelanders (0.33%), Thai (0.23%) Norwegians (0.19%), and so on]. The small number of new immigrants is a point of curiosity as SBS in Australia and the BBC have reported “women wanted in the Faroes.” Many Faroese women left during a recession in the 1990s and youth often leave for university in Denmark; the reports tell of women who immigrated for love and life on the archipelago. The population reached a milestone of 50,000 people in 2017.

Departing the Faroe Islands, we were reminded of the importance of the fishing industry, and salmon in particular. We watched as cases and cases of fresh salmon were loaded onto the SAS Airways flight. There was so much salmon that our flight was delayed!

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To close, a legend about the water elf, Nykin, that lived in Lake Toftavatn. The story goes, it rose up from the waters in the form of a young man or a horse that lured young women and children. Those that touched the Nykin were caught and dragged into the water. Experiencing the Faroese landscape and changing, misty weather, you can get drawn in and wonder what lies before you. Trolls, spirits, or just another sheep?

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One thought on “Like a Puffin in Winter: Escape to the Faroe Islands

  1. You will have to return in the summertime! Amazing that you found so much to enjoy and share in the dead of winter!

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