A fly-drive through the Faroe Islands: me, myself and isle
With amazing landscapes, wild weather and plenty of sheep, the Faroe Islands are a floor-to-ceiling stunner. We explored the rugged villages, scenery and best restaurants
- By Ronan J O'Shea -
I'm easily distracted. I am not one for sitting still, unless it involves watching football or going for a pint. But for the last two hours, there's been little to lift my eyes from my screen and A Confederacy of Dunces; save for a small bunch of islands (the Shetlands), it's been sea, sea and more sea since we took off from Copenhagen.
Then, ten minutes before landing, distraction arrives in visual form, with the Faroe Islands appearing as if from nowhere; a gnarled cluster of stone, grass and snow-peaked mountains in the middle of the ocean between Scotland and Iceland. It's like New Zealand if it lost the backpackers but kept the sheep, hundreds of them marauding across the hills like tiny flecks of snow. This unique archipelago forms an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, with a population of around 50,000.
The mountains grow bigger as we approach Vágar Airport, the hillsides shine green and yellow in the late-evening sun, the sheep take fluffy, flocculent form. Tiny villages appear here and there, each little more than a few houses, a church and a football field. The vast expanse is eerily beautiful, not least because of an almost complete lack of trees which accentuates the stark landscape.
Once on the ground, I pick up my hire car and take the coastal road towards the capital, Torshavn, thankful that this northerly part of the world enjoys late sunshine in spring: I'm already late for dinner and the drive takes an hour.
Despite this – and the fact that I've not driven in six years – I'm relaxed as I make my way towards the Faroese capital. Sheep trot along the hillsides, and the towns I saw from the skies come and go as charming, pretty intervals along the way.
the faroe islands are like new zealand if it lost the backpackers
I reach Torshavn via the Vágatunnilin, a near-five-mile undersea tunnel bored through the Vestmannasund mountain that connects the islands of Vágar and Streymoy.
The latter is the largest of the 18 Faroe Islands and home to Torshavn, a city that, by our standards, comes across as small and sleepy. Upon arrival, I get the sense that life moves at a more lethargic pace here; the closest thing to congestion is a two-car traffic jam at one of only three sets of traffic lights on the islands; a gaggle of middle-aged men shoot the breeze outside the city's obligatory Irish pub; boats bob gently up and down the harbour; and strangers do that weird thing they only do in laid-back parts of the world – they say hello.
I get to the restaurant, and I'm shown into a small, oak-panelled dining room with windows looking out towards the harbour. A man I'd describe as 'well-fed' senses I'm not from 'round here, and asks why I'm in town.
"Journalist?" he says when I answer, with an affable smile I grow accustomed to from locals over the coming days. "You must write about this place. It is a very special restaurant for the Faroe Islands."
While usually wary of hype (I'm a Spurs fan), his exhortation proves justified. Ræst specialises in dishes made using the unique Faroese fermenting process that gives the restaurant its name – meat (mostly lamb) and fish are kept in food-drying sheds called hjallur, with the islands' brisk, salty air providing the most natural of seasonings.
The food is varied – some of it delicious, some an acquired taste – but what's most striking is how closely it's linked to the Faroes' near-inhospitable landscape. With harsh terrain and acidic soil precluding mass cultivation of crops, food here continues to be largely informed by its location, the land, and that salty air constantly whipping in from the sea. The result is dishes like blóðpannukøkan (lamb's blood pancake topped with dry-aged cod), which is akin to black pudding. Yup, it might not be for everyone, but it's evidence of a culture that leaves nothing to waste, a characteristic still typical of places around the world not yet beholden to the cult of pre-packaged, ready-made food.
the quiet stillness is eerie; the scenery spectacular
This is followed by smáttuostur og eplamorl – pilot whale n' mash to you and me – one of the more exotic (and controversial) dishes I've had in my life,and another indication that I'm in a place where food and culture share a symbiotic relationship. From horse mussels at Barbara Fish House (which offers a Faroese take on tapas) to sushi at Etika that leverages the archipelago's abundant seafood, dining on the Faroes is a clear-cut case of using what's at hand and playing around with it to create something new. Having paired tonight's dinner with enough wine to take down Gérard Depardieu, I return to my hilltop hotel, sated, and collapse into bed.
The following morning, through bleary eyes, I get my first real sight of Torshavn; the bay sleepy but gleaming as the sun rises. I ask the receptionist the best way back to Vágar, having heard of a beautiful waterfall on its western coast. She suggests I take the scenic mountain route instead of the city. Heeding her advice, I head up into the mountains, the gears crying out in pain as the car climbs the steep slopes. And then out of nowhere I find myself on a long plateau of flat land that stretches for miles. Road signs point to the area as a horse-riding hotspot, and it's easy to see why: the grassy flatlands surrounded by those jagged mountain peaks are idyllic.
Before long, I find myself yo-yo-ing once again through mountains, meandering as I make my way (in theory) back to Vágar. Getting lost (natch), I end up in a tiny village and stop to look at my map, before deciding to go for a stroll to take some photos of a pretty church I saw nearby. The quiet stillness is eerie; the stark, treeless scenery spectacular. The wind, though neither biting or blustery, changes quickly, which makes it seem colder than it is, and I get back in the car, check the map, and work out how to get to Gásadalur and that waterfall.
I park up outside the local church and walk in what I hope is the direction of the waterfall, through grassy hillocks dotted with perilous sheep shit. Jumping about to avoid ovine droppings, I stand still when I realise the kind of view I have around me. To my right, a bowl-shaped mountain scoops the village in its palm; to my left is the ocean and a sprinkling of uninhabited islands. It's so beautiful I completely forget about the waterfall, only remembering on the way back to Torshavn, where I've arranged to meet Faroese local Kristian Blak.
Commonly regarded as the godfather of the Faroe Islands' vibrant music scene, Blak lives in a house on a hill in the tiny city centre. I walk around the narrow cobblestone alleys looking for his home among a dozen or so grass-covered cottages and half expect to see Bilbo Baggins.
As Kristian lets me into his house, I have to duck so as not to bang my head on the wooden panel above, and we sit down to chat. After moving to the Faroe Islands in the 1970s, Danish-born Kristian became a teacher and, over time, began to organise concerts with friends, something which has developed over the years to incorporate a successful music career, festivals around the Faroes and Tutl Records, a label and music store. Plying me with CDs in his shop, he's indicative of the quiet, calm friendliness I become accustomed to here, from the teenage barman in the hotel who tells me at length about his love of West Ham (each to their own) to the waitresses in a local café eager to find out why I've come "all this way".
I ask Kristian if the islands' unique terrain is the key influence on music here and expect him to nod sagely. Instead, he smiles, shaking his head."Yes and no," he says. "Mainly it's just about people exploring what they like. You get everything here. Metal, rock, folk."
And as it turns out, he's completely right. Listening to everything from Guðrið Hansdóttir's pop-laden acoustic tracks to the synth of Eivør, the indie of Marius Ziska and Kristian's own music (characterised by jazzy pianos and distorted rock guitars) it becomes clear how the islands really influence music here. Cooped up in this remote part of the world, you need two things; friends, and something to do.
Admittedly, it doesn't keep everyone happy – and emigration to livelier places like Copenhagen is high. "We have a problem with people leaving, particularly young women," says Kristian, drumming his fingers on the table, reminding me of the young women in the café. "If there were more for them to do, they might return."
He may have a point, but for overstimulated city dwellers like myself, being able to simply drive around and breathe in the scenery while listening to music is an experience to treasure.
The following day I head east to the island of Esturoy, and the tiny northern town of Gjogv. Looking at the church, houses and mountains, I can see how it influences people, the quiet stillness just as likely to inspire a young woman to pack up her bags as it is to make another pick up a guitar and go out in search of likeminded indie-rock fans. As a guest, however, it's perfect; the barren tranquility, the nature so beautiful it's intimidating.
Later that afternoon, I drive towards Viðareiði, on the island of Viðoy, pulling in to take some shots of a cliff-face I spot jutting out to sea. The photos are bad, but the image remains etched into my mind with its stark, fearsome beauty; the cliff, hewn over millions of years, now resembling a set of shark teeth biting into the ocean.
Before driving on to Viðareiði, I put my camera back in the car, and decide, for a change, to simply enjoy the view for a few moments, turning slowly on my heels to take in the now-familiar sight of sea and sky, mountain and grassy hill.
Back in the car, I look at my phone. I've got dinner back in Torshavn in two hours and I'm pushing my luck if I want to make it back in time. How did I let myself get so distracted? I look to my right, at the brutal, barren landscape. Ah, that's how.