If you dream of a hidden, untamed land where earth, sea, and sky meet, where the earth’s soul dances in the playful, living fog, where artists lurk within salty sailors, and gentle curtains of waterfalls hang over islands of sheer, haughty rock – you have always dreamt of the Faroe Islands.
Trust me, there is a corner of this vast world where a tiny nation of poets and dreamers, farmers and sailors, musicians and artists awaits to beguile you with their storytelling, humor, and age-old Viking lust for living. Føroyar, or the Faroe Islands, is a cluster of 18 islands, treeless swells of land and soaring cliffs inhabited by vast colonies of birds. Home to around 50,000 people descended from the Norse and Celts, the Faroese are affable, master story-tellers, skilled seafarers, and weathered veterans of anything the sea and sky throws at them. They speak a language descended from the Vikings and related to Icelandic in a beguiling musical lilt.
The Faroese are fiercely proud of their sea-battered corner of the world. Strap on your hiking boots and strike out on age-old mountain paths, still marked by the stacked cairns of yesteryear. Ferry hop from island to island, from the soft, sun-soaked embrace of Suðuroy in the south to the thrusting, arrogant cliffs of Fugloy in the north. Dance to heart-thumping folk music at the local pub while sipping the velvety beer brewed in Klaksvík on a raucous Saturday night when the entire city of Tórshavn seems to be engulfed by a massive city party. Meander medieval alleys in Tinganes, the oldest neighborhood in Tórshavn, beneath the grass roofs that lend a Tolkienesque hue. Be prepared to be pleasantly kidnapped by the locals’ overwhelming hospitality.
Most tourists encounter the Faroes as a brief stop on the Norrona car ferry as she plies the waters between Iceland and Denmark. Defy convention, step off the boat, explore beyond the capital city, and dare to stay a few days. The soul of Føroyar awaits you.
Blog Posts about the Faroe Islands:
- A David and Goliath Saga (Or Why I May Never Leave Torshavn), September 4, 2011
- Ferries and Helicopters: Just a Day in the Life, September 7, 2011
- Soul of the Faroes, September 8, 2011
- An Acquaintance with the Foggy Soul of the Faroes, October 28, 2011
- Lessons in Irony – Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroes with Fibromyalgia, November 7, 2011
- Photos of Northern Faroe Islands, November 19, 2011
- Lessons in Sane Living (An Ode to Fibromyalgia and the Faroe Islands), February 15, 2012
The Faroe Islands were first settled by Irish monks, hermits of devotion who relished isolation in the North Atlantic. Their solitude, alas, did not last long. The Vikings, known today for terrorizing Europe, raiding towns and monasteries lush with riches and disappearing swiftly out to sea, arrived a century later. But there was more to Norse society than rape and pillage. At their core, the Vikings were farmers. They developed a complex society, centered on farming and trade all across the North Atlantic. Highly skilled at ship-building and navigation, they expanded across the sea, as far west as Iceland and Greenland, even reaching Vinland in North America. Along the way, the Norse mingled and clashed with the fierce Celts while founding the trade centers of Dublin and York.
The Norse reached the Faroe Islands in the 8th century, establishing farming and fishing communities. Like the rest of the Viking world, they set up their own assembly of governance, called a thing, and converted to Christianity at the end of the 10th century, establishing the local bishop’s seat at Kirkjubøur. Always a small community, the Faroes came under the rule of the Norwegian, and later the Danish, crown. Denmark imposed a strict trade monopoly in 1709, which enriched the Danish merchants at the expense of the Faroese. The monopoly lasted until 1856.
Around the same time that the trade monopoly ended, Faroese nationalism emerged, influenced by students in Copenhagen who left the Faroes and encountered the nationalist movements spreading across Europe. They began to argue for an independent Faroese nation. Denmark officially incorporated the Faroes as a “county” of Denmark in 1849, further inflaming Faroese nationalist fervor. To combat the spreading use of Danish in trade, government, and education, the Faroese developed a written form of their language.
The independence movement gained traction in the early 20th century. A group of students at university in Copenhagen developed the Merkið flag as a symbol of the movement. The Merkið was adopted as the official Faroese flag in World War II when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill approved flying it on all Faroese ships instead of the Danish flag. The war marked a critical moment for the independence movement. Denmark was under Nazi occupation, leaving the Faroes to fend for themselves. The British occupation of the islands as a strategic shipping base during the war strengthened the movement’s passion and in 1948 the Faroe Islands gained Home Rule under the Danish crown. Today the Faroe Islands remains under Denmark, but with a degree of autonomy and self-government through the Faroese parliament, the Løgting.
Faroese food is similar to the rest of Scandinavia, heavy on seafood, lamb, and potatoes. Find air-dried fish, (turrur fiskur) similar to Icelandic harðfiskur, in grocery stores, along with dried mutton, called skerpikjøt. Fresh fish is harder to find – either indulge in your own quiet day of fishing or head down to the harbor in Tórshavn on Saturday mornings to buy fresh-caught fish direct from the fishermen. Restaurants may serve sheep’s head and seabirds, but you’re more likely to find these delicacies adorning private tables, especially around festive occasions. The Faroese diet also includes a large portion of whale meat and blubber, a significant source of Vitamin D during the long, dark winter months. [For more information about the controversial Faroese tradition of the pilot whale hunt, see below under Practical Information.]
Like every Scandinavian country, Faroese bakeries display a parade of treats heavy on butter, marzipan, and almond paste in a dizzying array of inventive variations. Bakeries also often serve cheap, filling lunch specials on weekdays, such as soup and bread or spicy meatballs doused in gravy.
Restaurants are not cheap in the Faroes – expect a nice meal to set you back at least 200kr (about $40!). Either plan for a giant hole in your wallet or cook for yourself. Find accommodations with access to a kitchen and head to the nearest grocery store. Groceries are expensive in an island nation where many foodstuffs are imported from Denmark, but self-catering is possible on 35-50kr a day. Stock up on pasta, salad fixings, fruit, dense rye bread, muesli, drinkable yogurt and juice, and you’ll have the fixings for a feast.
For an inexpensive lunch or dinner out, look for local pubs that serve pub fare, such as burgers and fish and chips, as well as cafes serving light lunches. Some grocery stores may include a café or deli with open-face sandwiches.
If you happen to be in town on the weekend, brace yourself for a rollicking party that starts around midnight and lasts well into the wee morning hours. Most major settlements have at least one pub or bar where locals congregate to gossip, dance to live music (often Celtic in flavor), and kick back a few beers. Solo travelers can easily join in the fun – the atmosphere is safe and convivial, and a local will soon invite you into the conversation. I found myself deep in a heady discussion of Faroese, Danish, and American politics over a mug of beer.
Beer is sell-your-kidney expensive. A half liter of the local brew on tap costs 45-50kr, about $9-10! Pace yourself. The Faroe Islands produces quality beer. My favorites are the dark brews from Føroyar Bjór , brewed in Klaksvík. If you become addicted to the smooth, rich flavors, buy a sampler case at the Vágar airport’s duty-free shop before you leave. It’s impossible to locate Faroese beer anywhere else – believe me, I’ve tried.
The Faroese possess a musical soul that stems from their Norse and Celtic ancestry – solid folk music is in their bones. You can find live music every weekend pouring out of the pubs, everything from solo guitarists singing cover songs to folk musicians and bluegrass. Locals love American country-western, Irish folk music, blues, and bluegrass. For such a small country, the Faroes is one of the earth’s most musically-prolific nations. Pop into the Tutl music shop in Tórshavn for just a small sampling of the astonishing array of Faroese bands and musicians producing albums. I found everything from rock to alternative to folk to spirituals, even Faroese hip-hop. Some of my favorite Faroese finds include alternative-indie rock band The Ghost, folk-singer-turned-pop-artist Eivør, folk singers Guðrid Hansdóttir and Stanley Samuelsson, and the Danish-Faroese band Valtravn, an ethereal, modern twist on traditional Scandinavian folk music.
After the hibernation of endless winter nights, the brightness of summer spurs the Faroese into a flurry of activity, reflected in the packed summer calendar of festivals and concerts. Many festivals incorporate exuberant chain dancing and traditional national costume. Check out any of these summer festivals, most held in July. Ólavsøka is the largest, celebrating King Olav of Norway, a 10th century king responsible for the spread of Christianity to the Faroes. Music events span the summer calendar – G!Festival is a weekend bonanza of Faroese, Danish, and international music held on the beach in Gøta every July.
Population: 48,700 [2010 World Bank]
Capital – Tórshavn, population – around 14,500 
Government: The Faroe Islands is part of the Danish kingdom with a measure of autonomy in their domestic affairs under Home Rule. Elected representatives serve in one of the world’s most accessible parliaments, the Løgting, based in Tórshavn. The Faroes also sends two representatives to the Danish parliament. While Denmark is a member of the European Union, the Faroe Islands is not. (Hint: for a fun discussion, ask a Faroe Islander whether they are for or against independence and discover just how complex Faroese politics are!)
Language: Faroese. Danish is also spoken in official settings. Faroese started as a spoken language and developed into a written language during the birth of the Faroese independence movement in the 19th century. The spoken and written languages are not phonetic, making Faroese very difficult to learn (as I can attest to firsthand!). The written language is modeled on Icelandic, and Faroese itself is a descendent of the original Viking tongue.
Currency – Danish kroner, although the Faroe Islands also prints their own kroner. You will not be able to use Faroese kroner in Denmark – spend it all before leaving. Check currency calculators for the latest exchange rate.
Credit Cards – Using a credit card requires a PIN number. I have never had a problem using my American credit card in Europe – most shopkeepers know how to switch their credit card machines to signature mode. Not in the Faroes. Remember, tourists are a rarity, especially Americans. Before you leave home, save yourself and the shop clerks the headache and call your credit card company to set up a 4-digit PIN.
Climate – Perched high in the North Atlantic, the Faroes experience winters of endless night and bright, elongated days in summer, similar to Greenland and Iceland. In the winter, scan the skies for the dancing lights of the aurora borealis. Snow dusts the mountains and storms pound the islands. Summer brings calmer weather and warmer temperatures, although storms and strong winds can still ground flights, and the swift-moving rainstorms feed the green roofs and pastures with constant moisture. Prepare for anything, even in August, as it’s common to experience snow, rain, and sun in a single day. Dense fog, regardless of season, can move in swiftly. While wildly romantic amid the treeless mountains and valleys, the fog can be dangerous. If you’re hiking, stop immediately and wait for the fog to lift to avoid pitching over a cliff or suffering a more benign twisted ankle.
Pilot Whale Hunt
I hesitate to mention the Faroe Islands’ centuries-old tradition of hunting pods of pilot whales for food. The highly charged international debate over the morality of whale hunting typically turns into a screaming, profanity-laced hate fest against the Faroese people. However, anyone visiting the Faroes will encounter some degree of discussion about the pilot whale hunt or may even chance upon a frankly bloody scene of the hunt itself and an accompanying Greenpeace protest. So I feel I must mention something about it.
Make up your own mind, for or against the pilot whale hunt, but know your facts. After all, if you’re against whale hunting, do you really expect the Faroese to listen to your point of view if you name-call or have your facts wrong?
The basics: since Viking times, the Faroese have hunted whales for food. Whale meat is a critical source of Vitamin D in the North Atlantic where sunlight is in short supply in the winter months. Of course, today we have alternative sources of Vitamin D (a vitamin pill anyone?), but whale meat and blubber continue to be a central part of the Faroese diet. They do not practice subsistence hunting like the Inuit in Greenland, but neither are they engaging in commercial whaling. It’s what anthropologists call an economic system of “reciprocity.” Once the whale meat has been cut up, the community comes down to the beaches to receive their share. The meat is not sold. (Unlike in Iceland, which sells whale meat domestically and internationally.) The butchering of a whale is bloody and not easy to watch if you’re used to purchasing meat at the grocery store. Much of the debate centers on whether the method of killing the whales is humane. Basically, do your research and form your own opinion.
Some great resources for further research (both from the Faroese and anti-whaling perspectives):
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society
- Visit Faroe Islands (Official Tourism Website)
- Faroe Islands Ministry of Fisheries Whaling Website
- Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs FAQ on Whaling
- BBC News article, September 14, 2003
- PBS Frontline
There are two ways to arrive in the Faroe Islands – by airplane or car ferry. For the time-crunched, flying is your best option, either from Reykjavík or Copenhagen. The national airline is Atlantic Airways , which has a partnership with Air Iceland. Flights from Iceland depart a couple of times a week, while daily flights arrive from Denmark. You may also find flights from Norway and Britain. Strong winds have been known to delay flights for days at a time, especially in winter. Schedule buffer days just in case.
The immense car ferry is more reliable in the off-season, plying the open sea between Hirtshals, Denmark and Seyðisfjörður, Iceland, stopping in Tórshavn twice a week. While the ferry offers plenty of eating options and comfortable cabins, the budget traveler will want to pack their own food and share a cabin to save on the expense. Check www.smyrilline.com for schedules and pricing. The stormy winter off-season is much less expensive than summer high season.
A national transportation system of buses, ferries, and helicopters connect even the furthest-flung islands of the Faroes, making it possible to base yourself in Tórshavn and still reach many of the islands on day-trips. Patience is essential; however, as many bus connections and timetables are not always conveniently timed. Locals use the bus system on their way to work and school – if you catch an early morning bus, be ready to squish amid the legions of backpack toting students. Major routes drive comfortable coach buses, while smaller routes use large vans.
Buy tickets on board; drivers usually have small amounts of change. If you plan to use the bus and ferries extensively, invest in a Travel Card, an excellent value at 500kr for 4 days or 700kr for 7 days. In small towns, bus stops are no more than a central building or square, marked by a sign. Be sure to confirm the bus schedule to avoid being marooned in a town overnight. The TI in Tórshavn sells booklets of all the bus, ferry, and helicopter schedules for 20kr. (Bus and ferry schedules available at www.ssl.fo. )
Helicopter is my preferred way of moving among the islands. Crisscrossing the islands three times a week, there is no better way to grasp the unique geography of the Faroes. For the Faroese, this is just a convenient taxi ride between towns. For you, it’s an astonishingly affordable sightseeing tour. Call a day ahead to confirm your seat – the helicopter service may not serve every stop on the route if no one has reserved a ride. Pay at the helicopter pad in cash. I flew from Klaksvík to Tórshavn, a brief 15 minute flight for only 215kr. (Fares and schedules at www.atlantic.fo.)
To arrange your own sightseeing excursion [currently workable on Wednesdays as of early 2012] using local transportation, take the break-of-dawn bus from Tórshavn to Klaksvík, transfer to the bus for Hvannasund, and board the MS Ritan mail to Svinoy. Explore Svinoy, then catch the helicopter from Svinoy to Klaksvík and on to Tórshavn. Be sure to confirm connection times and call ahead to reserve a spot on the helicopter. If the helicopter is grounded due to high winds, catch the afternoon ferry back to Hvannasund.
Most people speak at least a little English, although the younger generations are more likely to be fluent. If all else fails, pantomime. I obtained directions to the soccer stadium from an elderly woman by embarrassing myself in charades fashion, earning a big smile. If you speak even a smidge of Icelandic, certain phrases are similar enough to be useful in the Faroes, although others are pronounced completely different. The most important similarities? Saying hello, thanks, and ordering a beer.
Useful Faroese Words & Phrases
Góðan dag (Go-an dag) – Good day!
Góðan daginn (Go-an die-in) – Good day! (to a woman)
Farvæl (far-vale) – Goodbye Bei bei (bye-bye) – Bye! Ja (ya) – Yes
Nei (nigh) – No Takk fyri (tak fear-ra) – Thank you
Orsaka (oar-saw-ka) – Excuse me
Tosar tú eingilskt? (Toe-sar two ein-jest) – Do you speak English?
Hvussu nógv kostar tað? (Kvus-sue nekf co-star ta?) – How much is it?
Hvussu hevur tú tað? (Kvus-sue hefur two ta) – How are you?
Flogvøllur (flog-vul-tl-ur) – airport Bussur (bus-sur) – bus
Fjall (f-yaltl) – mountain Gøta (jeut-a) – street Kirkja (kerch-ja) – church
Posthús (post-who-ss) – post office Sjúkrahús (shoe-kra-who-ss) – hospital
Tórshavn (Tore-shaumn) – capitol city Klaksvík (Klacks-voy-k) – second largest city Føroyar (Feu-roy-are) – Faroe Islands
For restrooms: Konur (Cone-ur) – women Menn (men) – men
Pronunciation hint – always roll your r’s!
ADVICE FOR FIBROMITES
Tórshavn is easy on the fibromite. The city center is compact and comfortable to walk, with most major sites in a 15 minute walking radius. Wear comfortable walking shoes with good ankle and arch support. If your feet begin to ache from walking, just locate a bench – they’re scattered all over the city.
If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. Hostels with private rooms among their dorms are good options and attract people of all ages in the Faroes. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. Plenty of healthy foods abound in grocery stores.
When researching lodging, do not assume there is an elevator. Be prepared to lug your luggage up stairs, ask for a first floor room or look for a place with an elevator. It’s important to clarify which floor you are on – in Europe, the ground floor is the first floor and the first floor is actually up one flight of stairs.
If you are hostelling, always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable hotel.
CITY GUIDE: TÓRSHAVN
Tórshavn is one of Europe’s most enjoyable capitals to meander without a plan. One of the few major European cities to escape a devastating fire, much of the historical core of Tinganes is intact, an evocative tangle of tight, winding alleys, pockets of cottage gardens and compact clusters of timber houses sporting delightfully unkempt roofs of grass turf. Twin harbors buzz with fishing boats. Quirky and romantic sculpture populates the city parks and plazas and the scattered cafes host convivial weekend revelry with robust drinking, friendly locals, foot-stomping live music, and some of Europe’s best beer. More a small fishing town than a city, Tórshavn is the hub of Faroese political and economic life, and decidedly untouristy. Apart from the sudden swarm of camera-toting tourists that invade like locusts from the twice-weekly car ferry, disappearing as suddenly as they appeared, you will have the city to yourself. Revel in a pleasant, friendly, livable city of salt-of-the-earth craftsmen, fishmongers, sailors, and sheep farmers. Well-connected to the other islands by a network of buses, ferries, and helicopter, Tórshavn serves as a convenient base for launching out into the rest of the Faroe Islands.
As a tiny island nation, the Faroes are not exactly flush with lodging options. There are a couple of hotels clustered by the harbors, as well as a few Scandinavian-style guesthouses in the city. For the backpacking budget traveler, there are two hostels, the most convenient one located right in the heart of the city.
Spread out over three old houses, this bohemian backpacker hostel is comfortable and laidback, with a friendly owner and a vibrant international community of travelers. Check-in at the house on the right. A large buffet-style breakfast, included in your stay, is served on ground floor of the middle house. For self-caterers, find the well-stocked kitchen up the wood steps behind the middle house. Dorms and private rooms are scattered throughout the old houses, with small shared bathrooms down the hall. These are old houses – the dorm rooms are a mix of beds, bunk beds and mismatched furniture. WiFi is free – get the code from the front desk. The best part is the central location – step right out onto the streets of Tórshavn. A small grocery store is next door, art galleries across the street, and the harbor two blocks away. One caveat – the front desk is not always manned. Find the paper with your name and room assignment and don’t hesitate to ask fellow hostellers for help locating your room.
Tórshavn is small, so don’t expect a huge foodie scene. The options are still good, focusing mainly on honest seafood, meat and potatoes, sandwiches, and baked goods. If you want to try local delicacies, befriend a local, patronize a bakery, or explore the nearest grocery store. Cafes live double identities, transforming into clubs or bars at night. Week nights are low-key and Sundays are especially quiet. The city bursts to life on Friday and Saturday nights. The evening begins late, usually around midnight, and lasts well into the pre-dawn hours.
Hvonn Café – More affordable than its upscale sibling upstairs, this café is still posh, with long banquettes, mod chandeliers, and flickering candles. They serve light meals for lunch and dinner, although the real stars are the artistic desserts. For an affordable lunch, try the seafood cream soup for around 70kr, especially soothing on a typically damp Faroese day. They also have the strongest coffee in town, delivered in a French press perfect for sharing. A full service bar and dim lighting transform the Hvonn into a swanky evening club for mixing with the locals or listening to live music, often jazz, blues or bluegrass. Live music on weekends and Thursdays. (Open daily. Tórsgøta 4)
Irish Pub – It’s a truth well-known that every Irish pub the world over has the same rich, worn wood, satisfyingly creaky wood floors, collection of Irish-themed knick-knacks, gregarious bartenders, live infectious dancing music, and laid-back friendly crowds. But only Tórshavn’s Irish pub serves local-brewed beer to rival the Irish. I don’t mention this lightly. Føroyar Bjór holds its own, especially the darker stouts, as thick and satisfying as Guinness, but smoother. This is also a great place for a cheap pub meal. Quiet during the week, but packed on weekends when the fiddles strike up a jig around midnight and the entire town, young and old, packs the joint. (Fish and chips 65kr. Beer 45-50kr. Grím Kambansgøta 13.)
Glitner – The local karaoke bar, below the Irish Pub, hosts a weekend crowd of mostly thirty-something’s. A great place to catch the match if the national soccer team is playing and you’re as unlucky as me not to be in the stadium just across town. (Beer 45-50kr. Grím Kambansgøta 13.)
Café inside the Nordic House – For a light, inexpensive lunch, follow the locals on their lunch break and trek uphill to the light and airy Nordic House. The café serves soups, sandwiches, and pastries. Find a table if you can and gaze out over the city and sea beyond. (Open daily. Norðari ringvegur.)
Café Nátur – A laidback classic bar of foot-polished wood floors, unpretentious locals, and smooth, local beer. They also serve a hard apple cider, although, in the words of my friend Claire, it’s akin to drinking a Jolly Rancher. Oddly situated by the Eastern Harbor, Café Nátur actually divides the road like Moses parting the Red Sea, an even odder sight with its shaggy turf roof. Even if you don’t understand a word of Faroese, stop in for Quiz Night on Wednesday to mingle with the rare mid-week nightlife. Weekend fills the bar with a young student crowd singing along to a musician playing cover songs. (By the Eastern Harbor. Áarvegur 7.)
Kaffihúsið – Nestled into the Western Harbor, this café is a great location to rest your feet, sip a latte, and gaze out on the historic ships. On warm summer days, tables spill out onto the harbor. The inside is a modern take on Victorian with white-washed brick, wall-papered ceilings, and bold black accents. Expect long lines for Sunday brunch, when the after-church crowd swarms the café for their brunch specials. (Coffee 25-50kr. Sunday brunch special 149kr. Open daily. Bryggjubakki 14.)
My Sightseeing Must-Sees
Wander aimlessly – The purest joy to exploring Tórshavn is to have absolutely no sightseeing plan. Just walk. Poke around the next corner. Duck into a shop. Smile and say “Góðan dag!” to the locals. See where your feet lead you. Neat little houses in brilliant colors, topped by bright green turf roofs, often romantically unkempt, clustered together and adorned with tiny little gardens are the hallmark of Tórshavn’s core, especially in the oldest section of Tinganes. As you explore further out, residential streets become neat rows of corrugated tin-clad homes. Public art graces many a nook or park. Many of the works, characterized by the rough hewn bulk and gleam of bronze, are by local artist Hans Pauli Olsen. Just one plea – please be courteous! You may be tempted to peak in the windows of the quaint old houses, but remember these are people’s homes.
Some key sites to look for include:
– The barnyard red collection of old timber warehouses at the tip of Tinganes. Here you’ll find the Prime Minister’s office, no more than a quiet glass doorway in a tiny medieval alley.
– The unassuming gray warehouse, connected to a modern glass-and-steel extension, across from the Tourist Information Office. This is the Løgting, the Faroe Island’s Home Rule government. Peek in the windows to catch a glimpse of the government at work.
– Skansin Fort – a neat little fortification on a bluff overlooking the Eastern Harbor, this tiny fort is a pleasant, if windy, spot to sit on a bench and gaze out to sea. Built originally to defend Tórshavn from pirates, the fort was used by the British navy in World War 2. Old Danish canyons and huge rusting British guns still stand sentinel over the harbor.
Viðarlundin – A dense, leafy park in the center of town, this is one of the only places in the entire Faroes to find trees. Join the locals for a pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll past moss-encrusted trees, duck-infested ponds, and a frolicking girl of bronze (another Hans Pauli Olsen creation based on a character from the writings of author William Heinesen).
Soccer match – If you happen to be in town when the national team has a home match, don’t miss a chance to witness one of the world’s greatest underdogs take on some of the world’s biggest powerhouses. I cheered as the Faroes held Italy to only one goal, a feat of grit and stubborn persistence. The small, intimate stadium is only a fifteen-minute walk from the harbor. If you want an instant conversation starter with a local, mention the time the Faroes upset Austria and watch their eyes light up. (www.football.fo)
The Faroes is astonishingly soccer mad for the size of their population. The public buses are packed with teenagers in chevron-striped warm-ups after school and the stadium complex alive with teams of all ages. Stop by on a Sunday afternoon to watch the local youth teams playing, both men and women.
National Art Museum – This humble museum on the outskirts of the Viðarlundin showcases the creativity that the long dark winter nights of the far north and centuries of living at the mercy of the sea have cultivated in the Faroese. Most of the collection stems from the late 19th century and 20th century, encompassing everything from impressionism to expressionism to various incarnations of abstraction. I love the colorful strokes of the Faroese impressionists and landscapes. My favorites include the bold colors of expressionist Reyni, Niels Kruse’s impressionist landscapes, Janus Kambien’s lithographs, and Joannis Kristiansen’s studies of light. (50kr. Closed Mondays in the off-season. Gundadalsvegur 9.)
National Museum – This museum is like a dusty attic of discoveries, covering everything from the first Viking settlers to the development of the 19th century fishing industry. Many of the displays need refreshing, but the artifacts themselves are fascinating. Intricately carved wooden toys and tools once held by Vikings. Rune stones, the Norse precursor to their written language. A gallery full of boats, most open sloops rowed by ten people, once used for ocean fishing and whale hunts. The pride and joy of the museum is downstairs, an intimate exhibit of national treasures returned to the Faroe Islands after centuries in Denmark. Don’t miss the 15th century carved pew ends saved from Kirkjubøur.
A second site of the national museum is located down the hill on the sea at Hoyvíksgarður, a working traditional farm. The farmhouse itself was built in stages throughout the 19th century. Poke around the old rooms and peek into the barns and sheds. [30kr. Open daily May-September. Museum at Brekkutún 6, farm museum at Kúrdalsvegur 2.]
Tutl – This tiny hole-in-the-wall classic record shop is also the national Faroese record label for established and aspiring Faroese bands and musicians. Peruse the racks of CDs and listen to your finds at one of the listening stations. Outside attending the G!Festival or a concert, this is the best way to sample the wide array of Faroese musical talent. They also schedule and host free music events in the summer. [Closed Sunday; limited hours Saturday. Niels Finsengøta 9c.]
CITY GUIDE: KLAKSVÍK
The second largest community in the Faroe Islands is really no more than a town, perched between two inlets, like a cookie with two symmetrical bites taken out. The town stretches out along either side of the harbor, ruled by small fishing boats. This is not a town packed with sightseeing, but a pleasant-enough place for an hour stroll or as a sedate home base for further excursions into the northern islands.
Bus #400 runs between Tórshavn and Klaksvík several times a day, a 90 minute scenic ride with local students and commuters. The bus drops off at a tiny shelter in the middle of town, no more than a musty little waiting room. The thrice-weekly helicopter service also stops in Klaksvík as long as winds remain calm. The helicopter pad is situated above town on the southern end, a 10 minute walk uphill past homes with some stunning views.
There are not many options, as this is a residential community. For a quick bite, the convenience store on Klaskvíksvegur offers up a salad bar, fast food, and snacks. A simple hot dog is a bargain 24kr.
Hrá Jórun Bakery – Hands-down (in my gleeful opinion) the best bakery in the Faroe Islands. Located in an industrial rectangle of a building overlooking the water, the cafeteria-style dining room is packed at lunchtime with businessmen and students. Head straight to the glass display of sumptuous pastries and treats. In fine Scandinavian tradition, the emphasis is on marzipan and cardamom. The coffee is inexpensive and decent, and the daily lunch special is the best-kept local dining secret in the islands. For 90kr, I feasted on spicy meatballs doused in gravy, succulent potatoes, and braised cabbage. Take your food to a table looking out at the fjord. [Open daily 7am-10pm. Klingrugarður 6.]
A leisurely walk through town – There aren’t any must-see sights in Klaksvík. You’re here for the ambience. Walk past neat little houses splashed in an array of bright colors. Admire the pockets of vibrant gardens and public sculpture. Puzzle over the symbolism of Hans Pauli Olsen’s sculpture that resembles a gate topped by a stiff human body. Browse shops bursting with sweaters knitted by local women. Sit with a picnic to watch the boats come in. Strike up a conversation with a local.
Klaksvík Church – Really the only sight in town, this modern church is a mix of traditional Viking hall architecture, medieval Scandinavian stave church, and contemporary Scandinavian design. A boat soars high above in the peaked wood ceiling, a Norse tradition. The side aisles and clerestory loft resemble the platforms lining a Viking longhouse. The clusters of modern chandeliers drape down the sides in a touch of sleek elegance. Outside the separate bell tower mirrors the medieval Norse stave churches. [Open daily. Kirkjubrekka 6]
Leikalund – On the far end of town on the harbor resides this eclectic bookstore/café. The books are in Faroese and Danish, but the local artwork is fun to browse. Sip a coffee among the general store-style shelving while brushing up on your Faroese. [Klaksviksvegur 84. Website in Faroese only.]
Helicopter Ride Back to Tórshavn – In what must be the most affordable helicopter ride in the world, hitch a thrilling, if brief, flight back to Tórshavn. The pilots are friendly lads used to ferrying locals around from island to island. The views are heart-stopping. At the end, you’ll hop out straight onto the sidewalks of Tórshavn. The helicopter runs three times a week, but be forewarned that strong winds may ground any flights. Always call at least a day ahead to reserve a spot, as the pilots may cancel a stop or flight if they have no reserved passengers. Pay in cash at the helicopter pad. [Helicopter service provided by Atlantic Airways.]
EXPLORING THE NORTHERN FAROE ISLANDS
Using Klaksvík as a base, it’s easy to hike to Kalsoy Lighthouse or visit tiny towns like Eiði. It’s also entirely possible to use Tórshavn as a home base if you want to visit Viðareiði or catch the MS Ritan mail ferry out to Fugloy. Just bring a book and a sense of patience as the bus connections are not always seamless.
Viðareiði – If you’ve always wanted to witness the clash of sky and sea, then head north to this small farming community on the tip of Viðoy Island. Storms and fog roll in and out quickly enough to give you whiplash, and the pockets of sunlight are straight out of Tolkien. The only sight is the tiny cheerful white church overlooking a dramatic sea vista of mountain and fjord. Stroll out to the edge and brace yourself against the fierce winds. A challenging hike leads from town up to Villingadalsfjall. To get here, catch the bus (really a van) from Klaksvík.
MS Ritan Mail Ferry – This workhorse of a ferry plies the storm-tossed waters from Hvannasund out to the northernmost islands of the Faroes where a few hardy settlements cling tenaciously to the rock. While you can get off the ferry at Svínoy or Kirkja, you risk being stranded overnight. Be sure to check ferry and helicopter schedules carefully and call ahead. (And remember, the helicopter may not fly on windy days.) I stayed on the boat for the entire circuit out to the islands and back to Hvannasund. The views of cliffs, bird colonies, and the fun of watching people leap off the boat onto Kirkja’s concrete slab of a dock are the simple attractions. This is a working ferry funneling people, mail, and supplies, so don’t be surprised if curious locals strike up a conversation. Dress warmly, with waterproof coat, gloves, and hat, and be prepared to get soaked in the sea spray if you go up on deck. At times the boat may be tossed about quite a bit – always have a firm grip on a railing. If you prefer to stay dry, head below decks to the cozy common room and watch waves lash the portholes. The best days for some sea-tossed atmosphere are slightly (but not too) stormy.
A ticket collector will circulate once the boat is underway to collect money and issue tickets. Be sure to mention if you need to transfer to a bus back in Hvannasund. They will call ahead to arrange transportation back to Klaksvík.
To reach the ferry, take a bus from Klaksvík. It will drive right up the dock to the ferry in Hvannasund. [Ferry ticket 45kr. Ferry and bus schedules available at www.ssl.fo ]
The island of Suðuroy is not only the furthest south, but feels a world away from the rest of the Faroes. The geography is slightly less dramatic and the pace of life even slower, like a lazy summer afternoon at the seashore. Here you’ll find bright green fields ascending gentle mountains and valleys folded around tidy little fishing villages. You’re also likely to encounter a strong vein of hospitality, where shop owners will open or close at their discretion to give you a personal tour of their island. They are proud of where they live and eager to share their home with you. If a local offers to drive you across the island and introduce you to the entire town, don’t hesitate. It will be the highlight of your Faroese experience.
Getting to Suðuroy is surprisingly easy, involving a 2 hour ferry ride. Ferry schedules are convenient for a day trip from Tórshavn, although the island warrants a longer stay. The ferry docks in Øravík, across the fjord from Tvøroyri, which is an easy 20 minute walk away. The ferry ride itself is a sightseeing adventure. Find a seat on deck to watch the fog play, birds gliding over the waves, and islands emerging out of the mist like ghosts. [Ferry schedule and prices at www.ssl.fo. ]
To get around the island, check bus schedules carefully. I was lucky to be personally escorted by a friendly local I met that day, but buses do traverse the island. Bus stops are often just informal crossroads in the center of the village or outside the local post office.
Food – There are only limited options. Ask a local for their recommendation, head to the bakery, or assemble a picnic at the Bonus grocery in Tvøroyri.
Tvøroyri – The main town on the island is a skinny line of one main straight along the fjord, overlooking by houses and fields higher up the mountain. There isn’t much to “see” here, but it’s worth an hour to peruse the shops and artist galleries and duck into a bakery. The history museum is only open in summer – be sure to check the time schedule carefully. The highlight is a cluster of historic harbor buildings that make up the T.F. Thomsen historical complex. Once the harbor general store and warehouse, today the old general store houses an atmospheric café and pub. All the original furnishings and shelves are still in place, including the classic cash register. 19th century curiosities and inventory ledgers fill the shelves. If you ask, you may be allowed to page through the artifacts and photo albums. The café is still run by the family of the founder and if you’re lucky, you may be able to strike up a conversation with one of the descendents. Only limited snacks are offered. Come for the history, ambience, and coffee or beer. [Coffee 20kr. Beer 25-30kr. Weekend live music, cover charge 50kr. Havnarlagið 36.]
Fámjin – If you only have time for one village on the island, head straight to Fámjin. This tiny fishing community is nestled into a beautiful valley between mountains and the sea. Tiny open fishing boats line the dock and locals prepare seabirds and fish inside harbor huts for cooking. The people here are exceptionally friendly (and that is saying something in the Faroes!) The only sight is the 1876 church where the very first Faroese flag resides inside a glass frame. Known as the Merkið, the flag was made by Jens Oliver Lisberg, a native of Fámjin and university student in Copenhagen, to symbolize the growing independence movement. Lisberg’s grave is in the tiny churchyard – a victim of pneumonia at the tragic age of 26.
TO BE CONTINUED
I am a well-seasoned, dusty vagabond of a traveler, but the Faroe Islands made me want to stop and put down roots forever. I think it’s safe to say it was love at first sight and I plan to return again and again. I’m even attempting to learn Faroese, a difficult language. There is much in these islands I have yet to experience. Hikes across cairn-marked ancient foot highways. The ancient bishop’s seat of the Norse at Kirkjubøur, where the old medieval cathedral ruins still grace the slopes. The soaring bird cliffs at Vestmanna. Small communities with dramatic sea views. The traditional summer festivals when locals dress in national costume and perform the chain dance. Mostly, I just yearn to return to the tiny nation that cured my wanderlust.