Faroe Islands February 2012
It really ought to be easier to get here.
Torshavn, the picturesque capital town of the Faroe Islands is only 230 miles from Lerwick, the only slightly less picturesque capital town of Shetland. There used to be a boat between the two - but that got cancelled, for reasons that I've never seen adequately explained, a few years ago. There used to be a plane between the two, but that also stopped a couple of years ago apparently it's foggy too often in the summer in Shetland. Nowadays to get to the Faroe Islands from Shetland requires a long (and expensive) detour via the UK mainland and Denmark. Of course my route had been even more circuitous taking in Oxford, Stockholm, Oslo, Bergen, Tromso, Kirkenes, Narvik and Gothenburg before I got to the Atlantic Airways check-in desk at Copenhagen Airport.
I really couldn't help but compare the folks in the departure lounge with the folks I usually see in the Edinburgh departure lounge on my way up to Shetland. All the regulars were there - the business people and the local politicians, the shoppers and families loaded with packages (does any airline - other than Ryanair- enforce the one bag rule?) and a few tourists (February can't by any measure be called peak tourist season) usually equally laden with backpacks and camera bags. The other similarity is the hospital cases - it's not unusual to see people on Shetland flights on their way to or from hospitals on the Scottish mainland, and although there weren't any obvious hospital cases on my flight to Torshavn I did get re-seated so that the plane could be reconfigured to carry a stretcher which was going to be needed on the return flight into Copenhagen.
The flight from Copenhagen takes a little over 2 hours which is enough time for Atlantic Airways (the Faroe national airline) to offer sandwiches and drinks and (unlike Loganair) the duty-free trolley, definitely more traditonal full-service rather than budget airline. The flight route crosses just north of Shetland - heightening the sense that it should be easier to get between there and Faroe.
The approach into the airport at Vagar immediately triggered déjà vu moments. At one moment the similarity with Shetland was obvious, and at other moments I was back on the approach to Keflavik in Iceland. Once on the ground, it was clear that the airport was more like Sumburgh than Keflavik (albeit with a duty free shop attached). It was easy to distinguish between the locals returning home and the tourists arriving. The arriving tourists stood around waiting for the baggage carousel to come to life, and the locals all piled into duty free to stock up before facing up the Scandinavian-priced booze elsewhere on the islands.
My bus ride from the airport again had Shetland moments to it. At the airport lots of people climbed on having stowed cases and backpacks under the bus, however as soon as the bus left the airport it immediately became the local bus service into Torshavn, stopping in lots of villages to let school kids and housewives get into town. The big difference between modern-day Faroe and Shetland became apparent about 20 minutes into the journey as we plunged into a long tunnel. Like Shetland, the Faroes is an archipelago of both large and small islands, but unlike Shetland almost all of the main populated islands here now have fixed links using tunnels or bridges. The airport is on the island of Vagar, and where there used to be a ferry to the 'big' island, Streymoy, there is now a tunnel. The building of the bridges and tunnels has made a huge difference to the islands, the often weather delayed journeys between the islands heightened the isolation of, particularly, the more remote communities. The links have made everything feel closer together. The tunnel digging hasn't just made it easier to get from one island to the next, it has also allowed communities on opposite sides of the steep mountains to reach each other much more readily.
In any group of remote islands (and I've been to several over the last few months) weather is a big deal - and the Faroe Islands are definitely in the front line when it comes to facing up to the north Atlantic storms. Over four days I saw every weather variant bar snow. I saw bright sunshine. I saw torrential rains. I saw steady drizzle. And I saw winds strong enough both rip off car doors (if you weren't careful) and to ensure that water 'falls' went upwards. But when the clouds did clear, it was really easy to see the scenic attractions of the Faroe Islands; long narrow twisting fjords separating steep rocky mountain peaks.
One other maritime tradition in the Faroe Islands that is pretty hard to stomach, particularly since it is still going happening, is whaling. I saw no direct evidence of it while I was there, but the grindadrap does still happen. This is a whale hunt where pilot whales are driven onto a beach and killed in huge numbers. Shockingly there is a Shetland parallel here. There are photographs in the museum in Lerwick showing hunts of this sort happening near our house in southern Shetland in the early years of the 20th Century. The only real defence is that at least the Shetland folk have stopped doing it now. As an outsider it's very easy to dismiss the hunt as barbaric and out-dated, but it's still important as a Faroese tradition, albeit one that I'd be delighted to see stopped.
I had time to explore the two biggest Faroe islands - Streymoy and Eysturoy - in addition to having a brief look at Vagar, as I went to and from the airport. The strongest memories are of the remote villages at the north and south ends of each island – such as Eidi and Gjogv on Eysturoy and Tjornuvik and Kirkjubour on Streymoy.
One thing that continued to surprise me throughout my travels in Scandinavia this spring is the Second World War history. I knew that Norway and Denmark were both occupied, I'd heard of Vidkun Quisling and I was vaguely aware (presumably from Sunday afternoon movies) of the 'heavy water' story and the Heroes of Telemark, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. There's a much longer blog post in there somewhere, but suffice to say that my knowledge of the Faroe Islands wartime history was definitely very sketchy. The islands were occupied by the British in early 1940 as a precaution, just after Germany invaded mainland Denmark. Before the war, the Faroes were effectively a 'county' within Denmark, after the British invasion the islands needed to assume a lot more autonomy. In many ways this was forced on the Faroese at the time - to the extent that British warships tracked down Faroese boats and ordered them to get rid of their Danish flags and replace them with Faroe ones. At the end of the war this autonomy was (eventually) formalised after Denmark regained its independence.
There is still a legacy of the British invasion, although the practice of driving on the left on Vagar did eventually get reformed. The airport is still inconveniently long way from Torshavn - the location was picked on the basis of the difficulty of attacking it from the sea rather than on what was likely to be useful for tourists after the war. And there's still Cadbury's Dairy Milk on sale in the shops. The British troops seem to have handed out enough chocolate to hook the Faroese population for good. I guess they were lucky that it wasn't the Americans that invaded, I can't see Hershey's chocolate having such a long-term legacy.
I had a really good time wandering around the islands, and I certainly hope I can figure out a way to do a much longer stay in the islands – and next time I’ll try and get back in the birding season when I can go and have a look at the cliffs at Vestmanna and on Mykines.
My favourite place on this trip was, I think, the village of Tournivik at the north end of Streymoy. This village was one of the last places to be connected to the Faroe road network, and sits in a perfect 'botnur', a circular glacial valley, looking out towards the sea stacks and cliffs at the northern end of Eysturoy.
A little bit about logistics. I flew from Copenhagen to Faroe on Atlantic Airways. They fly between mainland Denmark and the islands four or five times each day, the flight takes just over two hours. While on the islands I stayed in Torshavn at Hotel Streym - this is a small modern hotel just beside the harbour - it's very comfortable and they do a really good buffet breakfast. The hotel also has a number of hire cars available - which are good value. I can't say much about Faroese cuisine, but my restaurant recommendation for Torshavn is the italian restraurant Carrello which overlooks the harbour just round the corner from Hotel Streym.
There are more pictures from the Faroe Islands on my Flickr stream