Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Week in the Faroes

Eg dugi ikki at tosa føroyskt (I don’t speak Faroese)

After spending two weeks in the basement of the National Library in Reykjavik up to my elbows in an 18th-century manuscript of Icelandic proverbs, I thought I needed a break from research.  So, since I’ve seen a good bit of Iceland by now, I decided to go farther afield, to the little nation of eighteen islands called the Faroes. 

Mjørkadalur on Streymoy
I didn’t know much about them myself; I knew them only through Færeyjinga saga (the Saga of the Faroe Islanders), which isn’t really the normal way to hear about them.  When I told a friend I was going there, he said, “Oh, more sheep than people.”  That seems to be what people know about the place, and it is true: fifty thousand humans to seventy thousand sheep. 

A lamb gives me the once-over

These sheep wander across the roads the way deer do in the US, and like the deer, whenever you see one, there’s another about to shoot out from behind a blind curve.

A Faroese traffic jam
People come to the Faroes because they’re a bit like Iceland and a bit like the Scottish highlands, but with fewer tourists.  If anyone hates tourists more than the locals, I have discovered, it’s other tourists.  I saw a cruise ship pull into the harbor at Tórshavn while I was staying there and groaned as it disgorged its hundreds of passengers onto the streets.  And yes, I do recognize the irony of bemoaning the presence of tourists while being part of the problem myself, but be honest: how often have you griped about other people’s heads getting in your vacation photos?

Sailing through a basalt arch in Vestmanna, in company, of course
Part of the charm of the Faroes is that tourism isn’t (yet) an overwhelming industry.  There are about three proper hotels in the capital and (that I found, at least) two souvenir shops, which mostly sold sweaters and plush puffin toys.  Outside Tórshavn, there are very few hotels, no souvenir shops, and the restaurants tend to be open only for certain meals or only on the weekends. 

Gjógv (pronounced "Jegv"), a charming town without a café
When my guide (who really was terrific and can’t be blamed for shops’ hours) discovered that the café we’d planned to eat at in Famjin wasn’t open until “two or three” (presumably depending on when the proprietor felt like arriving), we had to have a “franskur” at the local gas station.  What makes the hot dog French is that it’s in a hollow baguette filled with “French sauce” (remoulade? tartar sauce?).  At the particular gas station we settled on, the dining options were one hot dog, or two.  I wish now that I’d taken a picture of mine.

Famjin, a charming town with a closed café
As always, travel books and Google render thorough itineraries unnecessary and probably annoying, so here are just a few highlights of my trip:

Mykines (the “k” pronounced like a “ch”).  Saint Brendan, the intrepid explorer and possibly the coolest monk ever, described this island as “a paradise of birds.”  And that’s what it is: the nesting ground for kittiwakes, fulmars, gannets, and of course puffins. 

Kittiwakes with their chicks
I’d seen most of these birds before, with the exception of the gannet; when I saw it mentioned in Beowulf many years ago, I figured I would have to flip a coin to decide whether it was a bird or a fish.   

A gannet: definitely not a fish
But I’d never seen puffins so close!  Of course, you need more than a point-and-shoot digital camera to get a really good shot of these tuxedoed fellows, but I did my best. 

A puffin. Photo off center because the wind was so strong I couldn't hold the camera still.
And of course I could never get a shot of them at their comical best, when they’re coming in to land, flapping their wings like they’ve never done this before and putting out their bright orange feet like landing gear.

Side note: my Mykines trip was the only day we had real sun during my week on the Islands.  Naturally, I got a terrible sunburn from which I'm still peeling.  Who’d have thought to pack sunscreen for 62 degrees North latitude?

Food.  Like Iceland, the Faroes are short of fuel for things like smoking meat, so their solution has traditionally been to ferment lamb in a slat-sided shack called a “hjallur” until it has a greenish tinge. 

A hjallur: notice the slats in the side for the wind to pass through
Now, of course, Faroese people have a wider variety of dining choices, but all the houses still have a hjallur nearby.  Only now they mostly use them for storing lawn mowers, which are necessary for maintaining the grass roofs.

Turf-roofed building in Saksun
Having tasted Iceland’s fermented shark (hákarl), I didn’t feel obliged to try the lamb, but I did love sampling the baked goods.  On Mykines, I had a lovely confection made of layers of angel food with vanilla pudding and raspberry preserves in between, topped with whipped cream.  I hoped it had a cool Faroese name; the lady behind the counter told me it was “cake with pudding.” 

Rowboats on Mykines, because I didn't take a picture of the cake
In Tjørnuvík, there’s a lovely fellow who serves coffee and waffles in an outdoor café, with his fluffy white dog and traditional Faroese cap.

A man and his dog
The waffles were topped with rhubarb preserves and whipped cream, rhubarb being one of the only things that can grow readily this far north (potatoes being the other).

Coffee and waffles, pre-topping
The views.  Between the scenic houses, the cliffs, and the waterfalls, the Faroes are a photographer’s dream.

The houses of the Løgting, the Faroese parliament

Mulafossur in Gásadalur
Between the rain and the mist, the Islands can be a photographer’s nightmare.  I spent a lot of time wiping water droplets off my lens, and a lot of my tour consisted of statements like, “If you could see anything across the way, you’d see the famous sea stacks” or “the Faroes’ highest mountain” or “the hanging lake.” 

Lighthouse at Sumba
I actually didn’t mind this difficult too much because the geography is so similar in Iceland, it’s not like I’ve never seen a cliff or a waterfall before.

Saksun (the lower half)
The language.  I thought I didn’t speak Icelandic until I visited the Faroes and realized how much I don’t speak Faroese.  A week’s worth of attempts to figure out the rules of pronunciation was clearly insufficient.  For instance, “Kirkjubøur” (“Church town”) is pronounced “Chisjubör.” 

A 900-year-old farmhouse in Kirkjubøur, inhabited by the same family for 17 generations
I’s and j’s clearly do something to preceding k’s, but after spending a week having my pronunciation corrected, I gave up trying to predict and just waited to be told how to say things.  But the difficulty cuts both ways, of course: I was charmed to hear the pilot of my flight back to Iceland announce we were about to arrive in “Reychyavik.”  Americans aren’t the only ones who try to apply their pronunciation rules to other languages.

Another Faroese traffic jam
Norðlýsið.  Okay, so this is more a misadventure than a highlight, but I’ll share for your amusement.  This beautiful sailboat is a prime tourist attraction in Tórshavn, taking twice-daily trips around the coast of Nólsoy.  And I should preface this story by saying that I would still highly recommend the excursion, just not in the particular way I did it.

To be fair, calling it a sailboat is a bit of a misnomer, because of course it almost never sets those sails it’s equipped with, chugging around under diesel power like every other boat.  That being said, who can resist a good seafaring adventure?

Tórshavn harbor
Only, the day I was book on the boat, it was rather windy and very gray.  Most of us landlubbers were surprised the captain didn’t cancel, and in the end he did turn back halfway around Nólsoy to avoid the windward side of the island, but the man knows the seas, so off we went.

Tourists being ferried across the harbor to theNorðlýsið; we climbed directly from the dinghy onto the boat.
For someone who can’t read a map in a car without getting sick, I have pretty good sea legs as long as I’m above deck, so the choppy waters didn’t bother me.  In fact, I found them exciting.  The wind, however, was another matter, gusting so powerfully that even the captain had to grab hold of something to keep from being blown off his feet.

The captain--of both the dinghy and the Norðlýsið
To be fair, I was offered a full-body weather-proof suit partway through the trip, but by then we’d already had a good rain shower and my fingers were too sluggish with cold to untie my boots in order to put it on.  So I decided to forgo it, saying, “I can’t get much wetter than I already am.”  Of course I was wrong.

Two hours before the mast
It turns out you can get much wetter than you get in a rain shower when the seas are high enough to drench you simultaneously from above and below: from above by spray and from below by shipped water.  At one point, we were standing in water so deep that the drinks cooler was floating freely across the deck.  I now know two things: what scuppers are for and why you should invest in waterproof boots before sailing (which, thankfully, I had done).

The inscription helpfully tells us it is necessary to navigate. Actually, it means it is necessary to sail--a slightly different notion.
Of course, all this would have been a grand adventure if it had been warm and sunny, but in the child of a cloudy day I was left with a new sense of amazement at the Viking Age sailors who settled the Faroes.  The whole enterprise seems impossible.  First, that they even came across them in such a vast expanse of empty water; second, and even more impressive to my mind, that they found them again whenever they sailed away and came back; third, that they all didn’t die of exposure.

A monument to Sigmundur Brestisson, the hero of Faereyjinga saga who was murdered on this beach. Swimming is not the usual method of getting to the Faroe Islands, of course.
So maybe my last Faroese adventure didn’t quite meet the tourist’s ideal vision of vacation, but perhaps it was a better representation of the islands’ history.  Iceland will always have a primary place in my heart, and I almost hesitate to recommend a place as a tourist destination when its greatest appeal is that it’s not touristy, but the Faroe Islands are well worth seeing.  I’m glad I had the chance to do so—even if what I could see was limited by the cloud ceiling.  Maybe someday I’ll get to go back and see the upper half as well as the lower!