Mark Bibby Jackson travels north for a Faroe Islands holiday to discover a beautiful, windswept land, full of the most amazing landscapes and wonderful food.
I had expected wind, wind and rain on my travels to the Faroe Islands. Roughly halfway between Shetland and Iceland, this is where the North Atlantic gales stop off on their relentless march towards Norway.
After all, it is the embodiment of the island’s literature.
“The lamps in the Royal Stores Warehouses were nearly blown out by draughts that came with each blast of the gale, but between gusts it was as quiet as the grave.” So starts Barbara, the sole novel written by Faroese writer Jorgen-Franz Jacobsen.
It is there in the architecture.
Naively, on my first evening I ask the waitress in Katrina Christiansen restaurant why all the buildings have roofs covered with sod – previously I had assumed it was to preserve heat. “It’s to stop the roofs from blowing off,” she corrects me.
But, at least as I arrive, it is not there on the Faroes.
For, I land to the most glorious sunny day, still air and spectacular scenery. I drive towards the town of Bøur and then on to the capital Tórshavn, dipping my toes in the cold water as I pause on my way. The journey is spectacular, with green-clad hills dropping down into the calm waters and waterfalls cascading all around me.
Torshavn Faroe Islands: the old and the new
Katrina Christiansen typifies both the old and the new in the Faroe Islands. In the heart of Reyni, or Tórshavn Old Town, the restaurant takes up the former house of William Heinesen, the island’s other author of note. A meal here is like eating in a museum, especially if you visit both the basement, where “Faroe’s Shakespeare” used to work, and the upper floors with their nooks and crannies ideal for a pre-meal drink. The restaurant has its own beer, William afte Heinesen, unfiltered, unpasteurized and unsold anywhere else on the island. After a day spent travelling it proved most welcome. The food is excellent, a salmon ceviche that resembles a deconstructed smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel – only without the bagel –, scallops and a monkfish carpaccio. This is a long way from the hearty fare I expected from the nation most renowned for its obsession with whale blubber.
Afterwards, I decant to Blabar, the local jazz bar where locals sit knitting and playing chequers while a trio of musicians drift their way through music more classical than jazz. It is a thousand miles from Ronnie Scott’s. Around midnight, I stagger out onto the road to find the sun still shining. This is the end of June and the sun barely sets at all at this time of year.
A Faroe Islands holiday is as far from mass tourism as you are likely to encounter in this day and age, unless you go on an expedition to the Arctic. The infrastructure is just not here for it. A single carriageway road leads from the airport to the capital, where accommodation is limited. However, this means the charm is still preserved.
Bracing the elements on the Faroes
The following morning, the expected rain now settled in for the duration, I wander around the old town along to the government building at Tinganes. Security here is relaxed, and I narrowly resist the temptation to pop into the Prime Minister’s office – hardly the White House. I continue my walk along the harbour to the old fort at Skanskin, where the wind is so strong I fear my camera phone will be blown from my hands as I try to encapsulate the moment.
Eventually, I take shelter in the Parisian-inspired Paname Café, with its adjoining bookstore where I buy both Barbara and The Black Cauldron, written by Heinesen and set at wartime when the islands were occupied by the British. After all, I might have plenty of time on my hands for reading. The rain is slanting in almost horizontally by this stage, and there is a sense of the end of the world about the place, reminiscent to the Argentinean port of Ushuaia, only without the tourists.
Although it was beautiful in the sun upon arrival, I prefer the wind and the rain – after all you don’t come to the Faroe Islands for a beach holiday. There is an other-worldliness about the islands as the clouds roll in atop the hills and the only sounds are those of the birds flying overhead, the whistling wind and the bleating of the omnipresent sheep.
In the afternoon I drive to Tjønuvik at the north of Streymoy island, passing the spectacular Fossá waterfalls on the way. The town is supposed to have spectacular views of the Giant and the Witch; twin rocks that legend has are waiting to drag the islands back to Iceland. However, visibility has diminished to such an extent that the rocks are just a vague blur upon the horizon. Perhaps they are waiting for fairer weather before they make their final voyage.
It is here that I discover the key to a Faroe Islands holiday – have no set agenda. Travelling here is all about chasing the rainbow and driving towards the sunlight. Which is exactly what I do as I cross the bridge to the island of Eysuroy and drive up to the town of Eiđi, home to possibly the world’s most beautiful football stadium, and on to Gjógy, along one of the island’s many ‘buttercup routes’ noted for their spectacular beauty. The rains relent and the sun peaks through the covering of cloud as I drive through the most amazing mountainous terrain. In the distance, I can clearly make out the Giant and the Witch across the waters. The drive to Gjógy is quite breath-taking, so I stop on several occasions to take in the scenery and chat with the black sheep that litter the countryside, and occasionally stroll along the roads.
Faroe Islands Gastronomy
That evening, I have my second course of Faroese gastronomy, and if anything the food at Futastova is even better than at Katrina Christiansen, leaning more to the French than the tapas-style fare of the previous evening. I start with a delightful scallops with cauliflower cream and almonds – the tender lumps of the vegetable providing an excellent texture to the dish – but this pales in comparison with what comes next. The monk fish with asparagus in a saffron sauce is quite fantastic, and goes extremely well with the sauterne wine with which it is served.
Like Katrina Christiansen, Futastova is in Reyni, in what must be yard-for-yard one of the finest culinary districts in Europe. The restaurant, which is set in the former Icelandic ambassador’s residence, is part of the group that includes the Faroese restaurant Raest, which specialises in fermented food, including cod and pilot whale for the ethically challenged.
Later on, I find myself drawn back to Blabar where a Danish choir from Copenhagen is singing Bulgarian choral songs, although the knitting woman and the chequers players seem to have disappeared.
The following day, I was supposed to take the boat to Mykines, but, like the trip from Vestmanna the following day, the weather intervenes and I am forced to improvise. So, I hike from the town of Miđvágur to Traelimpa instead. There is something quintessentially mad, and slightly perilous, in walking along a trail into cloud with ill-defined cliffs somewhere to your left, especially as the main purpose of the walk is to see Sørvágsvatn Lake floating on the horizon, although this is denied us by the clouds.
Instead, I head back to the capital only for the clouds to momentarily break, so I can scramble along some rocks at Hoyviksgardour to be greeted by the Faroes tourism department’s ovine welcoming committee.
The old historic centre of Kirkjubøur, a few miles outside of Tórshavn, is my next port of call. Ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, or Múrurin, which was built around 1150 and abandoned four hundred years later, remain. A building that was part of the bishop’s palace has been turned into a museum to provide a sense of how people used to live. The 13th century St Olaf’s, or St Mary’s Church, has been restored, allowing visitors the opportunity for some impromptu bell ringing.
Later, I take a break from both the island’s haute cuisine and music, instead sampling some craft beers – most of which are from Belgium and Denmark – at Mikkeller, which were excellent, and have my first drunken – him not me, honest – conversation with a local about the rights and wrongs of whaling, which leads to my premature exit from the bar as he defends for me, at any rate, the inconceivable. I head for Sirkus Föroyar, possibly the only real pub in the old town, where I have an excellent vegetarian Indian curry and a conversation with the barman who is heading to Manchester to study music composition. He is under the delusion that the city of Oasis, and the Faroes are quite similar. “Well, they both rain a lot,” I say diplomatically. “But the rain, is it horizontal or vertical?” he replies. The following day, I will learn the relevance of his question.
Nólsoy and the Puffins
Even if no other boat trips are running, you can rest assured that the Nólsoy ferry will sail. The small island a twenty-minute jaunt from Tórshavn is home to half of the world’s European storm-petrel population – some 500,000. My guide quips the reason the birds have flourished here is they are “too small to eat”. As they are also nocturnal, it’s most unlikely that you will catch sight of them either unless you spend the night on the island. Maggie’s Bar, reputed to be the best pub and music venue in the Faroes, stays open to 4am at weekends, providing an ideal respite for those who elect to linger with the 220 families who live here, although I’m not sure whether the storm-petrels are regular customers.
The island’s puffin population has no such aversion to daylight. However, as the rain assumes a non-Mancunian horizontal aspect I discover the hard way that my decision to leave my waterproof trousers back in England was perhaps ill-judged. Eventually, as I slosh my way first along a path and then through fields, I find myself staring a puffin in the eye, as it debates whether to take the plunge over the cliff. Suddenly, all the rain seems irrelevant as I trudge back to the tourist information refuge, a happy man to get so close to the most beautiful bird.
My final night, I return once more to Reyni’s culinary district. Barbara is a seafood restaurant that, judging by my visit, you need to book well in advance. As potential customer after customer is turned away I work my way through the tasting menu with the devotion of a Michelin star judge.
I had been informed that Faroese salmon, served smoked and cut much like gravalax, is the best in the world. So, as my waitress Rachel – the same woman who had served me in Futastova the other night, as they are part of the same group – approaches with a serving of smoked salmon, served with crème fraiche and red onions, my eyes light up. Apparently, the salmon is smoked by the owner’s wife. The best salmon I have ever tasted, it is almost worth swimming to the islands for, or at least walking through the horizontal rain to get here. Nearly as good was the bouillabaisse, which included cod, scallop and prawn, and was served deconstructed, as you pour your own rich cod head broth over the seafood. Not without cause, are the Faroe Islands developing a reputation for the quality of their cuisine.
My journey almost complete, the clouds lift once more, and I leave as I arrive to glorious sunshine, as if the intervening inclement weather had been a long cloudy dream. On my final drive to the airport I take another buttercup route from the capital through mountainous terrain. Taking the same road a couple of days earlier, I saw nothing but the tarmac a few metres ahead of me. Now, as I pass a wind farm I wonder whether I have taken the wrong route. The views down to the Kaldsbaksfjórđur are spectacular, and I hesitate to enjoy one view too many, fearing I might miss my plane. The wind whistles, the birds chirp overhead and a pair of sheep – one black and one white – bid me a final adieu.
Normally, when I encounter unspoilt spots on my travels, I advise people to go there soon before it changes, but I suspect it will be a long time before these glorious, pristine isles become submerged beneath mass tourism’s all-consuming greed. And, if the quality of the food is any sign of the times, things are only getting better. Just remember, there is a reason why this green land full of spectacular waterfalls is made this way, so if you happen to see a sunbeam or rainbow, then chase it for all you are worth. For there is bound to be a pot of green gold lurking behind it.