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Open Features: Land Of Drifting Shadows

...Drinking coffee on the quayside that early morning, while watching the passing parade of boats, it was easy to drift back down the centuries to when Vikings ruled and traded; their longboats facing relentless Atlantic furies...

Jacqueline Dowling visits the Faroes.

Slowly the soaring cliffs loomed into view, craggy ramparts filling the windows of our cabin; rugged, with clouds of seabirds wheeling and weaving through early morning mist, their cries stirring the silence and breaking the loneliness of ocean's infinity.

Daylight comes early to the Faroes, and lingers long into softly lit summer evenings; pure northern light, artists' light. The ship slipped easily through fjords protected by rocky volcanic crags.

Small, colourful fishing villages lined the shore while brightly painted wooden boats chugged busily between floats, checking nets, landing fresh catches. It was a good start to the day, but the weather here is fractious; four seasons in a day being fact rather than cliché, and it's best to be well prepared.

Our destination was Tórshavn. One of the smallest capitals in the world and a bustling, attractive town which successfully blends a picturesque, historic past with a rapidly developing 21st century economy. Since 1948 the Faroe Islands have been a self-governing region in the Kingdom of Denmark. Proudly independent-minded, the islanders have their own parliament and flag and are a major exporter of fresh fish to the restaurants and markets of Europe.

The most attractive approach to Tórshavn is undoubtedly by sea. Restored warehouses, painted in traditional colours of deep ochres, reds and blues, line the quays. A fishing harbour, bursting with craft of every description, bears witness to the islanders' almost total dependence on the sea for a living.

Narrow lanes twist and turn over steps and rocks to the well-preserved, lively Old Town. Here are tiny black-tarred wooden houses with white window frames, and traditional turf roofs dating back to the Middle ages. Close by is a pedestrianised shopping area; compact, attractive and with a good mix of restaurants, coffee shops, post office, tourism info and banks. Nothing is too far away in Tórshavn.

Drinking coffee on the quayside that early morning, while watching the passing parade of boats, it was easy to drift back down the centuries to when Vikings ruled and traded; their longboats facing relentless Atlantic furies. However, our adventure lay further north, on the western side of the island of Streymoy, in the little fishing village of Vestmanna.

We boarded a coach beside the ship and, with guide in full info mode, drove through spectacular scenery. Past fish farms in lochs, salmon ladders and massive, roaring waterfalls tossing mist and spume high into the air; falling as rushing rivers, sometimes three or four tributories gathering into one for the final plunge. Ragged woolly bundles identified themselves as extraordinary-looking sheep, with long tangled coats, curly horns and very long legs. They live on steep mountain and cliffsides, sure-footed beyond belief. Rumour is that the two nearside legs have grown longer than their farside mates, it wasn't possible to check!

Mutton is a staple of the Faroese diet and slatted wooden sheds are dotted throughout the islands where strips of meat dry slowly in the sea wind , to be served as skerpikjot, which, in South Africa is made from beef and game, and called biltong.

The eighteen island Faroe archipelago has developed over 60 million years; layers of basalt laid down by massive volcanos, interspersed with bands of red tuff, compressed ash thrown out by volcanic action. Imagine then, driving through one of 14 mountain tunnels and being told the age of rock through which you are travelling. Almost impossible to comprehend and, given that basalt gradually erodes and crumbles, one can only hope that this process takes place over an equally awesome period of time.

By the time we reached Vestmanna, the weather had changed, all three statutory hours of August sun having been exhausted in the early part of the day. But, as the Faroese saying goes:

'If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.' So we did. Rain bucketed down in unashamed torrents and wind gusted from every quarter as we boarded a modern sightseeing vessel, owned and operated by Gunnar and Frodi Skuvadal; skilled skippers with an excellent command of English.

Choosing the boat with an open deck and clad head to toe in serious foul weather gear, we tested once again our sea legs, this time without the calming effect of stabilisers and shipboard comforts.

The boat trip to the Vestmanna bird cliffs and grottos is one of the most exciting and spectacular excursions in the Faroes. These colossal 600m high cliffs afford a safe nesting place for thousands of seabirds from May to August. Rich waters created by the blending of cold Arctic and warmer Gulf Stream currents provide a seemingly endless supply of plankton and small fish. Ornithologists have identified some 300 different bird species on the islands. Colonies of puffins breed on lush cliff tops, burrowing 1m into a grassy slope to lay one egg. These frenetic red-beaked bundles of energy resemble piebald jungle parrots and 'fly' underwater. Quaint they may be, but puffin meat is an island speciality and was, for many years, as staple of the Faroese diet.

We headed out on a sea which tumbled and foamed green-grey with huge troughs and whitecaps. Waves crashed against cliff bases and there were birds everywhere. Guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes clinging to rocky perches and nests, sheep and shelters visible in valleys rolling seawards, pebbly beaches stretching away from us. Past deep cobalt grottos where waterfalls flashed among hanging ferns, grass and stubby trees, where waves sucked and echoed, soughing eerily through dark caverns. It was wild, wonderful. Never to be forgotten.

Would I return to the Faroes? Oh yes, without a doubt. To 'The Land of Drifting Shadows, where the sea stretches out forever.'

www.visitfaroeislands.com

www.visit-vestmanna.com

(Additional information courtesy of Faroe Islands Tourist board)

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