Last light. Last day of the trip. Despite the rain, it’s been a good one. So why was I running full speed away from the splendid view and back to the hotel? Because of something that happened ten years ago. Or, rather, didn’t. I saw a puffin.
Yes, puffins. The elusive birds had led us to the Westman Islands of Iceland a decade before, with very little luck. There, supposedly a puffin breeding ground where you could hardly move without tripping over one, we hardly saw a single bird, and none up close. This time, it would be a different story.
But first, we had to get there. Where?
Gjógv. Another unpronounceable Faroes name. A website suggested “jerk-off” was the closest English word. We preferred something more charming, and after asking a few locals settled on “jekk’eff”. No doubt we were still wrong.
But Gjógv has more to offer than a strange name. Huge cliffs, a big fjord with mountains on the other side that would glow if we were lucky to have any sun. And, in a very happy surprise, puffins!
The Tiny Village of Gjógv
Gjógv is right up at the north of Esturoy, one of the larger of the Faroe Islands. We drove all the way north from Tórshavn to Eiði, then wound uphill on a narrow sliver of road over the lower slopes of Slættaratindur, the highest peak on all the Faroes at a whopping 880 meters above sea level. It doesn’t sound like much, until you remember that sea level is not that far from the summit, giving it a decent prominence. Of course, it was so foggy we could hardly see beyond the front of the car. I think I made out the fence line where you can commence the summit hike, but needless to say it was also blowing a gale so we didn’t contemplate that for a second.
Instead, we rolled into little Gjógv and found the grass-roofed guesthouse where I had miraculously snagged the last available room for our last few nights on the islands. (Pro tip: even though booking.com is sold out, as are all the rest, sometimes an e-mail direct to the hotel wins the day). Like everywhere on the Faroes, this place was green and lush and wet.
The little village is very charming – nestled to the side of the fjord between two larger hills, with a river bubbling through the center. One place near the guesthouse had a fantastic little garden, and down the road from there was a tiny cafe with an outdoor seating platform where you could order coffee and waffles. When we visited the weather was pretty good for the Faroes – a bit windy, but hardly raining. This cafe is above the old boat harbour, a wonderful gash in the landscape which gives the village its name (Gjógv means gorge).
At the guesthouse that night, we had a great time meeting a couple our age – one German, one French – and four European ladies on their annual holiday together. Well into their 60s, they were a Swiss, a Dutch, a Swede and a Dane. There was a huge buffet and we all sat at long tables inside the roof area of the guesthouse, almost viking style (though it was spotless). Lots of smoked fish, potato, lamb and, to my slight dismay after I ate it not realizing, dried whale meat. Everyone was great, and very friendly.
Lost at sea
Like almost everywhere on the Faroes, going down to the sea in boats was a central part of life. Still is, in many communities. And of course, way up here in the North Sea, fishing in small boats was – and remains – a dangerous activity. We had already tried to reach Skarð, another place woven with the aura of death at sea. Here it was easier to feel: contemplate this sculpture by the islands’ most famous sculptor Janus Kamban. It poignantly captures the sense of hope diluted by foreboding that waiting after a storm for your husband or father’s return must invoke.
Sea Cliffs and Sea Vistas
Just above the village, a nondescript path leads through the pasture. Suddenly, and with no warning, you’re standing at the top of a 200 meter high cliff. Thank goodness for the fence, because there is nothing really to remind you that the ground simply disappears under that grass. I’ve heard that the unwary have walked right over these cliffs, stepping on grass they mistakenly thought had earth underneath it.
From up here, we had a spectacular view of seabirds wheeling about below us, and of the remarkably calm ocean off to the north. There was nothing between us and the Arctic.
At the end of the last day in Gjógv, Yon was minding W as the sun came out. It was almost the first time on the entire trip, so I decided to run outside and get a few photographs. I headed for the sea cliff opposite the long finger of Kalsoy Island. The cliffs glowed in the evening sun. Four tiny shadows stood on the ridge. They were the four European ladies from breakfast. As I approached, I realised they were watching something very intently.
Down below, across the deceptive grass fringe at my feet, there were puffins! The cute and until then apparently all but mythical little seabirds were standing around on a grassy knoll on the cliffside, every now and then dropping off into space, flying around and making perfect, flappy landings back on the grass. Joining the ladies, I stood, transfixed.
I watched for a while and then I turned and ran back to the hotel. It was about 800 meters and I was pretty puffed when I arrived. Down in our basement room, I said to Yon, “Don’t argue, just trust me. Run outside, turn right, and run over to the cliff where you see the people standing. Take these”. I handed her my binoculars, and she handed me our child.
She came back, later, with a big smile on her face. “Thank you”, she said. “That was cool”.
It was time to leave. Not just Gjógv, but the Faroes. We headed home via Tjørnuvík, and another small village called Funningur, population 70. Heading back from here, we stopped by one of the islands’ uncountable waterfalls and, just as in the tourism promotion, we drank straight from it (our simple rule – if you couldn’t see signs of sheep grazing above, it must be fine).
We also passed the vantage point for the famous Risin og Kellingin seastacks, near Eiði.Legend has it they are a witch and giant who waded all the way from Iceland and tried to tow the island back with them. The island split, but they were unable to move it. Their hauling and heaving continued into the night, and so focused were they on succeeding that they didn’t notice the sun rising. And we all know what happens when the sun rises in these stories. Boom! They were turned to stone, and there they remained ever since. It’s predicted that Kellingin, the witch, might crumble within a few decades. The day we went, photographing people in front of them was a popular pastime.
After our last night in the capital, there was nothing left to do but ride the bus out to the airport. Another rainy, grey day, our last on the Faroes. We’d had a great time – our first trip with our little daughter, a long-overdue return to the sub-arctic – but I don’t know that we’re in a rush to go back. Perhaps the Faroes is just one of those places you need to visit once.