is so pretty
because they have
to look at.
Oddfríður Marni’s poem suggesting Tórshavnites have nothing else to look at than the island Nólsoy isn’t far from the truth – assuming they can even see that. Almost hourly, the fog rolls in and out of the fjørður*, obscuring and revealing the low northern part of the island holding the village and tiny harbour, and the high southern ridge that reaches 371 meters before running southwards down to almost sea level at the twin lighthouses of Øknastangi and Borðan.
Twenty minutes from Tórshavn by ferry – four minutes by rescue launch – Nólsoy is both a tiny hamlet and the long, slender island it clings to. There are two main ways to see it, other than a fleeting glimpse through the clouds on the way to Copenhagen. Hike, or sail.
*”Fjørður” is Faroese for both fjord or sound. It is broader in meaning than the English word “fjord” which refers only to a narrow, steep sided inlet formed by glacial activity. The English word is borrowed from Norwegian, in which “fjord” has the same broader meaning as in Faroese, that is, closer to the English word “sound” which can be both an inlet or a channel between two land masses, like a “strait”. The Scottish word “firth” also derives from the same root as the Norwegian and Faroese words and is similarly broader in meaning.
Hiking the Nólsoy hillside
We missed the first ferry to Nólsoy. Arriving on the second, around mid-morning, we set out immediately southwards to see if we could reach the lighthouse. In just moments, the old road through lovely green fields sprinkled with buttercups faded away into a stony, then boggy hillside. The rough path, covered in muddy puddles, veered left and steeply uphill. Foolishly, and it was my fault as navigator, we left the path and headed straight ahead along the ledge between the ridge above and the cliff to our right. The going was easy at first, and pleasant – lush green grass not unlike the alpine grasslands of the Snowy Mountains in Australia. Before long, though, the ground became more rugged, tussocky and wet with small streams and bogs. The wind picked up and blew into our faces, and cloud beyond looked like it was not far off. The sunny, cheerful weather we’d enjoyed on the ferry and at the jetty – and could still see back there – was disappearing ahead of us.
As we stopped for lunch and the first of several wild breastfeeds for W, a British couple came along. They, too, had made the same instinctive navigational error, and continued on to the ridge beyond. I followed their track for a little, until I saw clearly that even if we had the time, we’d never reach the lighthouse this way. Further beyond, the flat ledge we were traversing disappeared, into the cliffs on the left or the sea on the right, or perhaps a bit of both.
We turned around and returned, with the wind at our backs.
The Norðlýsið was built during World War II, and built well. Though a bit scruffy today compared to some vintage yachts, this schooner-rigged twin master is more of a workboat. Until 1980 it served as a herring boat, fishing with nets. These days it takes visitors out for what purport to be sailing trips (yes, I e-mailed in advance to check) but are actually more like motoring around with luffing sails. That was pretty disappointing, not least because I booked the trip specifically to experience – and show Yon – the wonderful feeling of a sailing ship running before the wind. Not once did I see anyone attend to the sails, and rarely did the wind fill them. Still, perhaps the captain had his reasons, and ultimately it didn’t interfere with the view.
As we rounded the southern end of the island, finally seeing both lighthouses, the sun poked out from behind the clouds and brought some colour to the scene, and our faces. We’d both felt a little seasick as the Norðlýsið ploughed through a bit of choppy water near the cliffs. Our spirits warmed up as fast as our backs, and before long we passed the village on the seaward side and rounded the north tip of Nólsoy for the run back to Tórshavn.
A worthwhile three hour voyage, but sadly a bit less than it could have been.
After our mis-directed hike we had a look around tiny Nólsoy village. Built around the small harbour, itself wrapped in the safety of a big stone breakwater, Nólsoy appears to be something of a “downshifter” community. Its proximity to the capital and the convenient ferry service apparently make it an attractive home for workers priced out of the Tórshavn property market. We strolled past the children floating in a large plastic tub on the small beach and followed our noses through the lane to a wonderful little café. Here, unwrapping our child from her (fantastic) Rukka rain gear, we ordered some rhubarb cake and coffee. Right on the wall was a topographic map of Nólsoy clearly showing how my navigational instinct had let us down. Never mind! In the time we had, and the weather that looked like rolling in (though didn’t), we’d probably not have made it even by the proper route.
We sat in this café with locals and visitors alike until we saw the ferry coming in. Last to leave, as we re-wrapped W in her rainwear, we almost missed the ferry again, having to run around to the little wharf to make it. On the way back into Tórshavn, the sun lit up the harbour buildings even as the grey loomed over the ridge beyond. It was our first day in Tórshavn, and one well spent.
The Many Faces of Nólsoy
Oddfríður Marni’s poem was on my mind throughout the rest of our time in Tórshavn. True, there’s nothing else to look at. But I began to think there might be more to it than the poem suggests. For Nólsoy has as many faces as there are shifts in the wind. Sun dappled, cloud topped, green, grey, or invisible, the island never looks the same for more than a few minutes. Whether looking from guns of the old fort, or the windows of the hotel on the heights, or from the plane on the way to Copenhagen, Nólsoy was, in fact, beautiful.