For me, said my wife afterwards, the Faroes isn’t so much a place to do things as it is a place to feel. “I just enjoyed the different soundscape – the sound of the wind, the sea, the birds. The rain, the roar of the sea. Breathing the sweetness of the fresh air. Drinking live water, straight from the earth. It seems like there’s not much going on, but there’s actually a lot going on if you just open your senses. What’s going on in Tórshavn? Not bars and cafes or any of that, but the smells of nature. Constant movement in the weather. The walk back to the hotel past that little brook”.
She’s right. Fog, wind, rain and lush green mountains with so many waterfalls they don’t even bother to name the big ones. You feel alive, part of nature instead of separated from it by seven ring roads. And that’s how it felt nearly the whole time we were there – to be alive in a place that was alive.
Welcome to Føroyar – the Faroe Islands.
“Never say to a Faroese that the Faroes are part of Denmark”.
Here came some good, clear advice from the guy at the hotel.
“We have the same Queen, and they look after some of our foreign relations, but that’s it. The Faroes is a country, it’s not part of Denmark”.
Far north of the British Isles, and many miles from Denmark, it certainly didn’t feel like part of that country of colourful fields and the gentle waves of the Baltic. Here, the wind blew the rain until it flew sideways, the sky was grey and dismal, and the tops of the rugged ridges were invisible in the cloud. Although it was actually about 12 degrees, it felt a lot colder, just as we expected a North Atlantic gale to be.
Why the Faroes?
That was the most common question I heard when I told people we were going, so let’s get it out of the way. There’s a China angle – a place where the capital has 20,000 people and the air is as clean as you’ll find on Planet Earth is obviously attractive after nearly a decade in Beijing. There’s a Nordic/Arctic angle – I like places like Iceland and hope one day to go places like Greenland and far north Canada. There’s another angle too, a simple one. Why not? It’s somewhere I haven’t been.
Wind, wind, wind
For a place seemingly permanently under assault from North Atlantic gales, the Faroes hasn’t as much wind power as I’d expected. Later, I discovered this was partly precisely because of that constant onslaught. In 2012, three turbines were destroyed by powerful winds. Newer installations – like the thirteen turbine Husahagi facility on the ridge above Tórshavn – have stronger designs and better control of “ramp rate” (the rate of change in power generation caused by changing wind speed). By 2030, the Faroes hopes for 100 per cent renewable power generation. In such a windy place, turbines seem the obvious way to achieve this, and the Husahagi facility is this year rolling out Europe’s first Lithium-Ion Energy Storage System, designed to smooth out the power outflow to ensure wind power is fed efficiently and evenly to the power grid.
The wind is a constant feature of life here. You feel it buffet your car as you drive along, you hear it rush past the window at night. It drives the rain horizontally into your face, making short work of the umbrellas that clearly signify their user is “not from around here”.
Indeed, the weather so controls daily life on the Faroes that residents – the ones we met at least – have the same almost addictive obsession with the forecast as we have in Beijing with pollution apps. (Even President Xi himself apparently does this, though he probably has an aide actually do it). Far from the relaxed, smartphone free holiday I envisaged, I found myself slavishly checking www.yr.no almost hourly as I tried to plan the day.
It was very wet when we were there, too. A local told me: “Even my old grandfather says this is the wettest summer he’s seen in 67 years”.
Just a two hour flight from Copenhagen, eating Faroese salmon sushi on the way, Tórshavn is the Faroes’ cute little capital city. It has a few traditional buildings with wooden walls and turf rooftops, but it’s mostly regular modern housing, nice roads, and wouldn’t look out of place in the Danish countryside. Built around a small harbour and looking eastwards to the long island of Nólsoy just across the strait, it’s not spectacular nor – writing honestly – particularly amazing. It was clear early on that its main advantage was it had more services than just about anywhere else on the Faroes.
The people there are friendly, though, that was very clear. Our talkative host at our first hotel opened up his laptop to show me the hour-by-hour weather forecast and the website with a network of weather-cams around the country (later I’d notice the webcam stations by the roadside, complete with little broadcasting antennae). The manager at the second hotel plucked our baby daughter up from our arms at breakfast and held her as we collected our muesli, fruit and coffee. She already had nine grandchildren, but even her enthusiasm was eclipsed by Marie, the lovely young Romanian at the first place who took W each morning and paraded her back through the kitchen, giving us more than half an hour to quietly enjoy breakfast and, presumably, somewhat delaying activity behind the scenes.
The friendliness extended to total strangers, too. At the harbour, I admired the rescue launch tied to the wharf. One of the crew noticed me looking, so I asked if I could take his photograph. Saying yes, he promptly invited me aboard and gave me a guided tour of the amazing craft. With water jets and 750 horsepower, he said it could get from Tórshavn to Nólsoy in four minutes – a route the ferry needs 20 minutes to cover. The previous night, one of about four or five real emergencies a month, they’d raced out to a cruise ship to bring a heart attack victim ashore. All were volunteers, and it looked like a fun job, if sometimes deadly serious.
Later, a trucker on the island of Kalsoy struck up a conversation as we waited for the car ferry. Coming from Australia seemed to blow a few people’s minds, as they contemplated the length of the journey (and it was far enough coming from Beijing). He told us about the salmon in his truck and then, like everyone else we spoke to, wished us a happy time in the Faroes. It was refreshing and heartwarming, especially as I’d read the Faorese were gruff and a bit unapproachable. Who writes these guidebooks? Wallflowers?
The Old Town and Skansin Fort
Tórshavn’s oldest neighbourhood is right on the harbour. Tinganes, as it’s called, was set up in 850 by the Vikings. Then, as now, it was a parliament where the issues of the day were thrashed out and resolved. Some of the buildings here, attractive with their traditional turf roofs, date back three hundred years. In amongst small offices for the country’s various agencies were fishermen’s clothes hanging out to dry.
It wouldn’t be a real holiday without a vintage fort. Luckily, we didn’t need GPS or even a hike to reach this one. It was just across the street from our hotel. This one was pretty small as forts go, but it had a few guns and a lighthouse to make up for that. Called Skansin Fort, it was first built to defend the settlement against pirates in 1580 – a good 700 years after the establishment of Tórshavn. Its present layout dates back to rebuilds in 1780 and during the Second World War when the British installed two large fixed guns (5.5 inch cannons removed from HMS Furious) to deal with any German raiders.
You can see the whole fort in about five minutes, but it proved to be a great place to shelter from the wind and, amazingly, actually bask in the sunlight while looking across the sound to Nólsoy.
Little Brother is Watching You, too
At first glance the Faroes and China seem as far apart as the four thousand nautical miles that separate them on the globe. For every person living in Tórshavn, Beijing has one thousand. The air in Tórshavn, though often wet, is pristine. Beijing, less so. But as I realised when switching my hourly Beijing pollution app habit for an hourly Faroes weather app addiction, the two were closer than I realised. The same fellow who taught me the Faroese constitutional arrangements picked up on a throwaway remark: it’s nice to use the open internet again. He asked about surveillance in China and I explained I lived in Dongcheng District which has the tightest security in China and where the guy who runs security in Tibet first tested his “grid surveillance” approach. How nice it must be, I offered, to live free of security cameras over everybody’s shoulder.
His eyebrow raised for the second time in this conversation, as I again exhibited the ignorance underlying my presumption. “In China, social control is by the state”, he ruminated. “In the Faroes, it’s your neighbours. Here, you have no real freedom. The Faroes is so small, everyone knows everyone and you can’t be yourself or do anything different“. My new friend’s solution was to make regular time for massage. “These ladies came from Thailand and started a massage studio. Every time I go there, with the pictures and the incense, I close my eyes and leave the Faroes. I really feel like I am in Thailand. We all have to do this, travel, as often as we can”.
If Big Brother is Watching You in China – and he most certainly is – then Little Brother is serving out his apprenticeship in Tórshavn. Someone knows most of what’s going on behind closed doors…
The wind, and the rain too, have been a defining feature of the Faroes for as long as people have lived there. One wet and windy day we cancelled a hike to Kirkjubøur and drove there instead, over the ridge enveloped by cloud and straight into the wind we’d have been walking into had we tried. Back in the 1500s, little Kirkjubøur was one of the most important settlements on the islands because it was the seat of the Catholic Diocese. Then, a spiritual storm wiped away the religious power at around the same time (give or take a few decades, but in the same century) that a physical storm wiped away the village. Today, just a few houses surround the big, black ruin of the never-finished Magnus Cathedral (dating to about 1300) and the white St Olav’s Church, which was first constructed in 1110.
The best of the houses is called Kirkjubøargarður – King’s Farm – and has been continuously occupied by the Patursson family since 1550. Part of the house is a great museum, highlighting the hardy yet actually quite comfortable-looking lifestyle of fishermen and whalers, and it is even used today to host state visits (Clinton stayed here in 2007). The house is owned by the government and leased to the first son of each generation of the Paturssons.
The current “King’s Farmer” is a hardy fellow named Tróndur, famous on the Faroes for his artwork. He was also one of the crew of the famous “Brendan Voyage“, which made the cover of National Geographic in 1977 after demonstrating that Irish monks could have sailed from there to North America more than 1,500 years ago (the link is to that great old BBC show, “The World About Us“).
They that go down to the sea in ships
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
But not always. Or, at least, the desired haven is not of this Earth. Faroese have been fishing at sea, and dying there, for more than a thousand years. Much of the island country’s heritage is woven with the spirit of the sea and the sadness of its toll on the Faroese. Tórshavn’s beautiful and spotless old church has model ships hanging from the ceiling; St Olav’s Church at Kirkjubøur has a moving painting of a lifeboat full of people experiencing a vision of God. For a traditionally Christian society, where even today almost everything closes on Sunday, religion must have played a central part for men summoning the courage to go down to the sea, and for the women and families to find the strength to wait for them, too often for the last time.
His Wonders of the Deep
On another of the many days where the rain blasted sideways and visibility dropped to a few hundred yards, we took W to a makeshift aquarium on a lonely wharf beyond the main harbour. If Tórshavn has a bleak industrial district, this was it. A gruff looking fisherman, broad shouldered and with a big beard, waved us in to a small wharehouse. Inside, there were maybe 20 small fish tanks with bizarre creatures swimming around in close quarters. A larger but quite shallow hexagonal tank looking like a kids’ pool turned out to have a few small rays (what we call stingrays but aren’t) scooting around. There were other tanks with crabs scrabbling about, and last, in the corner, a deeper one with some decent sized “eating fish” like cod and herring.
These were fish from the North Atlantic, caught and unwanted by Faroese fishermen and destined to spend the rest of their lives swimming in circles here. They were quite fascinating when compared to the usual bright tropical fish we’re accustomed to from aquariums, especially in Asia.
Here, like everywhere else, we saw no reference to whaling. The Faroes, of course, are infamous for that. But the best story that we heard about it actually came from the internet. Yon found a forum where an anti-whaling activist had explained how she’d called all the supermarkets in Tórshavn to make sure they had vegetables, and then brought in, by plane, 20 kilos of bananas so she could maintain her strict vegan diet while visiting to protest against whaling.
Faroese netizens’ responses were predictable. First, they criticised her for thinking so little of them that she didn’t believe she’d be able to buy vegetables in Tórshavn. Second, they asked her to consider the credibility of air freighting tropical fruit almost to the Arctic circle so she could munch on them while criticising Faroese for living sustainably from their own local environment. As one put it, “if you want to eat a banana, go to Ecuador”. (And they might have added that to be consistent, a person who boycotts the Faroes because of whaling really should boycott any meat eating country because of how cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are slaughtered too).
But to a person, despite their understandable annoyance at all this, they all demonstrated the friendliness we experienced, and the character that made the Faroes such a nice place. Because they all signed off with some variation of hoping she would…
“…have a great time in the Faroes”.