Friendly, Curious, and Beautiful

We are headed out of the Faroe Islands today, are back to Scotland for a quick overnight in Edinburgh before heading back to the USA tomorrow.

We capped off our trip yesterday with a ferry out to the island of Nolsoy, about a 20 minute ride from the capital in Torshavn, where we hiked around the town and explored a bit. Later we visited a church in Sandavágur before enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant called Arrstova (“House By the Brook”) on Torshavn harbor. Arrstova is in a wooden building built in the 1600s, but the menu is decidedly modern (my favorite was the lamb tartare, and the multi-course meal was the best of our trip by far).

As is true with any adventure, we didn’t know what to expect here…even more so because we didn’t know a single person that had visited the Faroes (well, at least nobody that we had asked). What we found was a rich history and stunning natural beauty, along with more than enough tourist-oriented services and a lot of great people.

While there is not a lot of lodging (and just a handful of campgrounds), the choices are growing through new construction and through services like AirBnb. We really enjoyed our AirBnb house, and our host was super-helpful and responsive.

There’s a Faroese proverb that nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons. I’m not even sure what that means, but I can say that we’ve encountered people that are welcoming, curious, and eager to share their culture. And what a fabulous culture it is, with a deep respect for the past, optimism for the future, understandable pride, and a friendly approach to outsiders.

The Faroese are also very trusting. Nobody pays attention to locking anything here, the honor system is everywhere, fancy bikes are out leaning against fences and buildings in town, and the Faroese version of a key swap is to leave the door unlocked and the key on the table.

People are also very active and fit, and many of them were pushing baby strollers up trails that we thought were challenging ourselves. And pretty much every dog in the country is a black and white border collie (ok, so I’m not sure what that has to do with culture, but it does stand out).

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This was our new friend Fram

Topics of conversation with the locals have spanned a huge range, including politics, energy independence, education, and the economics of tunnel building (important stuff when you live in a mountainous country made up of 18 islands).

A quick example of the differences in culture: many of the rental cars are emblazoned with huge rental car logos, which would probably alert drivers in the US to pass at the first chance and maybe give you a “hand signal” if you weren’t up to standard. In contrast, a local in the Faroes told us that he saw the logos as encouraging folks to be more understanding when a tourist drives erratically (like us), too slowly (we did), or seems lost (we were, even though there’s basically one main road through the islands).

IMG_3415Based on our experiences, tourists are greeted with patience, whether fumbling for the right coins to pay, puzzling over a road or trail sign, mangling the pronunciation of a place name, or queueing in the wrong place (not that we ever did any of that, at least not in writing).

There is explosive growth on the islands right now, and people seem realistic about what tourism might mean for their country–both good and bad. For example, the introduction of new visitor fees—some with credit card enabled turnstiles–at the more popular attractions is something that the country seems to be struggling with (a lot of people were talking about it). Coming from the pay-as-you-go culture of the US, it all seemed fair to us–but I’m not sure how it would feel to pay for a hike if I were local.

It says something that the people made such an impression on us, as we don’t speak Faroese–but English is commonly spoken here. And the people were friendly, were interested in our story, and live in a beautiful country. That’s a nice combination for a wayward traveler.

You can’t understand a place in four days, but the Faroes–and their people–showed itself as a world destination. And just as nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons, it isn’t the most practical destination from the US. But as we get closer to wheels up, we are already talking about our next visit.

Ruins and Cows

Yesterday in the Faroes we started with a visit to the historic village of Kirkjubøur, about twenty minutes drive from the capital of Torshavn. Kirkjubøur is generally considered the country’s most historically important site, with structures that go back to medieval times. We visited ruins of 14th-century Magnus Cathedral along with a beautiful 13th-century church, Olavskirkjan, and Kirkjubøargarður, an 11th century farmhouse.

Kirkjubøargarður may be the oldest wooden structure in the world that is still occupied—and the same family, the Paturrsons, has lived there for 17 generations. How a wooden structure can last a thousand years is beyond me, especially as I have a fence back home that’s falling apart after a few seasons.

The settlement of Kirkjubøur was founded in part because it was a spot that collected a lot of driftwood, which was an incredibly important commodity in a land with almost no trees. We saw a piece of driftwood on the beach during our visit and I caught myself wondering where it’d come from. If only a tree could talk…well, if a tree could talk, it probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

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Before the Reformation, Kirkjubøur was the center of Catholicism across all of Scandinavia, and the Bishop at the time wrote the “Sheep Letter” there in 1298. The Sheep Letter is a Constitution of sorts, and is the oldest surviving document on the islands. Kirkjubøur dwindled after the Reformation, and then was hit by a devastating hurricane in the 1600s. The Cathedral was never finished.

We followed our visit to Kirkjubøur with a drive an hour north to the village of Saksun, where we enjoyed a beautiful (and super-windy) five mile hike out to the ocean and back, passing a huge mountainside waterfall along the way. We had to watch the tides, as parts of the hike are cut off with an incoming tide, but there was good signage to help out a few foreigners.

We were blown away by–and because of–the hike. I know everybody exaggerates wind speeds, but I’m pretty confident that there were sustained winds of 30-40mph and gusts above 50. Even the locals seemed a bit winded.

From there, we drove another half hour up a narrow one-lane road to the village of Tjørnuvík, the northernmost village on the island of Streymoy and a popular destination with surfers (easy to see why, as a powerful surf pounded the beach the entire time we were there). We enjoyed a lovely lunch at the café there, and also looked out over an old Viking burial grounds.

We closed out the day back in Kirkjubøur, where we joined a friendly rancher tending to the Paturrson family cows.

The diversity of experiences that are possible on the 500 square miles of land of the Faroes is remarkable; I’m pretty sure that this was the first day of our lives that started with medieval ruins and ended with feeding cows. (Oh, and we fed ourselves, too, with local salmon, and a nice view at our lovely AirBnB in Hoyvik).

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Well, this is supposed to be mostly a food blog.

A Long Way To Go For A Screen Saver

Souzz and I are into the next leg of our vacation and arrived in the Faroe Islands last night by way of Edinburgh, Scotland (one of a handful of cities that offer direct flights). The Faroes are a collection of 18 islands that are halfway between Iceland and Norway. They are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but they are very independent. They have their own government, their own language (Faroese), lots of services/amenities, and a very interesting culture.

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Less than 50,000 people live here, although there are supposedly nearly twice as many sheep. That said, it’s a very modern destination with a lot to offer–dramatic scenery as well as wonderfully friendly people.

As to how we got interested in visiting the Faroes, there’s a famous waterfall here called Múlafossur, and it popped up one day on my dad’s cable TV screensaver (doesn’t everyone get trip ideas from screensavers?).

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The screensaver shot that inspired our trip

When I saw that photo, I asked “Where is that?” As one might expect, my dad hadn’t memorized the screensaver shots; he was more interested in the Georgia Tech football game that we’d paused while we freshened up our drinks. Later, I tried (unsuccessfully) to find the location of the photo through the web. I finally took a picture of the TV screen (after waiting waiting waiting for the same image) and did a reverse photo search with Google.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten a crazy idea for a trip in an unlikely place (see Pegman Meets Viking) and something tells me it won’t be the last.

We’ve just started our visit to the Faroes, but it’s clear that this is a special place. Cliffs plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean all around, the human history goes back to Vikings more than a thousand years ago, birds are everywhere, the roads and tunnels between islands are an engineering marvel, and the people are fantastic.

For our visit, we are basing out of an AirBnB in Hoyvik, just outside of the capital city of Torshavn. Our AirBnB host Sarah Ann has been super-helpful, and there’s a full kitchen so we have been able to pursue some local dishes. Most everything is imported from Denmark or Iceland, but the stores are full of choices.

As for the food, it’s always interesting to go grocery shopping when you are far away (much as it was in Scotland last week). The main store in Torshavn, called Miklagarður, was very well stocked, but with labels in Faroese that we couldn’t easily translate. A quick example: Toskaflak is what we cooked for dinner tonight. We’re confident that it’s fish…but we have no idea what kind.

This morning we spent some time in and around Torshavn, a vibrant town with a fabulous harbor. We really weren’t expecting so much culture here, and I felt sheepish about pre-judging this place (insert your own joke here re sheepish in the Faroes).

And with such a compact geography, we had time this afternoon to visit Múlafossur Waterfall (which inspired the trip) and to hike about five miles to a viewpoint above Sørvágsvatn. With only 500 square miles of land, everything on the road system is totally within reach. For the part of the Faroes on the road system, it’s probably only about an hour end-to-end (there are ferries to a few of the outlying islands).

All in all, we had a great time taking in the culture, hiking in the tree-less terrain, and enjoying the incredible vistas. One is never more than three miles from the ocean here, so it’s not hard to find an interesting view.

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The village of Bøur

It’s easy to see why this place shows up in screen savers…and travel blogs. We are here a few more days, so we are looking forward to more time in a part of the world that isn’t as well known (at least in the US) as it should be!