By Catherine Watson
From the mountaintop road above Kvivik, green slopes fell steeply away to the sea, and the sea swept my eyes outward, over the village, to the soft shapes of other islands drifting in the pale blue distance. More than a thousand years of Faroe Islands history lay in that view. It was like looking at a map of time itself.
Kvivik is a Viking village – the real thing, not a restoration – still perched exactly where its ancient founders wanted it: Deep in a narrow fjord, where the sea was calm. On a beach where boats could be drawn up and driftwood gathered. At the mouth of a stream, for fresh water. Among grassy hillsides, where sheep and a cow or two might graze.
The town is bigger now, of course, but not much, and it boasts electricity and television and a few email addresses. All the same, if its original settlers pulled their longboats up on that beach tonight, they’d feel right at home. They could even stay with relatives.
Two friends and I were doing almost the same thing in the Faroes one September, though we couldn’t claim Viking longboats or Faroese blood. We were renting a farmhouse in a seaside village on the same island, just over the mountain from Kvivik. Our landlord was a fisherman who raised sheep when he wasn’t at sea – just like his ancestors.
I’d have gone to the Faroes for the light alone – the clear light and those sweeping views. But I had trouble explaining it to folks back home. Why the Faroes?
Because they were so far away. Because we knew almost nothing about them. Because, thanks to an old travel book I’d run across, they sounded interesting.
The author was a Victorian lady adventurer named Elizabeth Taylor, a Minnesota writer who hated our home state’s cold weather the same way I do, but who loved the far north and spent years in the Faroes, including all of World War I. She’s virtually unknown in the States but over here, she’s still famous for – among other things – documenting village life and giving art lessons to the islands’ first painters.
Art would have been inevitable, I think, even without her. The Faroes are a painter’s landscape, ready-made for abstraction. Wind and weather keep details at bay, reducing geography to its essence: Land. Sea. Sky. Nothing more.
There is no subtlety here, no softness, no luxury except the intense color of the grass that covers the islands’ harsh bones like an apple-green pelt. When it rains, the mountains look enameled.
There are no trees. No native land animals. No predators, unless you count people, and there aren’t many of them, either. The population is about 48,000, not quite half of them in the bright-roofed harbor-side town of Torshavn, the Faroese capital.
Technically, the Faroes aren’t an independent country – they’re a Danish possession with home rule. But they feel like their own country. And they’re certainly separate enough – from everything.
They are the crests of underwater mountains – 18 shards of dark-gray basalt, jutting abruptly out of the sea in the ultra-north North Atlantic, distantly surrounded by Iceland, Scotland, Norway and, even more distantly, Spitzbergen. The islands are mostly long and skinny, with so many lobes and inlets that you’re never more than three miles from the sea.
I expected the climate to be cold, so far north, but it wasn’t: This is where the Gulf Stream ends, and Faroese temperatures average between 37 degrees F in winter and 52 degrees F in summer. In late September, I needed gloves only once, but a rain jacket every day.
The weather changed so often, and so fast, that each day felt like many days. One morning, I kept track: Splinters of sun, a calm moment of warmth, then wind so fierce it thrashed the shrubs and grabbed at my clothes, then a blast of stinging rain as sharp as cold sand, then sun again…. And that was just before breakfast.
But my friends and I were lucky: This is a place that measures its annual sunshine not in days, but in hours. Torshavn gets about 840 hours a year, on average. Even with near-daily rain, we had more than our share.
Summer tourists do a little better, and there are plenty of them to enjoy it. In June, July and August, nearly 50,000 visitors flood in, largely from Iceland and other Scandinavian countries.
If we’d been there in summer, the bird cliffs on Mykines would have been thick with nesting puffins – the little yellow-beaked cuties that have become a Faroese national symbol. Tour boats would have been cruising past the sea caves near Vestmanna. There would have been festivals in the villages, and everywhere the renowned dancing societies would have been performing, accompanying their age-old circle dances with nothing more than sung ballads and stamping feet.
But by mid-September, the puffins were gone, and so were the tourists. Museums had switched to winter hours, and even then we were sometimes the only visitors. Tour boats weren’t running – bad weather, too few passengers. The dancing societies were taking a break, and the whole place seemed to be exhaling. Even the manager of the Torshavn tourist office was about to take a vacation, going to England with her hiking club to walk Hadrian’s Wall.
Elizabeth Taylor would have approved: “To really get the best out of a place,’’ she wrote, “you should see it out of the so-called proper season.’’ I agreed.
I hadn’t intended to follow in Taylor’s footsteps, but I couldn’t help it: She’d been everywhere, reporting on everything from evil spirits, called the huldufolk, to the first songs babies learn (“The puffin says Ur-, Ur-r…’’), to the bloody details of the Grindadrap, the Faroese whale hunt still carried out periodically on local beaches, whenever a pod of small pilot whales swims too close to land.
I’d heard that this was a touchy subject, but I’d seen its gory photographs, and I couldn’t help asking about it. People explained, first of all, that it is an ancient tradition – one that their ancestors’ lives depended upon. Second, the meat is never sold – just shared among participating villagers, hospitals and the elderly. Third, it’s less a “hunt’’ than a “drive.’’
When whales come into a cove, I was told, nearby men drop what they’re doing, drive them onto the shore, jump into the water among the thrashing animals and slaughter them quickly by hand, with nothing more than foot-long knives. Since the whales can be 18 feet long, it’s dangerous for the hunters, too, people said, which made the Grindadrap sound something like a Spanish bullfight — on a disturbingly big scale. “Besides,’’ one man assured me, “it’s dying out.”
If the Grindadrap hadn’t changed much since Elizabeth Taylor’s day, many other things had – the population had tripled; the standard of living had sky-rocketed – but much of the culture Taylor had known was still alive.
Language, for one thing: Faroese is an off-shoot of Old Norse, related to Icelandic and Norwegian. But it wasn’t written down until the middle of the 19th century, and I had trouble matching the spellings with the sounds.
Kollafjordur, for example, our temporary hometown, was pronounced more like “KUT-la-fyor-rur.’’ And when we drove south on Stremoy to see what may be the oldest inhabited farmstead in Europe, we weren’t going to Kirkjuboer, we were going to ‘‘Chi-chi-ber.’’
The big farmhouse there was made of blackened logs floated in from Norway – no trees could grow that big here – and it’s still in the hands of its original family, the tourist office manager told me. How far back does it go? I wondered. “Seventeen generations,’’ she said, counting off the names on her fingers to be sure.
All the towns, big and small, followed the old Viking pattern, with houses clustered tightly at the foot of a mountain, just where it met the sea. Any vista held at least one community, and when there were several, they looked like trim on the hems of long green skirts.
A network of good paved roads, bridges, undersea tunnels and ferryboats links all 17 inhabited islands now. This makes Faroese society so cohesive, I learned, that the island communities shouldn’t be thought of as separate entities, but more like neighborhoods of a single dispersed city.
In Elizabeth Taylor’s time, Faroese who needed to get from island to island had had to rely on long wooden rowboats – Viking-style, of course – and it was risky. Bad weather could isolate a village for weeks or months, and sudden storms and squalls could make any journey life-threatening.
Taylor herself once spent 16 days pinned down by storms on tiny Stora Dimun, still one of the hardest islands to get to – a helicopter is recommended – with two dozen other people crammed into the island’s only house. They lived on cooked puffins, which tasted, she wrote, like “unrefined cod-liver oil.”
We spent most of our days exploring the islands by car. We got as far east as Klaksvik, the second largest city, and as far north as Vidareidi, on Vidoy in the Northern Isles, and Eidi, on Esturoy, the island next door to ours. Eidi was where Elizabeth Taylor lodged with a local family during the Great War. The views from its hillside were even more spectacular than usual.
We didn’t meet many Faroese – kids were in school, people were at work – but those we did meet were pleasant, though reserved. “The stranger is expected to make all advances,’’ Taylor had advised. When I did, people opened up.
Shopping in Torshavn one afternoon, I chatted with a clerk who talked about how safe and friendly the islands were. If anyone invited me home for a visit, she said, I should go, because they meant it: “We say ‘come anytime’. If we’re busy, we’ll say, ‘come back another time’.’’
No one said that, as it turned out, but we didn’t mind: We had our farmhouse, though it didn’t look the part. It was a 1950s rambler, painted dark blue and tucked into the side of a hill, just below the road into Kollafjordur, about 20 minutes’ drive north of Torshavn.
“Mother-in-law house,’’ said our landlord, the fisherman-farmer, which explained the family pictures on the walls and the doilies on the furniture.
There was also a barn, tucked under the house where we expected a basement. One morning, the farmer gave me a tour. It held mangers for his nine sheep, a winter stockpile of miniature hay bales no bigger than living-room hassocks, and a red hen fiercely guarding her single chick. She had had more, the farmer said, but wild seabirds had stolen the others.
This barn tour, I realized later, summed up all the main components of modern Faroese economy – fishing, wool, tourism, even technology, since I’d rented the house online.
The Faroese wool component ranged everywhere, wandering freely wherever there was grass. We even saw sheep in central Torshavn. As twilight came on, they looked more and more like boulders. They got harder to see if it was raining. And after dark, they were flat-out road hazards. Darkness falls early at 62 degrees North latitude.
Each evening, when we’d survived the gantlet of damp sheep and slick roads and gotten safely back to Kollafjordur, it really did feel like coming home.
Our farmhouse hunkered snug and warm against its hill, and I loved falling asleep to the sound of wild winds buffeting the rosebushes outside my window. I even loved the rainiest days, when we stayed home to read or draw or play cards, cooked our own food, talked, laughed – pretending, in other words, that we lived there.
The blue house was part of why I liked the Faroes so much. Staying in a hotel or a guesthouse, of which there are many, wouldn’t have been as good. Our house helped me understand how Elizabeth Taylor could spend so many years in these islands and not be bored. By week’s end, I could happily have done the same.
Catherine Watson’s travel dreams took flight in grade school, when she and her best friend discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books. Long family road trips and two student exchange programs, American Field Service to Germany in high school, and the Minnesota SPAN Project to Lebanon in college only made that passion stronger. Trained as a journalist, Catherine became the first travel editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) and continued as its chief travel writer and photographer from 1978 to 2004. Her work has taken her to 115 countries and won numerous awards, including the top two in her field: The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the Society of American Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. She has been published in more than a dozen anthologies and is the author of two collections of travel essays, Road Less Traveled (Syren Books, 2005) and Home on the Road (Syren, 2007), both of which were Minnesota Book Awards finalists. Catherine teaches workshops in travel writing and memoir in the U.S. and abroad, and divides her home time between Minneapolis and the historic village of Galena, Illinois.