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An introduction to the Faroe Islands

An introduction to the Faroe Islands

Join me on a visit to a group of remote islands veiled in clouds. A dramatic landscape of volcanic origin is accompanied by a proud history of human endeavour, distinct architecture and cuisine. And silence.

 

The short history of the islands

Archaeological excavations have found proof of settlements on the Faroe Islands from around year 300 AD. There are no indications as to where they came from. Much later Norwegian Viking-raids and consequent Norse settlements drove out or assimilated with the original settlers. The Norwegians established their Althing (parliament) around the year 900, and the islands became a Norwegian province in 1035 like the other islands or island groups in the North Atlantic – Shetland, Orkney, Iceland and Greenland. The late medieval union between Norway and Denmark ended in 1814 with Norway entering a new union, this time with Sweden. The Faroes, as well as Iceland and Greenland, retained their status as provinces of Denmark. Iceland became independent in 1944 but the other two have for decades been working to gain self-rule on a number of issues. 

The Faroe Islands are inhabited by roughly 50,000 people. They have their own language, derived from old Norse like all Scandinavian languages. Moreover there is a working parliament (Løgting) with a degree of home rule, there is a Faroese flag (Merkið), a Faroese currency (although with the same value as the Danish krone) and not least a national football team (football being the most popular sport). Being part of the Kingdom of Denmark means that police, defence and the legal system is handled by Copenhagen. One interesting case is that the Faroe Islands, unlike Denmark, is not part of the European Union. 

Apart from service industries, the Faroe Islands economy relies on farming and in particular fisheries – as it has been for centuries. As the nature of the fishing industry is one of ups and downs – so is the economy. In recent years tourism has evolved into an important industry as well, not surprising considering the extraordinarily beautiful scenery. 

 

Denmark - Faroe Islands - Gásadalur

The view of the sea, from Gásadalur

 

The islands

The 18 islands look from above like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and the third dimension (elevation) is hugely exaggerated. By this I mean that the huge vertical cliffs add considerable drama to the experience of hiking, boating or driving around the islands. The major islands, with around 80% of the population, are connected by roads, causeways, bridges and even sub sea tunnels. Distances are not large, so driving around would not take up a considerable amount of time. Unless you are on a guided tour, going about the islands on regular bus services is feasible but may be cumbersome. I decided on renting my own vehicle for the sake of freedom and efficiency. The outlying islands are less inhabited, less visited and served by ferries and even helicopters.

What will keep you occupied on the islands is more likely to be the wish to walk around in the villages and hamlets, or hike to a hilltop or to a particular cliff. Marked footpaths will guide your way. Look out for numerous cottages, boat-houses, chapels, 70,000 sheep, 2 million seabirds and fabulous views around every corner and every bend of the road.

There is much weather on the islands, in the sense that the islands are vulnerable to the unpredictable storms, rains and winds of the North Atlantic. The temperatures are remarkably stable year-round, ranging from 5.8 in January to 13.1 in August. Bring warm clothes and rain gear. If it’s not raining, it will most likely be overcast. Visitors will be lucky to experience a bright, sunny day during their visit. The result of all this is green and deep blue. Green mountains, green valleys split by blue fjords and surrounded by the vast blue ocean. 

 

Denmark - Faroe Islands - Funningsfjørdur - Funningur

The village of Funningur

 

Accommodation and food

There are hotels and hostels in the major towns, and there are home-stays, cottages and AirBnB all around. I chose the latter, four nights in Tórshavn. There is no disadvantage about staying in one place, like Tórshavn, because distances are favourable. 

You will be able to survive on hamburgers and pizzas. You will be much better off tasting the local cuisine. Be prepared for meat (particularly mutton), seafood and potatoes. Do not expect too much fresh veggies in a traditional meal. Mutton comes dried or semi-dried (ræst kjøt) and fish is matured (ræstur fiskur). Whale meat is a delicacy and so is seabird and puffin meat and eggs. Beer is commonly drunk, strong spirits not. 

The collage below is from Restaurant Ræst in Tórshavn. I wrote this on their Facebook page: 

“Offering a set tasting menu of at least six (actually eight) courses this quaint little restaurant by the harbour is probably the best introduction you can get. Set inside one of the oldest buildings of the preserved part of downtown Torshavn one will also get a feel of how residential houses used to be furnished. The service is impeccable and the food very well prepared. Fish, lamb, whale, blood. This is traditional and this is wholesome.”

 

Denmark - Faroe Islands - Torshavn - Restaurant Ræst

Menu and dishes served at the wonderful restaurant called Ræst in Tórshavn: Aged fish; salad, seeds and cheese; blood sausage and sauerkraut; aged lambneck, cabbage and rutabaga; stewed rhubarb.

 

Some of the same dedication is found in the nearby Aarstova. Outside of Tórshavn I would like to recommend the home-made apple pie and service at a small café in Eidi. It has no name but is situated on the street of Heimtún. One of the days I ended up in Viðareiði. That is as far northeast as one gets in a car. Here I visited Restaurant Hjá Elisabeth and wrote this on Tripadvisor:

“An unusual place to stop and eat: Being in a remote rural place in the Faroe Islands one should not expect too much. This is not gourmet, this is basic, traditional cuisine in a basic dining room. As such it is very good. I had the guillemot as I have not tasted it before. (It is not puffin as some other reviewers think – puffins are illegal to hunt.) I found the service good, the food was good (or at least interesting) and the lady serving was nice talking to. It is not cheap and there are few (none) alternatives around.”

 

What to explore on the Faroes?

The map below is to be explored. You may zoom in and out, click the markers for some more information. I made it before going to the islands and then added more sites and attractions as my four days and nights in 2016 went by. 

 

 

Lexical information about the archipelago is found on Wikipedia. Tourist information is available at Visit Faroe Islands, Faroe Islands Tourist Guide, and on international websites like Lonely Planet and Wikitravel

This series from the Faroe Islands consists of several posts.

(1) Introduction (THIS)

(2) Tórshavn, the nicest little capital in the world

(3) Medieval Faroese history at Kirkjubøur

(4) A boat trip to Hestur, Koltur and a concert in the caves

(5) Attractions on Eysteroy, Borðoy and Viðoy islands

(6) Attractions on Streymey and Vágar islands

There is also a video from this visit in 2016.

 

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