Land Of The Faroes

Cy­clist ex­plores this re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago in the North At­lantic – a rugged, un­spoilt land where the grass re­ally is greener

Cyclist - - Contents - Words STU BOW­ERS Pho­tog­ra­phy GE­OFF WAUGH

Cy­clist heads to the re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago in the North At­lantic to dis­cover a land of wa­ter­falls, tun­nels and vast land­scapes

he land­ing gear came down some time ago so we must be close to the ground, but as I stare out of the win­dow all I can see is white. Our plane is about to touch down (I think) at Vá­gar Air­port in the Faroe Is­lands, but the dense cloud and lash­ing rain means I’ve not yet had so much as a glimpse of land. It oc­curs to me that the pi­lot es­sen­tially has the same view as me, and I grip my arm­rest a lit­tle tighter and try not to think about how fast we are ap­proach­ing the tar­mac. Mo­ments later, the aero­plane lands with only the mildest of bumps and rolls to­wards the few small build­ings that make up the Faroe Is­lands’ main travel hub. I’ve no idea what tech­nol­ogy is in­volved in guid­ing an 80-tonne air­craft safely to the ground in zero vis­i­bil­ity, but I’m thank­ful for it all the same. One dead-to-the-world sleep later, the scene that greets my eyes on draw­ing back the cur­tains in my ho­tel room is al­to­gether more wel­com­ing. The weather gods have smiled on us – the rain has gone and the sun is shin­ing, be­stow­ing the ocean with an invit­ing shim­mer (al­though not so invit­ing that I’m tempted to dip even a toe in its icy waters) and bathing the hill­sides in an oh-so-vivid green.

I’m re­lieved. The weather can be un­pre­dictable in this re­mote part of the world, and we could quite eas­ily have been fac­ing a ride in the fog and rain. Imag­ine a tri­an­gle con­nect­ing Scot­land, Nor­way and Ice­land, and the Faroe Is­lands are slap-bang in the mid­dle, a jum­ble of jagged peaks that drop ver­tig­i­nously into the At­lantic Ocean. Cov­er­ing the is­lands is a car­pet of green grass and moss that clings to the ex­posed rocks, mak­ing this place more nat­u­rally suited to sheep and sea birds than hu­mans.

This may go some way to ex­plain­ing why the Faroe Is­lands has a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of just over 50,000, which is about the same as Clac­ton-on-sea.

It’s like a ghost town when we ar­rive at our start lo­ca­tion in Klaksvík af­ter a short drive from the Ru­navik Ho­tel, where we stayed overnight.

‘The town is still fast asleep,’ says Høgni (pro­nounced huug-na), a lo­cal ride guide and my com­pan­ion for to­day. ‘The mu­sic fes­ti­val will have kept them up late last night.’

The Faroese (which when said by lo­cals sounds like they are call­ing them­selves fairies) love mu­sic al­most as much as they love fish, and there are nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals held through­out the year. This par­tic­u­lar Au­gust week­end the Faroe Is­lands’ se­cond-big­gest town is host­ing the largest of them, the Sum­mer Fes­ti­val.

The sun is not yet high enough to pre­vent the sur­round­ing hills from cast­ing the town into shadow, so it’s a chilly start as we be­gin our jour­ney through eerily

de­serted streets. Høgni tells me one of the head­line acts at this year’s fes­ti­val was 1980s Amer­i­can band Toto, and im­me­di­ately my head fills with their hit song ‘Africa’.

I qui­etly curse Høgni, as I know the rest of the ride will now be con­ducted to the in­ter­nal sound­track of ana­logue synths and Toto’s pe­cu­liar abil­ity to some­how cram too many lyrics into a sin­gle line: ‘ As sure as Ki-li-man-ja-ro ri-ses like O-lym-pus a-bove the Se-ren-ge-ti…’

We pass a round­about with a 10-me­tre-high fish­ing hook in its cen­tre, a re­minder of the Faroe Is­lands’ big­gest in­dus­try, which ac­counts for 97% of its ex­ports. Then again, that’s hardly sur­pris­ing given this rel­a­tively small land mass claims 1,100km of coast­line.

‘You’re never fur­ther than 5km from the ocean, and prac­ti­cally every road is a coastal road,’ Høgni says cheer­ily, al­though ahead of us the road sim­ply dis­ap­pears into a black hole in the hill­side. Tun­nels are also com­mon, con­nect­ing the clus­ter of 18 is­lands be­neath the fjords, so as not to dis­rupt the ship­ping chan­nels that are their life­line.

Some of the tun­nels we en­counter to­day we’ll be able to cy­cle around, but this one, just over 6km long,

is un­avoid­able. It takes us un­der the Leirvíks­fjørður from the is­land of Borðoy and onto Eys­turoy. It’s well lit and fine to travel through by bike, plus some mul­ti­coloured light­ing ef­fects mid­way add to the nov­elty. The first half is ac­tu­ally a fairly fast de­scent and passes in a flash, but the climb back out is sur­pris­ingly tough, re­mind­ing me just how far we are be­neath the sea.

Reap­pear­ing into day­light in the town of Leirvik, we turn onto a nar­row road cut into the hill­side, which takes us around a penin­sula to be greeted by our first panoramic views of the Faroes’ in­cred­i­ble land­scape.

It re­minds me of the open­ing se­quence of Juras­sic Park. Moun­tains rise steeply from the fjords, their slopes blan­keted in rich greens. The ver­ti­cal crags look to be formed of layer upon layer of crum­bling rock, mak­ing them look al­most ar­ti­fi­cial.

As we climb up the hill­side, colour­ful fish­ing ropes are lined out along the road to dry. There are enough of them that they could cause a haz­ard to traf­fic – if there was any. But there isn’t a car in sight as we crest the hill and drop quickly into the val­ley be­yond, be­fore turn­ing north along the wa­ter’s edge at Skálafjørður. We’re head­ing for Gjógv

Fish­ing ac­counts for 97% of the Faroes’ ex­ports. Then again, that’s no sur­prise given this rel­a­tively small land mass claims 1,100km of coast­line

The bends are wide and open, with good lines of sight, so we can re­ally crank up the speed

(pro­nounced jeg-v) on the north­ern coast, which is a long drag up through a val­ley into a head­wind. For­tu­nately, I’m dis­tracted by the scenery. Wa­ter­falls plum­met to the road­side from the steep rock faces, the spray creat­ing rain­bows in the sun­shine. High up ahead we can see the road travers­ing like a scar be­neath the Faroe Is­lands’ high­est peak at 882m – Slæt­taratin­dur.

From this di­rec­tion the climb carves a sin­u­ous path into an am­phithe­atre of rock that closes in on us the higher we climb. Look­ing back I can see the coloured houses of Fun­ningur, a toy town dwarfed against the land­scape.

Witch­ing time

Wig­gling through Gjógv’s tiny, nar­row streets it seems un­likely we’ll find a cafe here, but of course Høgni knows ex­actly where he’s go­ing. I’m in­trigued as to the rea­son for the houses be­ing so tightly packed, al­most on top of one an­other, es­pe­cially when there is so much open space.

‘It’s be­cause the peo­ple were afraid of trolls and witches, so they built close to their neigh­bours, hud­dling for pro­tec­tion and safety,’ Høgni says with a straight face as we sip our cof­fees. Many of the build­ings have a thick wad of grass turf cov­er­ing their roofs too, which Høgni ex­plains is noth­ing to do with ae­rial cam­ou­flage but is in­stead to pro­vide ad­di­tional in­su­la­tion and to help pro­tect the roof from the harsh storms that can bat­ter these coastal vil­lages.

‘Most of the res­i­dents will have lived here all their lives,’ Høgni adds. It’s cer­tainly a peace­ful ex­is­tence here, where the pure air is punc­tu­ated only by the sounds of na­ture.

Our only exit out of Gjógv is the way we came in, which means a climb, but with our sugar and caf­feine lev­els brim­ming we make light work of it and are soon en­joy­ing an­other thrilling drop off the other side of the moun­tain. The bends are wide and open, with good lines of sight, so we can re­ally crank up the speed.

As we descend, I catch a glimpse of one of the Faroe Is­lands’ most fa­mous land­marks: two pil­lars of rock emerg­ing from the sea called Risin and Kellingin (the Gi­ant and the Witch). Leg­end has it that a witch came with a gi­ant from Ice­land to try to steal the Faroe Is­lands. The witch’s plan was to use the might of the gi­ant to drag the is­lands back across the sea, but as she tried to tie a rope around the moun­tain they lost track of time and at the

We emerge blink­ing from the mouth of the tun­nel af­ter spend­ing the last 4km un­der the sea

break of dawn the sun­light turned them to stone. At the bot­tom of the de­scent, Høgni points out a road on the other side of the fjord, on the ad­ja­cent is­land of Strey­moy. As the crow flies it’s probably half a kilo­me­tre away, but to reach it we’ll have to ride much fur­ther, first down one side of the fjord to reach a cross­ing point be­fore com­ing back up the other side. But with so much beauty around us, the ex­tra kilo­me­tres are not a hard­ship.

Høgni wants to take me to Tjør­nu­vik, which re­quires a bit of a de­tour from our main route, but he prom­ises the views will be worth it and, be­sides, he’d like me to meet a friend who makes the Faroes’ most de­li­cious waf­fles.

The town sits in a cove with a sandy beach, where just a hand­ful of brightly coloured houses dot the shore­line be­neath a horse­shoe of steep cliffs.

‘Waf­fle Man’ turns out to be an ec­cen­tric lo­cal gent named Hans Ed­vard. His home­made waf­fles re­ally are de­li­cious, along with his rhubarb jam and cream, which he serves from a tiny shack. By the time I’ve washed two down with some black cof­fee so strong I could have stood my spoon up in it, I’m ready for any­thing when we set off on the climb from the shore­line back up onto the hill­side.

To the ends of the Earth

The sunny skies of this morn­ing have been re­placed by a cloudier out­look, but at least the wind is now at our backs as we head south at the side of the Sun­dini Fjord.

We emerge blink­ing from the mouth of the Vá­gave­gur tun­nel af­ter spend­ing the last 4km un­der the sea. We’ve reached the fi­nal Faroe Isle we’ll visit to­day, Vá­gar, and are faced with what Høgni tells me will be our fi­nal test­ing

as­cent too. A wide hair­pin af­fords us a view of the fjord we’ve just rid­den un­der, be­fore the road turns in­wards to face the hill­side and we be­gin the grad­ual 2km climb over the ridge be­fore a fast de­scent to the town of San­davágur, which from a dis­tance looks as though it is made of Lego.

A few kilo­me­tres later we pass the air­port and I’m left even more in awe of our pi­lot’s abil­ity to land a plane in such ad­verse con­di­tions as we had yes­ter­day. The airstrip looks barely long enough for a plane to touch down with­out plung­ing off the end and into the fjord.

Our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is Gásadalur, a lit­tle way along the coast. To get to it, we need to ride through a 1,700m tun­nel that was bored through the moun­tain as re­cently as 2006, Høgni tells me, and al­lowed Gásadalur to prop­erly con­nect with the rest of civil­i­sa­tion for the first time in its ex­is­tence. Pre­vi­ously the town was only ac­ces­si­ble by an ar­du­ous hike over the moun­tain on a steep trail, some­thing the post­man had to do two or three times a week. There were, Høgni sug­gests, vil­lagers who had never pre­vi­ously left their en­clave, and there is even one oc­to­ge­nar­ian woman who to this day has never set foot out­side Gásadalur.

Yet its re­mote­ness is a part of its beauty. Gásadalur sits perched on a cliff edge like the last vil­lage on Earth, while the river that runs through it drops spec­tac­u­larly over the cliff and into the sea to cre­ate the Mu­lafos­sur Wa­ter­fall, one of the Faroe Is­lands’ most fa­mous at­trac­tions.

We un­clip from our ped­als and spend a while just star­ing at the wa­ter­fall as the set­ting sun tinges the damp rock faces with pink, and puffins swoop over our heads as they re­turn to their nests on the cliffs. It feels like the most idyl­lic end to any day I’ve ever had on a bike. Stu Bow­ers is deputy editor of Cy­clist and still has ‘Africa’ stuck in his head. Al­to­gether now: ‘I hear the drums echo­ing tonight…’

Gásadalur was once only ac­ces­si­ble by an ar­du­ous hike over the moun­tain on a steep trail, some­thing the post­man had to do two or three times a week

Right: The town of Fun­ningur is dwarfed by its sur­round­ings when look­ing down on from the high­est road climb in the Faroes

Wa­ter­falls, vast land­scapes and colour­ful towns that from a dis­tance look like they’re made out of Lego: a trio of fea­tures that de­fine the Faroe Is­lands

Clues to the Faroe Is­lands’ big­gest in­dus­try – fish­ing – are ev­ery­where. Al­though tourism is its se­cond largest busi­ness, rather pleas­antly this is a land that still feels al­most to­tally undis­cov­ered

Fin­ish­ing in Gásadalur, ac­ces­si­ble only via a small tun­nel through the ad­ja­cent moun­tain, feels very much like we’ve en­tered into an­other world. The wa­ter­fall that crashes over the cliffs to the ocean be­low is a spec­tac­u­larly fit­ting sight to end on

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