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