ONE OF THE newest routes in and out of Edinburgh is the Atlantic Air route to the Faroe Islands. Sounds far away, but whilst the islands are remote, the flight time is just over an hour. I can never resist checking a new place out, so off I flew on Friday morning and back on Monday night for a long weekend exploring.
Flying in was a pleasure for the plane was comfortable, and staff great and the view of the Islands spectacular. Flying out a disappointment as such heavy fog/low clouds (hard to tell the difference) that the view was hidden from sight.The flights are a sign of how small a community the Faroes are, it seems everybody on the plane knew everybody else. This carried on through my weekend, cars and buses stopping in the road to talk to each other, boats stopping next to each other to chat about whatever, they appear to be a close knit bunch.
I based myself in a fairly spartan hostel in the centre of the worlds smallest capital city, Torshavn. It does not take long to find your way around, one of the first places I stumbled across in a labyrinth of old wooden buildings, many with grass roofs, by the port was the Office of the Prime Minister. Just a normal wee old building, no security, nobody sitting at the desk inside, just a wee sticker on the window so I knew what it was. A polite older man came out the office as I snapped a photo, said hello, and wandered off. Was he the PM? A civil servant? The PMs partner? I've no idea, but what a difference to our offices of state with their security barriers and grumpy armed police who won't even open a gate to let a minister cycle though.
Not sure they're overly political about their language, or if I just look like a local as every conversation started in Faroese. Everybody was very comfortable and happy switching quickly to English though, so I'm liking thinking that I passed as Viking... The Faroes are the closest to Vikings left, their language, their DNA and plenty of old ruins of Viking villages to stomp around.
Torshavyn has a football stadium, a parliament, old church, a graveyard and a busy harbour. Only the parliament is unique in the country - every settlement seems to have a football pitch, ancient Church and graveyard and a harbour. There is a beautiful garden cemetery in Torshavyn with some of the only trees on the island. I never saw anybody actually kicking a football or at Church, but the harbours were all go. I treated myself to a kick about at the infamous old national stadium at Toftir were Scotland's flairmeisters ground out firstly a famous 1-1 draw, then followed up by snatching a 2-2 draw with the mighty Faroe Islands football team. Stadium was deserted when I visited, but had 20 odd footballs lying around. I enjoyed a game of long bangers vs myself, then penalties kicks before a bit of roll play, recreating Matt Elliot's elbowing a hapless Faroese striker on the stroke of half time & trot down the tunnel after the inevitable red, then recreating the incomparable Maurice Ross missing his header so that the Faroes could go 2 up... Good times!
There's food and drink in Torshavyn, from fine dining to cheap take always, but there is a common theme. If you are not big on seafood or lamb you are probably going to be stuck with a cheap take away pizza. But if you are into seafood and lamb then you are in for a treat, and if you like whale, then you are in whale heaven! I managed to resist the temptation to partake in a "Pilot Whale Buffet - all you can eat £35". I'm not sure how much whale I could eat in one sitting, but I know I could not eat a whole one.
The whaling is controversial, and the locals are very much on the look out for the Sea Shepherds, and enjoy getting one over on them. They were keen to make sure I was not an undercover Sea Shepherd. One of the kinder ways I heard them described was "Misguided young people. They are a little bit lost at home, they join a gang, and their particular gang likes to run around playing pirates. They grow out of it, and new folks join the gang." Sounds a little Dread Pirate Roberts to me. They liked my story of seeing lots of people wearing Sea Shepherd T-Shirts whilst island hopping in Asia. I had asked a few of them if they were in the Sea Shepherds and was laughed at "no chance, we just thought the T Shirts looked cool".
I am unmoved by it all. I have no desire to catch a whale and eat it. I have no desire to chase a fox across the country and shoot it. I have no desire to cull guga (baby gannets) on the Isle of Lewis, but am I moved to pass judgment on those that do? No, I'm content to let folks decide for themselves what they want to eat, what they want to cull, how they want to control pests. Just so long as they don't kill the last one.That said, the little boy in me still finds the idea of joining a gang of pirates attractive...
The drinking was familiar stuff, a dark lager being quite typical, but the pubs around the harbour being interchangeable with similar pubs in the likes of Orkney. Same sort of characters telling the same sorts of stories, and well used to Scots blowing in. Our referendum even came up more than once. Faroes have a positive relationship with Denmark. Independent, but with a currency union, shared monarchy etc. I never met any Faroese who thought that they should go it alone, or that we would have been wise to. The drinks were pricey enough at £4.50 a pint on average, but there's always ways around that. A local pointed me in the way of the busy pub on Friday night. They called their Friday night Monkey Night. For £10 you can drink all you like all night... Most of the pubs have live music, and there's a busy festival scene that goes on and as it is never dark there just now, it gets darker for an hour or two, but it's never dark, so it is hard to know when to head home from the pub.
Anyhow, quaint enough as the capital is you don't visit the Faroes for the capital. It's an outdoor paradise. It's messing about on the water, or in the hills. Visitors are all hiking, bird watching, hiking, fishing, hiking, sailing, hiking, diving, hiking, driving, hiking and taking photographs of it all. The biggest hazards on the roads are the sheep that are, literally, everywhere. The second biggest hazard is some tourist in their waterproofs parked up inappropriately on a dangerous bend of a mountain road with their tripod set up hoping for that little break in the clouds that gives them the perfect photo. I almost took out half a dozen of them in 3 days...
I hired a car to get around. Public transports OK, and if I had more time than a long weekend I would have used it - not least for the subsidised helicopters that form a key part of their transport network. Alas, I was short of time, and the roads looked like great fun to drive so a car it was.
The roads are great. There is no messing about with infrastructure in the Faroes. They are building airports, spending vast sums of money blasting tunnels through mountains and under the sea and have a smooth road network with a distinct lack of pot holes. I wonder where our apparent reticence to get on with building bridges, airports/runways, trams, railways etc. comes from? The Victorians were certainly not so shy, neither are the Faroese.
I enjoy speed. The roads were well tarmacked, the roads were quiet, the hire car in good nick, there were no speed cameras, I saw only one policeman in my trip, did I have fun? Of course I did, but not by speeding. It's not just the sheep and apparently suicidal photographers, it's the outstanding scenery and the weather that keeps you honest, and as well as one of my favourite things ever. Having nowhere to be. It's a chilled out, relaxed place. The Islands seem to have a competition to see what one is most relaxed, and that rubs off in a most positive manner. With all the mountains, tunnels and the likes the radio reception was ropy at best, so I bought two CDs of popular Faroese artists. Eivor was singing gentle songs of heartbreak, and Tyr, a metal band singing about death, blood and Valkyria with the odd Pantera and Iron Maiden cover thrown in for good measure. After persevering for two days I broke, and bought a Beastie Boys album.
The scenery though. When Eleanor Roosevelt clapped eyes on the waterfall at Iguazu she exclaimed "Poor Niagra", when I drove down the tourist route to the tiny village of Saksun I thought to myself "Poor Glen Coe". That will have to do for a description of the drive there, and for Saksun itself as it's hard to do it justice otherwise.
My outdoors pusuits of choice were diving in the kelp forests of the Northern Isles, and fishing off Stremoy and Vagar in a small boat out of Vestmanna. I caught plenty cod and haddock, and found some German drinking buddies on the boat. We drunk beer, caught fish, and laughed and shared stories of skua attacks, it is there nesting time just now and they are fearsome! The Dive Centre and Blastein the fisherman both have great businesses, and a real nice way with tourists, but both seemed to have a similar lack of confidence in marketing to us Scots who are so close to them.
The Faroe Islands are super, no wonder National Geographic have acclaimed them as the must visit destination for 2015.Easily accessible from Edinburgh and plenty to do in a weekend or a couple of weeks, what are you waiting for?