Over the years, men from the small village of Mikladalur have slowly disappeared. Killed at sea amongst the swirling waves of the North Atlantic, they have tragically fallen from fog-shrouded cliffs, drowned whilst fishing, or simply found themselves overpowered by the powerful storms that so often batter this region.
But their deaths are no accident. Instead, they are the result of a curse cast by Kópakonan: the notorious ‘seal woman’ of the Faroe Islands. The story goes that after years of being held captive on land, Kópakonan escaped and returned to sea, reunited with her husband and children. Years later, when the villagers murdered her family, she returned to land – angry and distraught. Here, in front of the village, she declared that the men of Mikladalur would meet unexpected, watery deaths, until so many had died that they could link hands around the shores of the island of Kalsoy.
With a thunderous clap, she disappeared.
Today, all that stands in her place is a statue: the bereft Kópakonan, clutching her seal clothing. Windswept and alone, she is a reminder to the men of the village of the dangers of the ocean and the mythical magic of the Faroe Islands.
I read this Faroese folktale as we came into land at Vagur airport, the Faroe Islands gateway to the rest of Europe. After witnessing an incredible sunset, the skies had rapidly darkened, filling with storm clouds and mist. Peering out of the window, I could make out a rugged landscape dominated by craggy mountains and cliffs; only half-visible through the fog and now pelting rain. Suddenly, the story of Kópakonan seemed entirely believable: a magical tale from a mysterious land, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. With a history of Vikings, giants, witches, Nordic Kings, Irish monks, Scottish settlers and of course, seal people, the Faroe Islands has borne witness to a dizzying number of different civilisations since the year 300. It is a time capsule – an open air museum – braving the winds and storms of the Atlantic, somewhere between northern Scotland and easterly Iceland. Once isolated, but now slowly opening up to tourists, the Faroe Islands represents a word too often used by travel bloggers – unique.
Arriving the airport – the size of which was similar to my own flat – I looked at those that had arrived with us. Mostly, these seemed to be native Faroese people, returning from a trip to Edinburgh. Smiling and dressed in the distinctive knitwear made famous by Nordic Noir dramas (think Sarah Lund in The Killing), they clearly knew what awaited them outside of the warmth of the airport. The rest of the Faroe Islands’ new arrivals seemed to be experienced tourists, carrying with them hiking gear, photography equipment and bird spotting essentials. As they eventually disappeared into the night, I glanced nervously at my boyfriend. This was our first holiday together and whilst most couples would head for a 7 night all-inclusive in Greece, I had dragged him to a country that most people hadn’t heard of. Or at best, thought was somewhere near Egypt.
We found our way to the car rental desk and collected our loyal Toyota for the week. As we turned to leave, the man behind the desk shouted: ‘be careful – they say a storm is coming tonight’. I quickly looked up at Mike, who was staring ahead into the darkness and rain, before glancing at the narrow winding roads and sub-sea tunnels detailed on my map. I squeezed his arm and prayed for us – and our relationship.
After shouting across the wind at each other as we searched for our car in the now inky darkness, we set off – crossing two of the Faroe Islands 18 volcanic islands, to reach our hotel in the country’s capital (and, as it happens, the smallest capital city in the world) Torshavn. Whilst Mike bravely gripped the steering wheel and drove us through the seemingly endless undersea tunnels, I took some time to read up on this place.
Home of the oldest Parliament meeting place in the world; 70,000 sheep; 50,000 people; 3 sets of traffic lights; and one Nobel Prize Winner, the Faroe Islands is both remote and cosy. It’s a place where villages total just 5 houses and where the Prime Minister’s phone number is in the phone book. Its name – ‘Faroe’ – means ‘sheep’, and was given to the islands by Viking settlers in the 9th century (although you’re more likely to encounter its Faroese name Føroyar, during your stay). It’s a country now owned by Denmark, but fiercely proud of its own Faroese traditions: complete with its own dialect, flag and 110 different bird species. It is a place of spectacular beauty – of waterfalls, turf covered cottages, lagoons, and lakes that float atop cliffs. It’s a place declared the ‘new Nordic food frontier’, offering diners unbelievably fresh fish, sushi, lamb and if you fancy it, wind-dried sheep’s head.
It is, according to the hype, Europe’s best kept secret.
After a 45 minute drive (everywhere looks much further away on the map), we crossed from Vagur to the island of Streymoy, home to Torshavn. Here we would be staying in one of the island’s most iconic hotels: Hotel Føroyar. A low rise hotel, set into the rolling green hills, each room looks out over Torshavn and the ocean. The brainchild of leading Danish architects, Friis & Moltke, it’s clear to see that Denmark’s love of style is shared by its Faroese siblings.
I climbed into bed and lay down in our dark room. The soundtrack outside was one of gales, rain and frantic sheep trying to take shelter from the storm. It sounded like one was trying to get in through our window. I thought about Kópakonan, out there somewhere in the wind and rain, and of the Islands’ lighthouses shining brightly out to sea. I felt a world away from home – and it was incredibly exciting.
When I opened the curtains the next morning, it seemed we were floating in the middle of a cloud. Ahead of me was thick, white fog that, when I opened the window, rolled into the room. Gone was the view of the ocean and the capital, and the only evidence I had that we were still on land was the sound of the odd confused sheep, stumbling around outside. Lesson one when visiting the Faroe Islands: the weather. From bright sunshine, to thick fog, the Faroe Islands’ geographic position in the middle of a gulf stream means that the weather is changeable, to say the least.
After dressing for a few different weather systems, we set off for our first day of exploring: beginning with Torshavn. This pretty little harbour is the epicentre of the Faore Islands, featuring the Prime Minister’s office (you can knock on the window and wave in), the main shipping port, beautiful boutiques and award-winning restaurants. Filled with paintbox coloured wooden houses and traditional turf covered cottages, it’s an easy introduction to the people and culture of the Islands. First stop was the historical quarter of Tinganes, with its buildings dating back to the 17th century.
Tiny, winding streets, filled with cottages as high as my shoulders surrounded us; their windows filled with carved wooden ornaments and pretty net curtains. Cats prowled the lanes, hiding among the flower pots and colourful bikes, and porcelain fish decorated the buildings. It was the Faroese dream and here I was, living it.
We were there for over an hour before the rain forced us inside (and when I say rain, I mean biblical like floods). Running across the harbour, we headed towards the nearest shelter: the lithography studio, Steinprent. A second lesson quickly learnt when visiting the Faroe Islands: their love for the arts and crafts. Famous for their penchant for knitting, the old Faroese proverb “Ull er Føroya gull”, literally translates to ‘wool is gold’, and is an important source of income for the Islands. Shops filled with intricately knitted jumpers can be found throughout the capital, and wool is used by many native artists in their work. The visual arts are also on the rise, with venues such as The Nordic House (in Torshavn) showcasing the work of native artists. Steinprent, where we were headed, was a similar mecca for artists across Europe; offering creative sorts the use of Lithography stones to create unique pieces of art.
Walking in out of the storm, the studio was warm and smelt of a mix of limestone and paint. In the corner, two men quietly discussed an exhibition that was soon to take place, examining beautiful prints to hang. We were greeted by the owner’s son, who welcomed us upstairs into the studio to take a look around – away from the now torrential rain. Walking upstairs we were met with a large, light studio, filled with colourful prints, sculptures and workstations. In the middle stood an enormous German press; used during the printing process. It was carefully explained to us that during the lithography process, artists would sketch directly onto limestone slabs, before ink was added and the print was pressed onto paper. The oldest form of printing, it was surprising to see what intricate prints this medium could produce. For anyone interested in anything remotely arty, I’d definitely recommend visiting here – I could have stayed all day.
By now, the rain had cleared a little and so we we made the quick trip over to Kirkjubøur: home of the magnificent Magnus Cathedral built in 1300; Saint Olav’s Church, from the 12th century; and the world’s oldest inhabited wooden house, Kirkjubøargarður. As we arrived, a watery sunlight had pushed its way through the clouds, making the sea glitter and the little white church shine brightly. There wasn’t another soul in sight as we made our way over to the cathedral, just the sound of the sea and diving seabirds. It was incredibly peaceful.
Perhaps my favourite site was Kirkjubøargarður, the old wood cabin. After an aborted attempt at entering it (walking into the inhabited part of the house and being stared at by a child and suspicious dog), we eventually found the door and were welcomed into the visitor’s section of the cabin. Unbelievably warm and quiet, the only sound to fill the tiny space was the creaking floorboards beneath us. The home is furnished as it would have been in the 11th century, filled with traditional cookery tools and decorations. At the top of the house, hides the loftstovan (loft room). It is supposed that it is here that Bishop Erlendur wrote his now infamous Sheep Letter in 1298. This is the earliest document of the Faroes we know today, concerning sheep breeding on the Islands. Peeking through at the snug room, with its small wooden desk and books, I could entirely imagine Bishop Erlendur looking out at the stormy seas, whilst writing about his many sheep.
With the storm clouds now making their watery return, we made our way to our final destination of the day: the stadium in Torshavn. Yes, unbelievably, we were going to see a World Cup Qualifier as the Faroe Islands took on Hungary. Arriving to crowds of smiling Faroese locals – wrapped tightly in ski jackets and woollen scarves – they gazed, slightly confused, at Mike and I in our jeans and ‘trendy’ denim jackets. Sure enough, as we took our seats on the front row, I felt my jeans slowly absorb each and every raindrop, before eventually losing sensation in my feet. However, ten minutes in and this was all forgotten. My usual experience of football matches includes frequent abuse hurled at referees and predictable chants. But not on the Faroe Islands. As the match began, a little brass band gathered at the end of the pitch, starting up its many tunes. I have no idea what the songs were, but they were very melodic; sung by the many fans around me. I felt like I was in an alternative Scandinavian musical. By the end of the match, after some near-misses from the Faroese team, I was singing along to the songs (with made up words); clapping and jumping around with my new Faroese friends. It was an incredible night and an unforgettable introduction to the Islands.
Leaving the stadium a little damp, I had high hopes for my next day on the Faroe Islands: a place that was quickly becoming one of my favourite places on earth.