The Faroe Islands intrigue Sam Vincent, who discovers moodily beautiful landscapes and a people who defiantly cling to their Viking ways.
"SAVE the whales - for supper." The saying is common in the Faroe Islands, where the locals are fed up with foreigners telling them they shouldn't polish off pilot whales simply because these are "majestic giants of the deep". Around here, the only thing considered majestic about whales is the resulting taste when cooked in pepper sauce.
The Faroe (sometimes Faeroe) Islands are a semi-autonomous Danish possession perched between Iceland, Scotland and Norway. A spectacular group of 18 jagged hunks of grass-covered basalt, they are celebrated for plump sheep, cute puffins and a national football side that punches well above its weight. But they are also widely condemned for the "grindadrap", a summertime pilot whale hunt that has come to define Faroese identity, much to the ire of the anti-whaling lobby. A quick Google search will give you some idea of its infamy; type in "Faroe Islands" and suggested options will include "Faroe Islands whale killings", "Faroe Islands whaling" and "Faroe Islands whale cull". I've come to the Faroes to explore what is perhaps western Europe's most intriguing country, though before I leave home I decide to leave my Greenpeace T-shirt in my bedside drawer.
Most bus journeys between airports and the communities they serve are dull affairs but not the one linking the Faroes' tiny airport on the island of Vagar to Streymoy, the archipelago's most populous island. For an hour the road clings precariously to the side of what look like giant upturned billiard tables; felt-green mountains rising straight out of the sea, punctuated by thundering waterfalls, stone shepherd's huts and the occasional hamlet of colourful cottages, their roofs often topped with turf. The 50,000 Faroe Islanders are connected by a series of impressive mountain and undersea tunnels and without warning the bus frequently plunges into darkness before emerging to reveal a new island or valley seemingly even more spectacular than the last.
Torshavn bills itself as the world's cosiest capital and on the sunny Friday afternoon I arrive it could also be the sleepiest. Black cats bask on the wharf, two boys quietly paint a wooden boat and in a downtown strangely bereft of traffic, I swear I can hear the breeze blowing through the grass atop Parliament House. But if I had expected a hick town of gruff fishermen and farmers (and whalers), I am pleasantly surprised by Torshavn's cosmopolitan and suave feel. Aarvegur, the main street, is lined with hip clothing stores showcasing creations made from Faroese wool, while at Tutl - "the only music shop in the whole world dedicated to Faroese music" - a group of bespectacled young bohemians are preparing to play a gig, as happens every weekday at 4pm.
After booking into my hotel, I meet Per Hansen from the Faroese tourist board for a drink in Cafe Natur, the first pub I've been to with a roof that needs mowing. It doesn't take long for the conversation to turn to the grindadrap. "It is perhaps the most communal event we have," says Hansen, a silver-haired man who, like everyone else I would meet, speaks fluent, articulate English. "When there is a grindadrap, everyone is taking part - priests, labourers, managers; not just poor people or traditional people." So has he taken part in one? "Sure, otherwise I would not be Faroese."
The sustainability of the grindadrap is not under question. The Faroese have kept annual records of the whale catch dating from 1584 and, amazingly, the numbers have held steady over that time. It is the method of killing that most upsets critics. After a pod has been spotted close to shore, men will herd the whales to a beach using motorboats. There, others will be waiting in the shallows to kill them with purpose-built knives and hooks. Advocates argue the method was designed by veterinarians to minimise cruelty; opponents contend it is a barbaric tradition with no place in the 21st century. Hansen tells me the spontaneous nature of the grindadrap means it is unlikely I will see one during my week here (there's usually three or four each summer).
The next day, I drive half an hour south of Torshavn to what is widely considered the oldest inhabited wooden house in the world. Joannes Patursson's family is
the 17th generation of Paturssons to occupy the turf-roofed farmhouse known as the Roykstovan, just outside the village of Kirkjubour. Originally built from driftwood some time in the 11th century, Patursson's forebears acquired the building in 1550 and every subsequent generation has farmed the adjacent slopes with sure-footed sheep and cattle. In his husky voice, Joannes explains that the Roykstovan has managed to stay in his family thanks to the fact that the Faroes are Europe's last bastion of primogeniture, a custom by which the eldest son of a family inherits everything; his siblings, nothing.
One room of the Roykstovan is now a museum and when we step inside my nose fills with the homely smell of wool, smoke and cured meat. Seventeen generations of Paturssons grew up in this low-beamed living room and it looks like they all left something behind, the walls and shelves packed with knick-knacks chronicling their hardy existence. There is a buoy made from a whale's stomach , a hemp rope for abseiling down cliffs to collect seabird eggs; wooden staffs for keeping your balance when looking for sheep in the mountains, nets for catching puffins, and a whaling knife (I smell the blade: rich and nutty). My silent amazement is interrupted by Joannes Patursson tapping me on the shoulder. "Sorry to leave you but I must check on my animals - it's been very dry lately." It hasn't rained in the Faroes, I would later read, for four days.
From Torshavn I head north to the island of Eysturoy, where in the village of Toftir friends of a friend have promised to show me "real Faroese places" and feed me "real Faroese food". Sarita and Rosa Heinesen are home for a few weeks from lives spent working at sea and quickly assume the role of my unofficial tourist guides. We spend four days driving and hiking around Eysturoy, Streymoy and Vagar, uncovering mystical, hidden valleys covered with wildflowers and isolated hamlets that were once only reached by boat. At Gjogv, a village short on vowels but big on charm, I see my first pair of puffins take to the sky, while in Saksun we take cover from a shower in a mediaeval church. The Faroese are Scandinavia's most pious people and every settlement has its own turf-roofed church. Ironically, though, the islands are also the last place in Europe to maintain the tradition of chain dancing, banned long ago elsewhere in Europe for its pagan origins. On long winter nights, Rosa tells me, entire communities will link hands to perform the dance, accompanied by loud singing in the Faroese language, an ancient Norse tongue that has barely changed since the first Viking settlers arrived in the ninth century.
Each night we return to Toftir and, inevitably, to another Faroese "delicacy". There is boiled raestanfisk, reconstituted dried cod that gives me stomach cramps; blodpylsa, a ram's-blood pudding spiced with cinnamon that is surprisingly delicious; and kjoet, fermenting mutton that reminds me of the meat we feed the dogs on my family farm. More appetising is the leg of lamb we roast one night with wild herbs. Faroese lamb is lean, juicy and flavoursome thanks to a combination of the animal's healthy life spent hiking the hills, pasture that is fertilised by seabirds and the salt-rich sea spray that is blown far inland by Atlantic storms. Then, of course, there is pilot whale.
In another tradition, it is illegal to sell raw whale meat in the Faroes; instead, when there is a grindadrap, residents are an equal share. Consequently, nearly every family has a stash of "grind" in the freezer. The meat is most commonly eaten as jerky but one night Sarita grills us steaks with pepper sauce. While I have mixed feelings about the grindadrap, I can't resist (after all, it tastes pretty damn good).
On my last afternoon in the Faroes, I walk high into the hills above Toftir, drizzle lashing my face as I follow a shepherd's trail into the mist. I am alone but not at peace: swooping fulmars harass me loudly, oystercatchers whistle as I pass, four windmills whir and, all around me, sheep are bleating. When I reach the top of the mountain the mist clears, revealing the southern islands of the Faroe chain. To my right is Streymoy, a series of creeks dissecting its slopes like dangling ropes; in front of me is Nolsoy, where storm petrels outnumber humans 3000 to one; and beyond is the dark shape of Sandoy. Without warning, the sun breaks through the black clouds, casting a rainbow over a lone trawler returning to Torshavn and making the hills, slick with rain, glow.
It is at that moment I realise the Faroe Islands are a place to be cherished. In a world of increasing conformity, the Faroese have remained obstinately themselves, doggedly clinging to their Viking traditions, even if they are not always politically correct. And as long as their stormy seas and their emerald hills allow it, they will continue to do so.
I, for one, am glad.
The writer flew courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Atlantic Airways.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Copenhagen via Singapore, priced from about $2100. From the Danish capital, Atlantic Airways plies the two-hour route to the Faroes, priced from $380 return. singaporeair.com, atlantic.fo.
Down by the harbour, Hotel Torshavn offers spacious rooms and mammoth breakfasts in a recently refurbished 1923-built property. +298 350 000, hoteltorshavn.fo.
For a more traditional experience, Gjaargardur is a turf-roofed guest house in the pretty village of Gjogv. + 298 423 171, gjaargardur.fo.
Torshavn's centrally located tourist office has trail maps and information about hikes across the archipelago. visittorshavn.fo.
Four things to do
The Faroe Islands have a vibrant music scene. In central Torshavn, Tutl is a great place to catch a gig and buy CDs. tutl.com.
For contemporary and traditional creations made from local wool, visit Torshavn's Sirri. sirri.fo.
The Roykstovan museum is open seven days, with guided tours by appointment. patursson.com.
Glasstovan, at the Hotel Foroyar, serves traditional Faroese cuisine, including fulmar and pilot whale. hotelforoyar.com.
Need to know
"WE ARE part of Denmark but not Danish," is a common refrain in the Faroe Islands. Although Copenhagen controls foreign affairs and the Danish kroner is the territory's official currency, the Faroese have enjoyed a large degree of autonomy since 1948. Their culture, language and darkly cynical sense of humour are much closer to Icelandic mores than to the Danish, as is their rainy climate.
As well as being home to 100,000 sheep, the Faroes are great for seabird spotting; their cliffs accommodate millions of fulmars, guillemots, gannets, terns, petrels and — the cutest of the lot — puffins. Mykines has the most puffins but, because the island is home to just 11 people, it's best to organise a guide through the Vagar tourist office.
On Nolsoy, home to the world's largest storm petrels colony, ornithologist Jens Kjeld Jensen leads dawn tours. vagar.fo, www.visitnolsoy.fo.