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Walk on the wild side in the Faroe Islands

Discovering Europe’s best-kept secret in the raw and rugged Faroe Islands

View of the Faroe Islands (Picture: Pixabay)
View of the Faroe Islands (Picture: Pixabay)

As the plane descended over the Faroes, I got my powerful first glimpse of these enduring islands: colourful towns perched on clifftops with waterfalls surging into the ocean. It was immediately evident that Mother Nature holds the reins here.

I’m passionate about the unspoiled wilderness, sweeping landscapes, the sublime rather than the pretty, so I was instantly transfixed by the Faroes. Rocked by the waves of the North Atlantic, this stunning archipelago is an invigorating destination for the intrepid — just over an hour’s flight from Edinburgh.

The airport on Vágar island is linked by tunnel to the island of Streymoy and the capital city of Tórshavn, so it was a straightforward 45-minute drive to some of the best hotels, shops and restaurants the islands have to offer.

With occasional sheep dotted along the bare roadside I realised that the Faroes had all the hallmarks of an atmospheric Scandinavian crime drama — the small communities, the isolation, the raw beauty.

In fact, Sarah Lund’s iconic jumper from the Danish drama The Killing is famously Faroese, designed and hand-crafted by the knitwear company Guðrun & Guðrun. Dropping into their central boutique in Tórshavn, I saw wispy creations of delicacy and beauty alongside chunky, practical knits for life in the wild.

Breaking away from the shops I checked into Hotel Hafnia, complete with colourful puffin murals decorating the walls, before setting off in search of local cuisine.

The 18 islands that make up the Faroes don’t offer up the most fertile of soil for the survival of their 50,0000 human inhabitants. Trees and grains don’t flourish here, hence a diet of fish, root vegetables and lamb. But I discovered that the Faroese are hugely imaginative with their distinctive local larder, and dining here is a delight.

View to the Faroe Islands (Picture: Pixabay)
View to the Faroe Islands (Picture: Pixabay)

In one staggeringly picturesque stretch in Tórshavn sit a cluster of the best eateries in the country. I booked a table at Barbara Fish House that boasts up an extensive fish menu including excellent salted cod, while nearby Etika is also renowned for its fish. For veggies, there’s Sirkus Föroyar with its veggie/vegan Indian food and craft beers.

Minutes from the intimate confines of the fish house, lie the iconic government buildings at Tinganes. With their vibrant red painted wooden houses, cobbled streets and notable lack of security, it felt like exploring a myriad of atmospheric community halls, but this is where the country’s big decisions are made.

The Faroe Islands are interesting politically: a self-governing country within the kingdom of Denmark since 1948, yet outside the EU, they have forged their own way in the world.

But beyond the comforts of the city, the islands’ epic landscape awaited. Be warned, the scale of Faroese scenery can leave visitors feeling dwarfed.

Following the cliffs from Tórshavn to the coastal town of Kirkjubøur took me along a trail on the top of the world. This two-hour walk, tracing a clear path for around four miles, provided views to other islands before I descended into one of the nation’s cultural hotspots.

Roykstovan farmhouse (Picture: Janice Hopper)
Roykstovan farmhouse (Picture: Janice Hopper)

Kirkjubøur boasts the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, and one of the world’s oldest inhabited timber houses, a farmhouse known as Roykstovan.

Protected from the elements with black tar on the walls, insulated from the cold with quirky grass roofs, and a splash of the islands’ signature red on the doors and window-frames, this farmhouse summed up life and survival on the Faroes. Inside, buoys crafted from animal guts, whaling harpoons, and ropes for catching seabirds, decorated the walls.

Út á Lónna is a second impressive walk at two miles long. Starting at the small town of Saksun, it’s possible, when the tide is safely out, to walk to sea to meet the Atlantic.

Passing quiet beaches and vigorous waterfalls I suddenly came face to face with the surging ocean. It’s a grounding sight: I quickly realised how tough survival must have been over the centuries.

Inspired by the sight of the Atlantic, getting onto the water was the next step. Driving to Vestmanna I set sail with Puffin Cruises. The captain, skilled at navigating narrow channels and dipping into dark, atmospheric caves, revealed an array of sea stacks, each with its own story.

One is shaped like an elephant, another was used as an initiation rite by islanders who climbed it to hunt seabirds. The seals, birdlife, salmon-farming and sturdy sheep balancing on the cliffs were a sight to behold.

Back at harbour I stepped inside Vestmanna’s Saga museum which, through a series of tantalisingly life-like dummies, tells the islands’ history. From the first Irish monks and the devastation of the plague, to Viking raids and tales of crime and punishment, this is raw history with lashings of drama, violence and beauty.

From the art, food and landscape to the weather and the history, visiting the Faroes is an unforgettable experience — and a perfect destination for those who walk on the wild side.