Part 1: The Faroe Islands
“Where are you going for your holiday?” “Iceland”
This usually elicited the response “Ask them for our money back” or “Can you get me a bag of chips”… Ha ha, everyone’s a joker!
This trip was going to be to Russia originally, with our friends John and Sonia, but Sonia decided she wasn’t very keen on returning to Russia. Something to do with Kalashnikovs and the Traffic Police. So somewhere along the line we decided to go to Iceland as it was sufficiently different to be interesting and the roads are reported to be excellent for motorcycling.
We wanted to take our GSA (and John and Sonia their new Triumph Explorer) which meant flying was out of the question so we’d booked on the eye-wateringly expensive Smyril Line ferry via the Faroe Islands. It didn’t start well when Kevin managed to break the sun visor mechanism on his fairly new Schuberth C3 crash helmet the night before we left but fortunately he has a couple of spare lids. The ferry leaves from Hirtshals at the top of Denmark so we had a long ride from Calais; the familiar, boring ride along the top of Belgium, Holland and Germany with what seemed like more than the usual sprinkling of road works.
As usual I amused myself by ‘I spy’ ing, this time I was looking at the transport lorries. Sorry, logistics lorries. When did transport become logistics? (Probably at the same time that the ‘Personnel department’ morphed into ‘Human Resources’). Why do they all want to have silly slogans? ‘sure we can’ (unless it’s a Saturday), ‘we live for logistics’ (oh please) and ‘miles ahead’ (as we overtook).
I also added another country code to my bingo card – FO. I assumed this was for the Faroe Islands, a surmise that was confirmed once we arrived there (and later, IS for Iceland).
Anyway, we had an uneventful, thankfully dry, ride to Hirtshals via an overnight stop in Hamburg and a very long wait for the ferry which departed two hours later than advertised. When we got onto the ferry and into our rather nice cabin we noticed we’d got sunburned faces. Not something we’d expected on this trip.
We arrived on the Faroe Islands last night and as we disembarked from our ferry we rode into Tórshavn to discover the SatNav didn’t have any roads, all we could see was the destination flag for our hotel. After a few wrong turns and asking people who appeared to be in various states of inebriation we were finally pointed in the right direction and found the Hotel Hafnia, our home for the next three nights. If we’d only looked properly we’d have seen the hotel was visible from the ferry – it’s got the biggest name board in the town!
“Welcome to the Hafnia” – “That’s weird” I thought, “the Faroese accent sounds very English”… so I was not surprised to learn that the man on the desk was from Tamworth. He’d been in the Faroes for four years and declared it was “the last civilised place on earth”.
When we woke up we were pleased to see it wasn’t raining, just lightly overcast. At breakfast we decided to go north and east to the town/village of Gjógv (don’t ask me how it’s pronounced) which had been recommended by the receptionist as being on a good biking road. We’d meet up with John and Sonia for lunch there. Our plan for the holiday is to arrange meeting places and make our separate ways there so we can be as slow/fast as we want to be without being a nuisance for the other pair, unless we particularly want to ride together.
After a few circuits of Tórshavn while we tried to escape the town, we found ourselves on a road alongside a fjord with tall, rugged-looking rocks on the other side. As we rode round the islands we realised this was a typical scene. There were hundreds of waterfalls, many of which looked quite depleted if the size of the surrounding cut-outs were anything to go by. We assumed there is a lot of snow melt after the winter and indeed there were a couple of patches of snow nestling at the top of some of the hills.
An idea of how cold it gets here in the winter can be gained from looking at the many sheep that are grazing on the rocky grass. They are the shaggiest sheep I’ve ever seen. The colours range from regular white, to jet black, to a black and white mixture, grey and even ginger! As they moult their wool gets very ragged; we saw one which was dragging a six-foot trail of wool around with it.
The final road to Gjógv was a mountain pass with fantastic views and a lot of cyclists looking rather worn out. Once in the village we parked the bike and explored. We paused for a while at a very poignant memorial behind the church which consisted of a statue of a woman and a couple of children looking sadly towards the coast. Behind the statues were a series of plaques containing the names of people who had been lost at sea.
Most of the islands seem relatively sparsely populated with the odd smallholding dotted around. Then you come to an edge where there will be a town, sometimes quite small, nestled in a cove; or large and sprawling round the fjord or sea inlet.
The islanders have gone to great lengths to join the various islands and we travelled through many tunnels which were rather dark and dank. Some of the tunnels were pitch black and single carriageway with regular passing places. The non-priority side has a series of lay-bys every 100m or so which the drivers go into to allow the priority direction cars to come past. The cars turn off their headlights when they are parked but as we couldn’t do that without turning the bike off we got flashed a lot.
That evening we had a lovely lamb-leg-for-two (times two) meal at a local restaurant called Arseover (or something like that!) in Tórshavn. When we finished we were the last people in the restaurant – I think people must eat early here – and we wandered the long-way back to our hotel past the old houses. It was strange walking round in daylight at nearly 10 pm.
The weather this morning wasn’t as good as yesterday’s. John announced he’d needed his hat, gloves and jacket for his morning constitutional so I put my electrics on and changed my gloves to the warmer, waterproof ones. Our first stop was the tiny village of Kirkjubøur which had been the ecclesiastical and cultural centre of the Faroes during the Middle Ages. The village is dominated by the ruins of the 12th centry St. Magnus Cathedral which was swathed in scaffolding when we visited. Most of the old houses in the village have the traditional turfed roofs and it really feels like the end of the world. An avalanche in 1772 and sea erosion caused major damage to the Cathedral and other original buildings but there are still some old houses, one which has been in the same family for 17 generations.
We then went north, past Tórshavn again and round the town until we eventually found the badly-signposted and very foggy ‘10’ road which we needed to take to get us to Vestmanna where the Saga Museum is housed. The museum uses waxwork tableaux to help you imagine what it was like over the centuries on the Faroe Islands since the Irish monks first arrived. They were ousted by the Vikings and then various landowning factions fought amongst themselves causing havoc within the population. Add to this the Black plague which arrived on board a trading ship, the pirates that regularly raped and pillaged and the harsh environment leading to people being hung or beheaded for stealing food and you wonder why anyone would have wanted to live here at all! We have a suspicion the museum may have picked out the more grisly aspects of Faroese history…
Our next meeting/stop was at the farthest west village of Gásadalur with its lovely waterfall cascading down into the sea. Until 2004 when a tunnel was built under the mountain allowing vehicular access, the only way to get to the village was by sea, air or over the mountains. This lack of accessibility caused the population to dwindle and, according to Wikipedia, there were only 16 people living there in 2002. There is a winch and a long set of steps from the beach that was built during the British occupation in 1940 but it must have been extremely difficult to get supplies in.
On our way back we retraced our steps over the mountain in the hope the very low-hanging cloud would have retreated enough to be able to see the panoramic views we had been assured we could see from there. Unfortunately it hadn’t but we had an entertaining ride up a very narrow mountain road which ended in what appeared to be a military base carved into the mountain. No photos allowed so you’ll just have to imagine the Thunderbirds-like entrance! There was another road that looked like it went even higher but ‘one of us’ (i.e. me) didn’t want to go any higher when it was so foggy (we’d crawled up to the base at 17mph as visibility was so bad) so we went back down to the road below the clouds and headed back to our hotel.
We spent the morning mooching round the town as we could see the mountain was still wrapped in cloud. A local bike shop had a poster in its window advertising a bike meeting at Hunneva in Iceland but they were unable to tell us where on Iceland that was. According to one of the shop girls the ferry can be up to half a day late depending on the weather and whether the stabilisers are working. When we told her we were two hours late coming in she said that was quite normal. We must have been lucky this time as the ferry came in on time and actually left about ten minutes late.
So what did we think of the Faroe Islands? They are an interesting place to visit. The roads are very good. For a country with a population of less than 50 thousand their per-capita spend on roads must be huge. I think we saw only 2 sets of road works and one of those was on the main road where they were installing a new cattle grid – people had to give way to the other side traffic and everything went very smoothly. The drivers seem to be very polite towards other road users, although they rarely acknowledged if we gave way to them, and they seem to be very careful and cautious. On occasions we slowed down to let people pass as we were looking at the scenery and they just slowed down with us.
The scenery is more rugged than, say, Scotland. There seems to be more rock sticking out of the ground and there are fewer animals in evidence. Sheep predominate but we did see some cows, quite a few geese and there are a lot of salmon farms. Oddly enough, while most of the houses are wooden the only trees you see are in gardens. Where does all the wood come from?
80% of the Faroese people are Christians and there is a church in every town/village, usually right next to the water. They also love their art and most towns have at least one sculpture.
Eating out is expensive and a little bit odd at times. However, it can surprise you. We were offered an appetiser of toast and “cold mashed potato and fermented fish” which sounded gross, but was really quite nice – a bit like fish ice cream! I couldn’t persuade Mr Weller to try it, though.
I doubt we’ll visit again by bike but it has been an interesting experience and we’re glad we came.
There are more photos in the Iceland 2012 Album