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Fit for the Faroe Islands

July 05, 2009|Catherine Watson

THE FAROE ISLANDS — From the mountaintop road above Kvivik, green slopes fell steeply away to the sea, drawing my eyes outward, over the village, to the soft shapes of other islands drifting in the pale blue distance. More than a thousand years of Faroe Islands history lay in that view. It was like looking at a map of time itself.

Kvivik is a Viking village -- the real thing, not a restoration -- perched exactly where its ancient founders wanted it, deep in a narrow fiord where the sea was calm. On a beach, where boats could be drawn up and driftwood gathered. At the mouth of a stream, for fresh water. Among grassy hillsides, where sheep and a cow or two might graze.

The town is bigger now, of course, but not much, and it boasts electricity, television and a few e-mail addresses. All the same, if its original settlers were to pull their longboats up on this beach in the ultra-north Atlantic, they would feel right at home. They could even stay with relatives.

Two friends and I were doing almost that in September, though we couldn't claim longboats or Faroese blood. We were renting a farmhouse in a seaside village over the mountain from Kvivik. Our landlord was a fisherman who raised sheep when he wasn't at sea -- just as his ancestors did.

I'd have come to the Faroes for the light alone -- the clear light and those sweeping views. But I had trouble explaining it to folks back home. Why the Faroes? Because they were so far away. Because I knew almost nothing about them. Because, thanks to an old travel book I'd come across, they sounded interesting.

The author was a Victorian lady adventurer named Elizabeth Taylor, a Minnesota writer who hated cold weather but loved the far north and spent years in the Faroes, including all of World War I. She's virtually unknown in the States but famous here for, among other things, documenting village life and giving art lessons to the islands' first painters.

Art would have been inevitable, I think, even without her. The Faroes are a painter's landscape, ready-made for abstraction. Wind and weather keep details at bay, reducing geography to its essence. Land. Sea. Sky. Nothing more.

There is no softness here, no luxury except the intense color of the grass that covers the islands' harsh bones like an apple-green pelt. When it rains, the mountains look enameled.

There are no trees. No native land animals. No predators, unless you count people, and there aren't many of them either. The population is about 48,000, not quite half of them in the bright-roofed harbor-side town of Torshavn, the Faroese capital.

An unexpected place

Technically, the Faroes aren't an independent country; they're a Danish possession with home rule. But they feel like their own country. And they're certainly separate from everything.

They are the crests of underwater mountains -- 18 shards of dark-gray basalt jutting abruptly out of the sea, distantly surrounded by Iceland, Scotland, Norway and, even more distant, Norway's Spitsbergen island. The islands are mostly long and skinny, with so many lobes and inlets that you're never more than three miles from the sea.

I expected the climate to be cold so far north, but it wasn't: This is where the Gulf Stream ends, and temperatures range from 37 degrees in winter to 52 degrees in summer. In late September, I needed gloves only once, but a rain jacket every day.

Change and permanence

The weather changed so often, and so fast, that each day felt like many days. One morning, I kept track: splinters of sun, a calm moment of warmth, then wind so fierce it thrashed the shrubs and grabbed at my clothes, then a blast of stinging rain as sharp as cold sand, then sun again -- and that was just before breakfast.

But my friends and I were lucky: This is a place that measures its annual sunshine not in days, but in hours. Torshavn gets 840 hours a year, on average. Even with near-daily rain, we had more than our share.

Summer tourists do better, and there are plenty of them to enjoy it. In June, July and August, nearly 50,000 visitors flood in, largely from Iceland and other Scandinavian countries.

If we'd been here in summer, the bird cliffs on Mykines would have been thick with nesting puffins -- the little yellow-beaked cuties that have become a Faroese symbol. Tour boats would have been cruising past the sea caves near Vestmanna. There would have been festivals in the villages, and everywhere the renowned dancing societies would have been performing, accompanying their age-old circle dances with nothing more than sung ballads and stamping feet.

But by mid-September, the puffins were gone, and so were the tourists. Museums had switched to winter hours, and even then we were sometimes the only visitors. Tour boats weren't running -- bad weather, too few passengers. The dancing societies were taking a break, and the whole place seemed to be exhaling. Even the manager of the Torshavn tourist office was about to go to England with her hiking club to walk Hadrian's Wall.

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