We stand on deck as the ferry slices through banks of North Atlantic mist, then suddenly a vast berg of rock looms forward, and another, like Odin’s lost war fleet, anchored somewhere off Valhalla. Arrival by sea in the Faroes is a memorable experience. A few houses huddle by the water, weatherboard walls smartly painted in burgundy or blue, many with a turf roof. The narrow roads look exposed, edging along shorelines or snaking up into the clouds. Cycling here is clearly going to involve real physical effort.
“The sport is in its early stages here,” says Berit at the Rent A Bike shop after we have walked the short distance up from Tórshavn port. “Drivers aren’t used to seeing bikes and sometimes they don’t know what to do. But they mean well. You’ll find the tunnels a challenge.”
For the second stage of my no-fly bike ride to Iceland, I’ve been joined by my son, Conor, and it looks like I’ll need the support. Our goal is to work our way across as many islands as possible. There will be many long climbs, strong headwinds and several single-track unlit tunnels. We start with a “training ride”, guided by Bartal, husband and business partner of Berit, heading south on to the island of Sandoy to visit the gorgeously antique Mølin cafe at Skálavik. Bartal spent much of his childhood nearby, helping out at his grandfather’s farm. In fact we soon find ourselves roped in to herding sheep. “It’s a form of communal herd ownership,” Bartal explains. “An office-worker in Tórshavn might have a few and turn up once a year to help at shearing.”
Next morning Conor and I head out of Tórshavn through our first tunnel, an intense experience as lorries roar past in the dripping darkness. Later we cross a bridge to Eysturoy island and take a side road, climbing through many twists and turns. In steep-sided fields, hay is drying on wooden racks and we are invited to try clipping sheep by hand. Faroese life is rapidly modernising, but traditional rural rhythms still set the pace.
Our first night is on the idyllic Hanusarstova Farm in Æðuvík, where we are treated to delicacies such as skerpikjøt, fermented air-dried lamb. There are supposedly 37 words for fog in Faroese, but for us the sun shines.
Next day we press on through a deep sub-sea tunnel and reach Klaksvík, the Faroes’ second city. A short ferry ride then takes us to Kalsoy, known locally as “the flute” because of its many tunnels: rough-hewn unlit caverns punctuated by deep valleys where we disturb clouds of birds such as whimbrels and snipe. In one small village we chat to the owner of the shop. “The men have gone to hunt puffins,” she says guilelessly. “I usually pop a few in the freezer for Christmas.”
Unfortunately, the traditional Faroese way of life does involve the open slaughter of cute wild animals. Outsider criticism is resented. “They have good lives out in nature and we eat every bit,” one whale-eater pointed out to us. “In more ‘advanced’ societies, they kill genetic mutants behind closed industrial doors and throw half of it away. Which is better?”
On the island of Bordoy we join fisherman Samson Højgaard on his boat, picking our way along the epic cliff faces, through sea caves and out to where gannets are diving. “My grandfather came from the remote island of Fugloy,” he tells us. “Legend says that its position wasn’t fixed until Christianity arrived. It floated around, somewhere off the north coast. When the priest came, the trolls ran away and it stopped moving.”
Conor and I exchange a glance. This place sounds intriguing.
Back at Samson’s summer house, his sister Kristianna and cousin Olga cook the fish we’ve caught. The wonderful house is unchanged in over a century: simple furniture, old books and paintings of the views you see out of the windows. Kristianna becomes determined we should visit Fugloy, telephoning the small B&B on the island, and the captain of the small ferry. “The weather is very changeable. He says he can go tonight, but tomorrow– who knows?” she shrugs.
The voyage is down long, dark fjords under vast cliffs. I lean on the rail and chat to Sigmar, a retired sea captain, now deck hand, who tells hair-raising tales of the old days. “In winter, snow slid off the clifftops and sank the boats.”
As the island comes into view we slam into a strong tidal race, the boat pitching and rolling. A small clutch of houses stands above a cliff where we pull in, edging closer and closer to the rocks, the waves sucking and exploding inside the gap until Sigmar nods and we leap. The bikes get hoisted over by crane.
Human life clings to this place by a thread. Amalia in the Kalalon á Kirkju B&B tells us that her father, Absalon, now 90, went to school here with 50 other children. Now there’s no school and only three permanent residents. Having landed with bikes, we cannot ride them: the wind is too strong. We climb the hill and gaze out on a vast wild waterscape of ferocious whitecaps to the north. Somewhere out there is Iceland.
Conor debates with himself whether to stay on Fugloy for ever, and when the storm is still blowing next morning, it looks as though we both might have to. After breakfast, however, the ferry appears, smashing through the waves. Our bikes are hoisted aboard and we embark. Iceland is calling.
The trip was provided by Visit Faroe Islands. Smyril Line sails from Denmark to the Faroes from £65pp one-way with bicycle. Accommodation in Æðuvík provided by Hanusarstova Farm which has a self-catering cottage that sleeps four people from £281 a night, with dinner by arrangement; accommodation in Tórshavn was provided by Hilton Garden Inn, which has doubles from £95 room only. Hotel Foroyar has doubles from £130 including breakfast