'It's Iceland Meets New Zealand' – Exploring Europe's Most Epic Archipelago

Faroe Islands Gasadalur waterfall
Photo by FedevPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Paul Bloomfield, The Telegraph, January 16, 2020

The Faroe Islands are becoming particularly popular with intrepid cyclists

I can’t help thinking that the Vikings missed a trick with their tourism marketing. Don’t get me wrong, the intrepid Norse folk who settled on the Faroe Islands mostly did a fine job, imbuing this North Atlantic archipelago with mythology to inspire the most legend-hungry visitor.

A vertiginous precipice near Sandavagur? That’ll be Trollkonufingur, the troll-woman’s finger. Brobdingnagian rock stacks, Risin and Kellingin, rising from the waves north of Eidi? A witch and a giant who, while attempting to steal the islands and drag them back to Iceland, were turned to stone by the rising sun. But at the critical moment of naming their home, inspiration failed. Foroyar, you see, translates as the much-less-than-epic “Sheep Islands”.

True, it’s hardly an inaccurate moniker. The Vikings who landed here in the ninth century were less the raping and pillaging kind, and were more keen on fishing and rearing livestock.

Today, 80,000-plus hardy ovis graze these 18 craggily handsome islands – nearly double the human population. Yet as I pedalled between fjords and grass-roofed churches, far more click-baity names sprang to mind.

Kingdom of Birds, perhaps: puffins, razorbills and guillemots cling to sheer cliffs, while whimbrels, oystercatchers and golden plovers breed inland. Maybe the Waterfall Islands: dozens of cascades stripe hillsides and coasts. Or World of Weather: Oh yes, there’s weather.

To say the climate is capricious on these windswept isles would be a spectacular understatement. Locals regularly trot out the “four seasons in one day” adage. Perhaps that’s why just a few intrepid bikers currently tackle the meandering roads. But that’s surely set to change. Today’s marketeers are a more ambitious bunch.

Over the past couple of years, two online Google pastiches, Sheep View and Faroe Islands Translate, have bagged headlines. Hotel openings reflect and fuel the steadily rising visitor figures – and growing numbers of those will be pedal-ready.

The benefits are many: you can cover more ground than on foot, but at a more relaxed pace than by car, allowing ample opportunities to stop to chat to locals, sample flavours, watch wildlife and snap vistas. That was the theory that brought me to the Faroes on a week-long self-guided trip.

The practice was both more rewarding and more challenging than I’d anticipated. Rewarding, for the Iceland-meets-New Zealand scenic splendour, and the unique cultural melange: though officially part of Denmark, the Faroes has its own flag, traditions and language.

It’s challenging, not just because of the weather, but also because of the… let’s say undulating terrain. Thankfully, tunnels have taken some of the sting out of those undulations, as I discovered.

Landing on the westerly island of Vagar, I was soon astride my rented bike and scooting along the coast of the Sorvagsfjord. Ahead loomed Tindholmur, a stegosaur of basalt rearing from the waves, and a hamlet appeared: dinky Bour, a cluster of cabins clinging to the shore.

On I rode, finally emerging from a tunnel for the big reveal: Gasadalur, turf-roofed farmhouses scattered across a glacial bowl, serenaded by the Mulafossur waterfall crashing into the sea. This is the end of the road, literally and figuratively: until the tunnel was bored just a decade ago, there was no road – the postman made the two-hour hike from Bour three times a week.

After crossing east to the largest Faroe, Streymoy, I took a side-trip to Vestmanna, where I boarded a boat to chug past rafts of puffins. Then, en route to Runavik, I detoured past cottongrass, buttercups and pink ragged robin to Saksun. This most faerie-eerie of Faroese settlements comprises a church and a handful of houses, one of them a farm in a style little changed since the Middle Ages.

Runavik itself, an industrial fishing port, is a good base for a loop around the peninsula to Toftir, home of the national football stadium (miss your penalty here and the Gulf Stream will whisk your ball to Spitsbergen). Across an alluringly bleak wind-turbine-topped moor is Aeduvik, the site of an ancient Viking parliament.

Next on my cycling saga was the lively little capital of Torshavn. In “Thor’s Harbour”, lined with rainbow-hued warehouses, fishing tubs bobbing at anchor were dwarfed by a city-sized cruise ship; fortunately, it’s easy to lose the day-trippers in the quaint old quarter, Tinganes. More importantly for ravenous bikers, Torshavn is the place to feast – and I did.

At cheek-glowingly cosy Barbara restaurant, a suitably flaxen-hair waitress poured steaming stock from a teapot onto chunks of cod and leek to create hearty fish soup, washed down with fine local brew Foroya Bjor.

One last ride took me to ancient Kirkjubour, site of the first, medieval bishopric, funded with wealth from driftwood and seaweed. Hopping off the bike, I circled the ruins of gothic Magnus Cathedral, its stone walls five feet thick, and Roystovan farmhouse, another grass-topped gem dating from the 11th century – reputedly the oldest-inhabited wooden house in Europe.

And finally, at the shore’s edge, I gazed out past the layer-cake summits of Sandoy, mesmerised by surf battalions marching in across the wild Atlantic – an end-of-the-world vista for the end of my ride, worthy of any Viking epic.

Essentials

Magnetic North Travel’s (01664 400103; magneticnorthtravel.com) seven-night self-guided cycling holiday costs from £1,595pp, including B&B accommodation, luggage transfers, bike hire, map and route notes, but not flights. Atlantic Airways (atlanticairways.com/en) flies direct to Vagar airport from Edinburgh (from about 1,700 Danish krone/£200 return); alternatively, you can connect via Copenhagen.

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This article was written by Paul Bloomfield from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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