Biking on Vágar island
DISCOVERING THE FAROE ISLANDS BY BICYCLE
Words and photos by Daan Remijnse
Looking ahead, I try to perceive some shape. However, the view is limited to the gray of the road and the hazy green of grass. And sometimes a group of sheep or geese that curiously look up. Where are those steep mountain peaks in the country where the water cascades into the ocean via winding rivers through green valleys and waterfalls along cliffs? The paradise of birds where puffins fly agile and playfully around. For now I have to settle for grazing sheep. The adventurous image of the remote islands in the middle of the Atlantic is quickly adjusted upon arrival. A thick layer of fog keeps the archipelago in its grip. Through patches of fog as the view extends, I suddenly see the silhouette of a bay appearing along the coast… it awakens my enthusiasm.
It takes some searching on the map. Between Scotland, Iceland and Norway, you will find 18 islands close together. About 50,000 people live in an area of 113km by 75km. The archipelago with a coast length of 1,100km is part of the Kingdom of Denmark with autonomous self-government and its own flag. Archaeological findings indicate the existence of Irish monks who arrived here in the 7th century. The settlers must have had a hard time. The country is continuously plagued by depressions and storms for which the North Atlantic Ocean is known. With an average height of 300 meters, the granite rock overgrown with grass turns into cliffs and bays. Due to the absence of trees, there is virtually no natural shelter from the strong wind. Vikings followed the Irish. They built small houses with washed up wreckage and seaweed. The wooden houses in different colours with peat roofs are still visible today and give villages a picturesque appearance.
One of the locals taking a stroll on the highway
FERRIES AND TUNNELS
During my bike ride, I soon discover that bicycling across the islands is a physical challenge and not for the faint-hearted. Not only the strong winds, but also the steep roads and dark tunnels through mountains turning into hairpin bends to villages on the coast require a considerable effort. I stay at an altitude between 500 meters and the deep-sea tunnels take me to roughly a hundred metres below sea level. Nowhere flat, sometimes very steep and the water always close by. And, occasionally, a ferry that takes you to the other side. It makes it varied and gives cycling an adventurous experience. A surprise awaits after every turn and every tunnel (if there is no fog!).
THE ROUGH NORTH
After a few days, I make my way north to explore the islands there. Along the way, you can enjoy the undulating landscape, full of green mountain ridges that stretch the length of the island. To the west, winding side roads through verdant valleys lead to coastal villages surrounded by high cliffs and gorges in the volcanic rock. The highest mountain at 880 meters, Slættaratindur, can be found in the north of Eysturoy Island. Whoever takes one of the many trails can rise above the low-hanging clouds and be lucky enough to take the perfect (insta) photo. The road I take stays on the side of the mountain and goes through fishing villages that are built on the water and ends in Klaksvik. It is a thriving fishing town, surrounded by mountains and water with about 4,000 inhabitants. There are many jobs and life is good. There is a football stadium, a beer brewery, some catering and an annual music festival with international artists.
The ferry to Kalsoy island
"The Seal Woman" statue on Kalsoy
The view from Hotel Klaksvík
The ferry ride from the port in Klaksvík to Kalsoy takes 30 minutes. The narrow island has a longitudinal mountain massif that protrudes to 700 metres in the middle. The road passes by and rises steadily to a height of a few hundred metres with a stunning view of Kunoy Island. Narrow dark tunnels of up to 2km connect the few families who still live here. Not long ago, the villagers were forced to hike the mountains for visits. Those unmarked routes are now traveled by tourists and are not without danger. The villages are places where myths are perpetuated. Similarly, the story of Kópakonan, “the Seal Woman” who has cast a curse on the village of Mikladalur. A bronze statue on the rocks references this story and has invited on-lookers since 2014, becoming an island landmark.
With about 120,000 visitors a year (2019), the islands are still relatively quiet compared to surrounding countries. In comparison: more than 2 million tourists travelled to Iceland in 2018. Many people prefer Iceland and only make a short stop in Torshavn during the ferry crossing from mainland Europe to Iceland. A growing awareness of the Faroe Islands and improved airline connections that significantly shortens travel time will probably lead to more visitors in the coming years. The challenge for the islanders is to protect their greatest asset (its nature) and to limit the negative impact of tourism. Taking the bike and experiencing the natural beauty of the islands can make a difference. And, therefore, the slogan of Visit Faroe Islands, which is Unspoiled, Unexplored, Unbelievable, will remain intact.