The Draw of the Faroes
Words & Photos: Chris McClean
The grey flannel fog sat on its little cat feet and hid the tops of the hills from the sky and the rest of the island, isolating valleys from their neighbours. Even though it was cold and wet, drizzle hung in the air, suffocating us as it blew in from the tunnel and out again down the damp slopes, following the glistening road and twisting down to the few small houses in the village below. It was a time of quiet contemplation and waiting. I longed for lunch, for warmth, for coffee, and a breeze to blow the fog and drizzle away. Above all I longed for light – not brilliant light, more a burst from the clouds for a split second, rays and shafts, streaks piercing the clouds – anything but the hanging mist.
A trip to the Faroes can quite easily fall into a highlights reel, a ‘best of’ compilation. I was conscious of this, but I wanted Paul, who was on a mission for XPDTN3, and Fiola to help figure out where we visited, it was their first trip and my second the islands. A plan was half-formed about revisiting old postal routes inspired by a photo essay we’d seen on the BBC, but Heigli and Alfred, two local cyclists helping us with our logistics, thought this would be too technical for our gravel bikes. So we planned our trip using komoot to link up all the spots we wanted to see, together with advice from the locals, and left a route collection there for those who wanted to follow our tyre tracks.
Chasing waterfalls and hanging lakes
When we reach our lunch stop at Café Fjorooy in the secluded village of Gásadalur, we see old brown photographs of postmen and women adorning the walls. Long daily feats to connect villages by foot in the snow, gales, and rainstorms just to check if there was post to be collected – normal back then – would be mammoth undertakings today. We sit, soaked to the bone, in what has to be one of the world’s most-photographed villages, consisting of a collection of small houses balancing above the Múlafossur waterfall. This was the first highlight we’d pinpointed on komoot to visit, a spot I’d missed on my last visit, so I was keen to get the quintessential Faroese shot of the waterfall cascading unimpeded into the ocean.
Gásadalur wasn’t reachable by car until 2005, trapped on all sides by 600m-high mountains. Goods, post, and supplies had to be landed by boat or by helicopter or walked in over the mountains. Perched on a clifftop, it beggars belief that it was inhabited at all. Until British troops stationed there in 1940 built a stairway down to the water, the locals would walk the arduous 6km to sail their fishing boats out from Bøur, the nearest safe harbour. We drink hot coffee, eat cold open fish, egg and salad sandwiches, and swap wet socks for dry ones that stay dry for all of 30 seconds after we leave the café. We ponder the stories and pictures. It’s enough of a mission on bikes via a perfectly constructed road in the rain, yet these hardy characters did it daily, no matter the weather.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
– Carl Sandburg
Slip slap slip slap slip slap go Paul’s tyres on the drenched tarmac. Slip slap slip, the rubber kicking up spray into my face – I daren’t drop back, don’t wanna get dropped or worse still hold everyone else up. Slap slip slap, I take it to the face. I’m getting rained on from above, in front and below as my own tyres fire water upwards, defying gravity. Slip slap slip, my mind wanders to a passage in Moby Dick where the narrator recalls spending time in a bed with Queequeg, a cannibal from the Southern Seas: ‘We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors… because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold.’ The warmth created forms a bond. I wish for that warmth, for a bed, for food, for dry clothes, and for my legs to stop spinning. But spin they do, for we have 30 bastard cold, wet and lumpy kilometres to go yet – slap slip slap.
I visit the canyon before dusk and the water is indeed freezing. It’s only then the rain stops and the clouds twist and twirl over the mountaintops creating the most beautiful reflections in the fjord below.
I had last been on the island of Vagar four years ago when, coincidentally, the first murder in the Faroes in 25 years had taken place: a lovers’ tryst, a body never found but presumed dumped in a fjord, an international chase for the killer, and a quarter of a century of peace shattered. It also coincided with the Faroes tourist boom. We struggled to find a big enough car last time for five of us and surfboards, but times have changed – there are now more rental cars than local cars, the planes are bigger, and so is the terminal. Locals all have a stupid tourist story to tell. The car that fell in the ditch, the drone the farmer shot down… but the main gripe seems to be the lack of thought the government has put into infrastructure and education on how to deal with the influx.
We hit a decent piece of muddy singletrack out to the lake Sørvágsvatn or Leitisvatn (the name changes depending whom you ask). It’s the largest lake in the Faroes and dubbed ‘the lake over the ocean’ or the ‘hanging lake’, as an optical illusion from a particular angle makes it seem as though the lake is hovering directly above the ocean. The impressive Bøsdalafossur waterfall empties into the sea at the end of the lake. It’s beautiful in the rain. We hit the increasingly muddy trail back to the road. Rain from our wheels, the passing trucks, cars and buses make it an uncomfortable but fast 30km of road – slap slip slap slip.
After showers, strawberries and cream, and coffee, all washed down with a Black Sheep beer, Alfred bundles our bikes into his trailer and takes us to a house in Elduvik where his mother cooks us dinner, fried fish, potatoes, carrot salad, and a sweet mustard sauce. To make us feel at home she has bought us a bottle of HP sauce. The islanders are often shy and reserved, resolutely stubborn, and don’t believe outsiders should tell them how to live their lives – but they’ll go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, and they are some of the warmest-hearted characters I’ve met. Alfred’s mother tells us about a deep-water canyon nearby the villagers use for swimming and I can only imagine how cold the water can get in the depths of winter. Dessert is a set rhubarb sauce with cream. Alfred tells us about how visiting football teams would be fed fish, potatoes, and rhubarb puddings before games so it ‘sat like a stone in their bellies’ – home advantage I guess.
I visit the canyon before dusk and the water is indeed freezing. It’s only then the rain stops and the clouds twist and twirl over the mountaintops creating the most beautiful reflections in the fjord below. I can still taste the grit and rain but all is forgiven as the road appears on the distant mountainside. We have to ride up it tomorrow. It winks at me, glistering in the newly found light, and I pray for the morning to bring half-decent weather.
Day 1 route: komoot.com/tour/47443816
Brutal Faroes switchbacks, a village called Gjogv, and Giant and Witch sightings
The weather is not bright but cloudy and blustery – compared to riding for six or seven hours in torrential rain it comes as a blessing. We take it easy riding out of Elduvik and around to Funningur, where the road bends inland and up a hellish series of switchbacks that seem to go on and on as the road climbs up Slættaratindur, the highest peak in the Faroes at 880m. It’s quite a climb; each twist throws out more and more dramatic views. We pause at the top to mark it as a highlight on our Komoot map for others to find and we watch the weather crashing against the mountains and down across fjords.
On the descent into Gjogv we hit 80kph, avoiding potholes and cattle grids as they flash by, and I remember Alfred’s friendly warning that morning to keep an eye out for wayward sheep. Going fast on these bikes feels good; adrenaline pumps and I’m hanging on a few metres back from Fiola. That descent will live with me for a long time, as will the childishly good skid at the bottom as we brake hard for the unpronounceable town of Gjogv.
From Gjogv we ride the 40km to Tjørnuvík, back up Slættaratindur, and round to Eiði. We see my old friends the Giant and the Witch or Risin og Kellingin, two famous sea stacks. Kellingin (the Witch) is the smaller one, closer to land and perched atop two ‘legs’; she has already started to crumble and is expected to collapse in the next few decades, so I’m glad she’s still standing there to greet us. Legend tells how the giants in Iceland were envious and decided that they wanted the Faroes. So the Giant and the Witch were sent down to the Faroe Islands to bring them back. They struggled through the night, but the islands were firm and they could not move them. If the sun shone on a giant or witch, they would turn to stone. So it was that as they continued to struggle they didn’t notice time passing, and as dawn broke a shaft of sunlight put a stop to their efforts by turning them to stone on the spot. They have stood there ever since, staring longingly across the ocean towards Iceland.
We have a ferry to Suðuroy to catch that night, so after waffles in Tjørnuvík and a surf check, we blast to Saksun where there’s a pretty little church and the farmer shoots down tourists’ drones. The church was originally built in Tjørnuvík, but in 1858 it was disassembled, carried over the mountains and reassembled in Saksun. We make the ferry and check in to our Airbnb in the town of Vágur. A Suðuroy local called Elin picks us up for a homestay dinner – this is where locals entertain you in their homes and give you a taste of island life. She treats us like royalty and the food is amazing. Plan are made to return for breakfast and, shattered from the day’s ride, we return home and turn in.
Day 2 route: komoot.com/tour/47443859
On the descent into Gjogv we hit 80kph, avoiding potholes and cattle grids as they flash by, and I remember Alfred’s friendly warning that morning to keep an eye out for wayward sheep.
‘Sumba on Suðuroy’ – a homestay, a mountain pass and return by tunnel
Breakfast is just as amazing as our meal the night before: salmon from the town’s fisheries, Elin’s home-made bread, jams, and even salt flavoured with lovage; her neighbour’s own honey, and eggs from another neighbour. It’s local food at its best, all sourced from that town and made freshly for us. She apologises for the coffee – ‘It’s from Peru.’
I’m talking to the sheep as they gawp rudely at me, probably looking at these mad humans climbing mountains on two wheels the same way we would gawp at pictures of bearded, wooly-jumper-clad postmen. The Faroes are brutal.
We head south to Sumba, a round trip of 75km and around 1,250m of climbing according to komoot. I’m trying not to let on but I’m conserving my legs at every opportunity. Part of the route is an old mountain pass, now superseded for most traffic by a tunnel that cuts straight through the mountainside and saves a great deal of climbing. I hesitate at the bottom, unsure I have it in me – but Paul hands me a treasured packed of Chimpanzee Jellies and with a ‘See you at the top!’ they’re off. I watch as they climb the old road that disappears into grey flannel fog at the top.
I’m talking to the sheep as they gawp rudely at me, probably looking at these mad humans climbing mountains on two wheels the same way we would gawp at pictures of bearded, wooly-jumper-clad postmen. The Faroes are brutal. I have a great respect for these islanders, how they’ve carved out remote lives for themselves, using the ocean and land to provide and sustain them, digging tunnels and passes to connect a few villagers here and there. It’s an incredibly dedicated, connected, hardworking and caring people that roam these islands. It feels like a step back in time yet a look into the future as they farm fish and dig tunnels, islands connected by helicopters and ferries that work in all but the very worst of weather. And once again I’m fascinated by how hardy the sheep are out there on the hills. There are stories of farmers bringing their flocks in to their houses in the winter to all huddle around the fire, sheep, farmers, geese, dogs and all. I can picture the scene as I climb and my legs scream.
After Sumba, we enter the Sumbiartunnilin: a very dark, long tunnel with no artificial lighting, and when I say dark I mean really fucking dark. I can’t see my hands on my bars, let alone make out the road. We stop to turn our lights on. The others quickly fade away, their lights evaporating into the black hole ahead. I ride on after them, turning my lights off to experience this unnerving space. Time stops; my legs are pedalling but I’m not moving. The lights go back on and 3.4km later we exit blinking into the sunlight, face to face with a rainbow. For the next few hours we cruise along winding roads that hug fjords and coastlines. It starts to rain heavily as we enter another long tunnel – thankfully lit this time – and exit to standing water and sunshine. Looks like we just missed an almighty downpour, we have a tail wind, and everything feels good. The light at the end of the tunnel is Cafe Mor Mor.
Day 3 route: komoot.com/tour/47443883
Typical Faroes fare has been ordered in advance in case we’re running tight for the ferry, but we’re not. We take our time over a rich lentil soup with bread lathered in salty butter, enjoying a spinach, apple and ginger juice, coffee, and a brownie for good measure in the uniquely decorated cafe. The ferry back is uneventful. I sit on the deck and watch a familar grey blanket smother passing islands. Reflected sunlight hits the cliffs as mist dances, and I watch fulmars and petrels plunge and glide alongside the crags.
In Tórshavn, Alfred meets us and takes us for dinner at the Barbara Fish House. It’s located in a delightful little house cut into the rocks, and has a fantastic menu consisting of locally caught Faroese seafood and Bouillabaise poured from a teapot. Our trip is coming to an end and Alfred takes us for a wander around the old town. The Prince of Denmark is in town aboard a lavishly garnished yacht – it looks overdressed amongst all the simple boats and fishing craft in the harbour, all reflecting in the stillness of the evening. I ask Alfred about that murder in 2012. He seems surprised I know about it until I explain I was here when it happened. ‘Oh yes, that really shook us up,’ he recalls. ‘A unique case based on a missing man, a blood-stained pillowcase and frying pan. And they only found the body recently.’
We change the subject as we walk. Alfred chatters away, and I remember from last time I visited how knowledgeable and proud the locals are of their islands. The prime minister’s phone number is in the phone book, he tells us. Geese in a field with sheep make for better meat. The facts and stories of island life roll on.
The fog has gone and it’s a crisp, still night. I want to stay to ride more and to see more, talk to more sheep, hear stories, and to photograph the passing sunlight as it finds weak spots and chinks in the mist’s armour that enshrouds the islands.
The fog has gone and it’s a crisp, still night. I want to stay to ride more and to see more, talk to more sheep, hear stories, and to photograph the passing sunlight as it finds weak spots and chinks in the mist’s armour that enshrouds the islands. It feels strange to be back in the city amongst shops, restaurants, and people after three days on the bikes. It’ll wait, I tell myself – I’ll be back.
The full route can be viewed here: komoot.de/collection/799/a-faroese-adventure-by-bike
Chris McClean is an award-winning director with a unique eye for a story. His first short film, Uncommon Ideals, told the tale of North Sea surfers and established Chris as an exciting new talent.
A highly experienced graphic designer, winning a D&AD in 2004 Chris has also worked on a range of projects from illustration, art direction and graphic design across arts & culture, music industry, retail, youth fashion and advertising.