May 21, 2014 00:00
By Lea Sibbel
The Faroe Islands, a Danish autonomous area, make for an interesting holiday
John Vaagseid describes whale hunting the way other farmers talk about raising hogs.
“This year the whales were a bit skinny,” he says. “That tells us that we should kill a few more so that the others have more to eat again.”
When you’re on the Faroe Islands, you find that talk quickly turns to whaling. And John Vaagseid is no exception.
Bus driver Vaagseid takes tourists and residents alike from island to island via connecting tunnels.
“You know when the whales are coming when everyone starts racing,” Vaagseid says. That’s the moment when as many residents as possible try to get out in the boats to try to herd the pilot whales to shore in order to kill them.
The restaurant Koks is located in the four-star hotel Foroyar in the Faroes capital Torshavn. With 20,000 people, it must be the smallest capital city in the world. It is in Koks that Leif Sorensen cooks and sells his catch from the Atlantic.
“We eat whale-meat the same way we did 100 years ago,” the cook says. Back then, the inhabitants of the Faroe Islands were dependent on whaling. “If we hadn’t caught any whales, we could not have survived on these islands.”
In the past, only two ferries loaded with grain arrived per week from the islands’ mother country, Denmark.
The 18 islands, located in the North Atlantic between Scotland and Denmark, are part of Denmark under international law. Since 1948 they have been an autonomous region within the Kingdom of Denmark, with their own parliament and premier.
Karl Mikkelsen, 69, long ago gave up his career as a fisherman. Now he lives in the town of Gasadalur on the island of Vagar. Rugged cliffs separate Gasadalur on the west from the ocean. In the north, east and south, steep mountains surround the small town. Often enough, the peaks of those mountains are shrouded in clouds.
This makes the town breathtakingly beautiful, but at the same time lonely.
It is precisely this isolation that provided Mikkelsen with a livelihood. He was the mailman of Gasadalur, a tough job. Three times a week he would trudge the old postal route along the ridge of the southern mountain of Rogvulkollur, 464 metres above sea level, in order to deliver the mail to the next village and to make some purchases for people back in Gasadalur.
Some days it was so stormy that he had to lie flat on the ground when he reached the mountain pass. Then he could only proceed further by crawling on all fours. That continued until 2006, when a tunnel was completed, which established a direct road connection with Gasadalur. Mikkelsens went into retirement.
The old postal trail still exerts a great attraction for hikers. But they are best advised to keep a close eye on weather changes while hiking through the Faroe Islands, where mythical creatures are said to also lurk unseen.
Randik Meitil can tell you all about the “huldufolk” – the “hidden people.” The woman with the fire-engine-red hair often drives out from Torshavn to go hiking, sometimes by herself, sometimes taking some tourists along.
The “huldufolk” are very similar to human beings, she will tell you.
Schoolteacher Meitil points to a rock inside which the “huldofolk” are living. The Faroe islanders will leave a cup of milk here in order to curry the favour of the hidden beings.
Such myths are still very much alive in the national culture. A few years ago, when a street near the cathedral was being laid down, the construction work had to make a detour around a large boulder, Meitil recalls.
The Faroe islanders knew that this particular boulder belonged to the “huldufolk”. Removing the boulder to make the street straighter was unthinkable:
Vigar Hvidbro has something else on his mind – the next football match coming up. Hvidbro is manager of the national football association, Fotboltssamband Foroya (FSF). Football plays a big role in the national pride of the Faroe Islands, which has separate membership in both the world football body FIFA and the European one, UEFA.
People still talk about a 1-0 victory over Austria – an event more than two decades ago. A problem is developing new soccer talent.
“Many players go away to study and never come back,” complains Hvidbro.
Simun av Skardi, however, is one person who did return. “We lived for 12 years in Denmark, but we were homesick,” says the teacher of German. He relocated with his wife to Sandoy in the southern part of the group of islands. The landscape there is gentler than on the northern islands, av Skardi says.
Atop the hills stand many typical Faroe houses with grass-clad roofs. Often, out front of the house there is a line on which fish are hanging out to dry, along with sheep meat and chunks of whale.
Just recently, the inhabitants of Sandoy drove around 130 whales onto shore.
“In twelve minutes they were all dead,” the retired teacher says. The scene was probably similar to that of a painting on the wall of his study at home – stranded whales in a sea red with blood.
Most Faroe Island tourists, thankfully, are spared such images. Instead, what will remain in their memories is the lush greenery, the rough sea, and the cloud-shrouded mountain peaks.