Travel

Magical realism in the Faroe Islands

In this Danish archipelago, fantastic landscapes, rare wildlife, and Nordic mythology lend a dreamlike quality to everyday life

  • May 19, 2020
  • 1,351 words
  • 6 minutes
A waterfall punctuates the green headlands of Gasadalur, a tiny village on the Faroese island of Vágar. (Photo: Chloe Berge)
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The setting sun pours its amber honey down onto a steep trail carved through meadows of emerald grass. I hike up the hillside, reaching a breathless, abrupt stop on a narrow ridge. A view of the tiny, turf-roofed village on Mykines — the most remote of Denmark’s Faroe Islands — is sketched in shadow in the valley below. On the other side of the vertiginous cliff, there’s nothing but the wild, churning Atlantic, and on the ridge’s edge, puffins strut and hop — hundreds of them. Their feathers ruffle in the briny wind as they huddle together, bobbing their bright orange beaks and blinking teardrop-shaped eyes. Spotting so many of them together, cast against the yawning ocean, feels like happening upon a congress of mythical creatures by accident.

Heightening the surreal scene is the utter lack of other tourists, or any people, for that matter. Isolated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and Norway, this string of 18 islands has managed to evade the world’s attention (for now) and on Mykines, the permanent resident count sits at just 14. Only accessible by boat or helicopter, the island is cut off from the rest of the archipelago during ice-hardened winters. But from June to September, travelers can venture over for a day trip, or, as my fiancé and I have chosen to do, spend the night. 

After arriving on an afternoon ferry from the island of Vágar, we stopped into The Locals Cafe in the middle of Mykines’ storybook village, where owner Katrina Johannesen sold us a camping permit for CAD$40. (There are also a couple of bed and breakfast options on the island.) “I was born here, left to study abroad in London, but I had to come back,” says Johannesen. Taking in the bucolic scene outside the cafe’s windows, it’s easy to see why.

Puffins perch on a cliff edge on Mykines, the westernmost of the Faroe Islands.
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The eponymous storybook village on the island of Mykines.
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The discovery of the puffins has slowed our progress on our three-hour round trip hike to the Holmur Lighthouse—a postcard sight that marks the western tip of the Faroes’ westernmost island—as we linger on this narrow sliver of land to marvel at the birds. They create burrows on these steep seaside cliffs during nesting season, from June to August, and are most social at sunset, the best time to spot them. Because the birds linger so close to the trail, hikers are advised to only observe them from a distance, sticking to the path and never touching chicks or eggs. The rest of the walk only grows more beautiful. Clouds of puffins and gannets soar overhead, fog cloaks the headland’s rocky peaks, and the salty wind whips around me in wild gusts, pulling my hair skyward. As dusk descends, cotton candy sheep escort us down the winding path.

The next day, we ferry back over to Vágar, where the feeling that I am in a dream continues. Navigating our rental car down spiraling roads with hairpin turns, we reach the Lake Sørvágsvatn trailhead. Our hike here comes with a price tag, but I’m happy to pay for the permit knowing the fee helps combat overtourism, an increasing issue in the Faroe Islands. A gentle, rolling path traces the edge of the 3.4-square kilometre lake. Tiny purple and fuchsia flowers are sprinkled across the surrounding verdant hills like tossed confetti.

A short but steep incline at the end of the hike brings us to a cliff’s precipitous edge. Turning back towards the direction we came from, the lake appears to hover, suspended, hundreds of metres above the ocean’s violent waves in a physics-defying optical illusion. The crescent-shaped slice of water seems to tilt towards us, yet only one small waterfall pours from its edge.

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Crescent-shaped Lake Sørvágsvatn seems to tilt toward the observer in a vertigo-inducing optical illusion.
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Mind-bending vistas wait around every corner in the archipelago. Before a tunnel was built on Vágar in 2004, the postman was charged with the task of hiking over a mountain pass to deliver mail to the hidden village of Gasadalur. To get a sense of life on the islands before the advent of major infrastructure, we follow in his footsteps (the trailhead can be found to the left of the tunnel’s entrance, heading towards Gasadalur from the Vágar airport.) The two-to-three-hour hike is rugged but ends with a birds-eye view of the small scatter of buildings that freckle the green headland. The village is punctuated by a 100-foot waterfall that tumbles into the ocean, and my fiancé and I let out an audible gasp at the sight.

As dusk’s shadow turns the landscape blue and mauve, we head towards the historic village of Saksun on the island of Streymoy, where we’ll be staying for the next few days. We weave down a frighteningly narrow, one-way country road, and arrive at a cluster of grass-roofed homes that hug a shimmering quicksilver inlet. The 1897 farmer’s house we’ve rented still has all its original bones, and as we duck past the small entryway, we’re greeted by the words of Faroese poet Marjun Kjelnaes on a chalkboard: This is an ancient place, famished you want to stay here, sit until your skeleton turns to cliff, watch until your eyes wash out, listen to the labyrinth in your ears swoosh like shells. In the morning, we wake to the happy trumpeting of snow-white ducks gathered outside the French windows.

Later that day, we drive into the highlands that overlook the Faroese capital, Torshavn, to reach Fjallaross, or ‘Faroe Horse,’ a local horse riding outfit. The Faroese horse was only domesticated 50 years ago and isn’t found anywhere else in the world. The breed is also under threat of extinction, with a scarce 80 left in the archipelago. “The Faroese horse is important in our culture and history,” says Fjallaross owner Anna Louisa Joensen. “I’m fighting to get the support I need to help conserve them.”

The Faroese horse is found only in the archipelago.
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We ride our two horses bareback—which is easier on the horse—across a rocky, windswept plateau. I grasp the wiry black mane of my horse, Grani, and use my legs to steady myself as he trots up and down the gentle ridges. As we ride, Joensen explains the horses’ prominence in Faroese myths and ballads, where they starred as the heroes’ stalwart companions. The horse Grani belonged to the hero Sjúrður in one of these old Nordic tales. “The ballads are forgotten in most of Europe, but we preserved them because they’re sung during our traditional chain dance,” says Joensen. Elves, dragons, and magical rings also abound in the stories, and Joensen says it’s widely believed that the tales inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Steeped in ancient myth, so much of the Faroes’ romance lies in how life has remained unchanged for centuries. For dinner that evening, we head into Torshavn, which means “Thor’s Harbour” and is named after the Norse god of lightning and thunder. Dating to the 14th century, it’s one of the oldest capitals in northern Europe. Reyn, the town’s historic centre, is home to a cluster of black-tarred wooden houses with overgrown turf roofs, intersected by cobblestone streets. 

Like walking through a Grimm’s fairy tale, we meander down the lantern-lit chiaroscuro alleyways and arrive at the doors of Raest, which serves traditional Faroese fermented cuisine. Fermented fish and meat have been integral to the Faroese way of life for centuries, as the harsh climate and long winters made farming and hunting year-round impossible. 

Outside the restaurant’s windows, lights dance on the harbour’s inky water. Our candlelit plates of hearty fish stew and fermented lamb evoke the cold, howling winters of long ago. The Faroe Islands feel like a haunting melody from another time, a myth whispered by the wind, a magic trick pulled from the ocean. The beauty here has the soft edges of a dream, yet I’ve never felt more awake. 

Chloe Berge is a journalist based in Vancouver, B.C., writing about travel, health, culture, and sustainability. You can find her work in Canadian Geographic, BBC, ELLE Canada, Conde Nast Traveler, and Travel + Leisure. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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