Viking villages of Northern Europe: Islands in time

  • Article by: CATHERINE WATSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2009 - 11:18 PM

On the remote Faroe Islands, off the coast of Northern Europe, life in Viking villages carries on.

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From the mountaintop road above Kvivik, green slopes fell steeply away to the sea, and the sea swept my eyes outward, over the village, to the soft shapes of other islands drifting in the pale blue distance. More than a thousand years of Faroe Islands history lay in that view. It was like looking at a map of time itself.

Kvivik is a Viking village -- the real thing, not a restoration -- still perched exactly where its ancient founders wanted it: Deep in a narrow fjord, where the sea was calm. On a beach where boats could be drawn up and driftwood gathered. At the mouth of a stream, for fresh water. Among grassy hillsides, where sheep and a cow or two might graze.

The town is bigger now, of course, but not much, and it boasts electricity and television and a few e-mail addresses. All the same, if its original settlers pulled their longboats up on that beach tonight, they'd feel right at home. They could even stay with relatives.

Two friends and I were doing almost the same thing in the Faroes last September, though we couldn't claim longboats or Faroese blood. We were renting a farmhouse in a seaside village, just over the mountain from Kvivik on the island of Streymoy. Our landlord was a fisherman who raises sheep when he isn't at sea, just like his ancestors.

I'd have gone to the Faroes for the light alone -- the clear light and those sweeping views. But I had trouble explaining it to folks back home. Why the Faroes? Because they were so far away. Because we knew almost nothing about them. Because, thanks to an old travel book I'd run across, they sounded interesting.

Local writer loved the Faroes

The author was an adventurer named Elizabeth Taylor, a Minnesota writer who hated cold weather but loved the far north and spent years in the Faroes, including all of World War I. She's virtually unknown in the States but famous on the islands for, among other things, documenting village life and giving art lessons to the area's first painters.

Art would have been inevitable, even without Taylor. The Faroes are a painter's landscape, ready-made for abstraction. Wind and weather keep details at bay, reducing geography to its essence: Land. Sea. Sky. Nothing more.

There is no subtlety here, no softness, no luxury except the intense color of the grass that covers the islands' harsh bones like an apple-green pelt. When it rains, the mountains look enameled.

There are no trees. No native land animals. No predators, unless you count people, and there aren't many of them, either. The population is about 48,000, not quite half of them in the bright-roofed harbor-side town of Torshavn, the Faroese capital.

Technically, the Faroes aren't an independent country -- they're a Danish possession with home rule. But they feel like their own country. And they're certainly separate enough -- from everything.

They are the crests of underwater mountains -- 18 shards of dark-gray basalt, jutting abruptly out of the sea in the ultra-north North Atlantic, distantly surrounded by Iceland, Scotland and Norway. The islands are mostly long and skinny, with so many lobes and inlets that you're never more than 3 miles from the sea.

I expected the climate to be cold, so far north, but it wasn't: This is where the Gulf Stream ends, and temperatures average between 37 degrees in winter and 52 degrees in summer. In late September, I needed gloves only once, but a rain jacket every day.

The weather changed so often, and so fast, that each day felt like many. One morning, I kept track: Splinters of sun, a calm moment of warmth, then wind so fierce it thrashed the shrubs and grabbed at my clothes, then a blast of stinging rain as sharp as cold sand, then sun again -- and that was just before breakfast.

My friends and I were lucky: This is a place that measures its annual sunshine not in days, but in hours. Torshavn gets about 840 a year, on average. Even with near-daily rain, we had more than our share.

Summer tourists -- nearly 50,000, largely from Scandinavia -- do a little better.

If we'd been there in summer, the bird cliffs on Mykines would have been thick with nesting puffins, the yellow-beaked cuties that have become a Faroese national symbol. Tour boats would have been cruising past the sea caves near Vestmanna. There would have been festivals in the villages, and the renowned dancing societies would have been performing, accompanying their age-old circle dances with nothing more than sung ballads and stamping feet.

But by mid-September, the puffins were gone, and so were the tourists. Museums had switched to winter hours. Tour boats weren't running. The dancing societies were taking a break, and the whole place seemed to be exhaling.

Elizabeth Taylor would have approved: "To really get the best out of a place,'' she wrote, "you should see it out of the so-called proper season.'' I agreed.

I hadn't intended to follow in Taylor's footsteps, but I couldn't help it: She'd been everywhere. And while many things had changed -- the population had tripled, the standard of living had sky-rocketed -- much of the culture she knew was still alive.

Language, for one thing: Faroese is an off-shoot of Old Norse, related to Icelandic and Norwegian. But it wasn't written down until the middle of the 19th century, and I had trouble matching the spellings with the sounds.

Kollafjordur, for example, our temporary hometown, was pronounced more like "KUT-la-fyor-rur.'' And when we drove south on Streymoy to see what may be the oldest inhabited farmstead in Europe, we weren't going to Kirkjuboer, we were going to ''Chi-chi-ber.''

The big farmhouse there was made of blackened logs floated in from Norway, and it's still in the hands of its original family, stretching back 17 generations.

Roads and tunnels ease travel

All the towns, big and small, followed the old Viking pattern, with houses clustered tightly at the foot of a mountain, just where it met the sea. Any vista held at least one community, and when there were several, they looked like trim on the hems of long green skirts.

A network of good paved roads, bridges, undersea tunnels and ferryboats links all 17 inhabited islands now. This makes Faroese society so cohesive, I learned, that the island communities shouldn't be thought of as separate entities, but more like neighborhoods of a single dispersed city.

In Taylor's time, Faroese who needed to get from island to island had to rely on wooden rowboats and it was risky. Bad weather could isolate a village for months, and sudden storms could make any journey life-threatening.

We spent most of our days exploring by car. We got as far east as Klaksvik, the second largest city, on Bordoy, and as far north as Vidareidi on Vidoy, and Eidi on Eysturoy, the island next door to ours. Eidi was where Taylor lodged with a local family during the Great War.

"The stranger is expected to make all advances,'' the writer had advised; when I did, people opened up.

Shopping in Torshavn one afternoon, I chatted with a clerk. If anyone invited me home for a visit, she said, I should go, because they meant it: "We say come anytime. If we're busy, we'll say come back another time.''

No one said that, as it turned out, but we didn't mind: We had our farmhouse, though it didn't look the part. It was a 1950s rambler, painted dark blue and tucked into the side of a hill, about 20 minutes' drive north of Torshavn.

There was a barn, tucked under the house where we expected a basement. One morning, the farmer gave me a tour. It held mangers for his nine sheep, a winter stockpile of miniature hay bales and a red hen fiercely guarding her single chick. Wild birds had taken the others, the farmer said.

This barn tour, I realized later, summed up all the main components of the modern Faroese economy -- fishing, wool, tourism, even technology, since I'd found the house online.

The Faroese wool component ranged everywhere, wandering freely wherever there was grass. As twilight came on, they looked more and more like boulders. They got harder to see if it was raining, and after dark, they were flat-out road hazards. Darkness falls early at 62 degrees north latitude.

Each evening, when we'd survived the gantlet of damp sheep and slick roads and gotten safely back to Kollafjordur, it really did feel like coming home.

Our farmhouse hunkered snug and warm against its hill, and I loved falling asleep to the sound of wild winds buffeting the rosebushes outside my window.

The blue house was part of why I liked the Faroes so much. Staying in a hotel or a guesthouse wouldn't have been as good. It helped me understand how Elizabeth Taylor could spend so many years in these islands and not be bored. By week's end, I could have done the same.

Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Star Tribune. "Home on the Road," is her second collection of travel essays.

  • related content

  • Kvivik, a classic Viking town, from above on the Faroe Islands.

  • Old houses, near Tinganes, in old Torshavn.

  • IF YOU GO

    Sources: For an overview of the islands, the English-language site www.faroe islands.com is a good place to start. Books with background information include"The Far Islands and Other Cold Places: Travel Essays of a Victorian Lady,'' by Elizabeth Taylor, edited by James Taylor Dunn, and "The Faroe Islands,'' by Liv Kjorsvik Schei and Gunnie Moberg.

    Getting there: I flew Atlantic Airways, the Faroes' national airline (www.atlantic.fo) out of London Stansted. The flight goes twice a week and is frequently delayed because of bad weather.

    Lodging: My friends and I rented a house and a car through Greengate Incoming, one of several all-purpose travel companies in the Faroes (www.greengate.fo/eng/om-greengate-incoming).

    CATHERINE WATSON
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