Like with human beings, we have certain preconceptions about ‘beauty’ when it comes to places and landscapes. These standards are created by travel bloggers, adventure magazines and gurus of Instagram filtering. Among travel destinations, there are attention-seeking beauty queens (those countries that regularly feature as a ’top destination’) and the weird bunch (those countries that are still waiting for their hour to shine). Textbook paradise of an average travel blogger usually consists of palm trees on a white beach full of hammocks and mildly stoned hippies. And very «crystal blue sea». The textbook travel blogger’s paradise is Bali. Textbook travel photographer’s paradise is volcanic plains, towering coastal cliffs and rugged shorelines, glaciers and green valleys filled with sheep. Travel photographer’s paradise is Iceland, the inexhaustible source of what Internet calls ‘Earth Porn’.
Then, there are Faroe islands. Faroe islands is a whole new story.
In March 2015, many people discovered Faroe islands as one of the best places to watch the total solar eclipse. In one single day in spring, hundreds of sky-gazers flocked to the remote archipelago in the North Atlantic to see the sun disappear behind the black disc and witness how the world submerges into darkness.
They did not see much. The clouds and fog were so thick that one could hardly see the sun at all, before, during or after the eclipse. The only way one could tell that the eclipse was happening, was because every living thing around the islands suddenly went quiet. The birds, whose population here amounts to a much bigger share than that of people, – the birds stopped chirping, twittering and singing. When darkness falls onto complete silence, we feel lost, lonely, completely overpowered by nature.
Faroe islands is a place where one must embrace the aesthetics of darkness. It is a darkness unlike any other. It is not the sticky darkness of unlit urban streets, it is not the harrowing darkness of African savanna, it is not the warm tropical darkness of the Pacific. Faroese darkness is full of life, visible and invisible.
Faroe islands have no trees. I think I saw two, and they were crooked and almost tied into a knot because of the overpowering northern winds. You cannot get away from the wind when you are here, but then again, it’s a perfect place to fly kites.
Faroe islands have beaches, but the sand there is often black, as if somebody spilled a flask of black ink over the shore. One can often see children splashing around, and if you’re brave enough you can lower your feet into the icy cold water and watch the waves grasp your blood vessels with a freezing grip.
Anyone would love to spend a night under the stars in Faroe islands, but the treacherous sky threatens you with unexpected rain any given hour, and in Faroe islands you don’t do hammocks, you try camping and then proceed hugging the radiator in the bathroom of the nearby gas station.
It must be magical to see Auroras dance in the sky above Faroe islands, in the wintertime. ‘I remember the first time I saw the Northern lights,’ I hear a story from one of the islanders who gives me a lift to Klaksvik. ‘I was little and got very scared, so I ran to my mother and said there were giants fighting in the sky. No idea why my imagination drew this image, but I guess it was something really powerful to see for an 8-year-old.’
The sea is never crystal blue. Of all shades on the cold side of the spectre, Faroe islands prefer gray. Foggy gray clouds descending into the valley, creamy gray mist rising from the hills, steamy gray snakes of smoke streaming from chimneys, azure gray rocky coastline, greenish gray curvy mountain pastures, dark gray roads after the rain, silvery gray ocean at sunset.
There is no such thing as ordinary sunsets in Faroe islands, in the conventional sense of this word. At least I haven’t seen one. In order to have a sunset, one must have a clear visible sky, which is a rarity in Faroe islands even in the summer. The sunsets here usually drown in the mists above the cold North Atlantic ocean, and the sunlight breaks into billions of photons that jump above the unquiet dark waves. But on the other hand, in the summer you’ve got midnight sun that never plunges down behind the horizon at all.
Many wondrous stories emerge from the mist. ‘When I was little, my family would send me to get the sheep from the mountains, or to walk a few kilometers across the hills to the neighbours’ house to fetch something – completely alone,’ a young lad tells me. ‘But of course, the darkness and the fog prompt you to see all sorts of things, hence all the folklore and weird beliefs people will whisper into your ear here in the Faroes.’
Faroe islands share a lot of common legends and mythical creatures with Icelandic folklore, as well as Shetland and Orkney islands. There are trolls that roam the hills and scare the shepherds. There is Húldufolk, the invisible people that live in the mounds and can be both nice and assholes to a stranded wanderer. They are not huge fans of churches and crosses, but the introduction of Christianity implemented its own explanation for the hidden people in Iceland and the Faroes: apparently, when God paid a visit to Adam and Eve, they did not dare to show him some of their children because those kids were unwashed. This simple parenting fail was the reason why those children and all their descendants will forever remain invisible to ordinary humans. But here, in the shimmering darkness of Faroe islands, the hidden people can enjoy equal rights with the ordinary folk.
One thing I was wondering about ever since I arrived to Faroe islands is why on Earth would anyone ever settle here. Who were those first humans who disembarked on this smallest patch of land in the freezing North Atlantic, looked around and said: ’Hey guys, this is grand: no food, no sun, no connection to the mainland, sheep outnumber people – we totally have to live here!’
It is said that the first people to come here, even before the vikings, were the Irish monks. Some sailors heading to Iceland would get seasick and had to be left behind on the Faroes, because nobody wanted to have the pukebags onboard. Perhaps, the ‘paradise of birds’ featured in the Irish Navigatio Sancti Brendani, was in fact, the island of Mykines, the westernmost part of the Faroes that even nowadays attracts thousands of visitors because of its incredible colonies of funky puffins and other winged beasts. But maybe it was not just the divine bird singing that astonished the monks. Maybe they saw the puffy white clouds embracing the hilltops, they gazed upon the silvery tide of the Atlantic waves, they squinted at the ghostly shining of cold summer sun. The serene isolation, the overpowering presence of nature seemed like a gift from God.
‘Then you will sail on to the island not far from it towards the west, called the ‘Paradise of Birds,’ and there will you abide until the octave of Pentecost’. St Brendan asked him also why the sheep were so very large on that island, larger even than oxen; and he told him that they were so much huger there than in the lands known to St Brendan because they were never milked, and felt not the stress of winter, having at all seasons abundant pasture.