After leaving Lerwick, the Marco Polo stood out into the Atlantic, heading north west towards our next stop in the Faroe Islands. The ship rolled gently in a series of long, gunmetal coloured swells that ushered us ever further north. And a magnificent sunset seemed to augur the promise of a bright and sunny day on the morrow.
Wrong. Very wrong.
Daylight found the Marco Polo tied up, on schedule, at the village of Kollafjordur. a twenty minute run by regular shuttle bus into the town of Torshavn. With a population of some 20,000 people in total, Torshavn is often claimed to be the smallest capital city in the world.
Kollafjodur itself nestles at the head of a long, winding valley, flanked on both sides by jagged escarpments in forty shades of green that tumble right down to the waters of the fjord itself. On a sunny day, I imagine it would be an exhilarating place.
Alas, this was not a sunny day.
Thick, icy mist hung like a baleful wraith all along the tops of the valley. Just two days from actual mid summer, I found myself swaddled in four layers of clothing as I took a quick walk along the banks of the fjord itself.
But what magnificent scenery unfolded as I strolled this silent landscape, one seemingly frozen in both time and space. Small, gently sloping pebble beaches played host to gaunt, brightly coloured small boats that seemed desperate to shelter inland from the biting wind. Here and there, small houses in shades of rust red and blue hunkered at the edges of the fjord, their roofs coated in thick turf grass.
Long abandoned boat houses stood with gaping, exposed beams, some of them still draped in old fishing nets. Here and there, launch tracks for local boats snaked down to the water’s edge. All along the fjord, small piers poked out into the water itself like so many skeletal fingers; some built from steel, others- clearly much older- fashioned from ancient, weathered stone. The sense of stillness was almost overpowering.
Heading on a local bus into Torshavn allowed me to take in the vast, majestic sweep of the valley. Dried up trails left by long vanished waterfalls sprinkled the hinterland like so many spider’s webs. A long, harshly lit, seemingly endless tunnel engulfed us as it snaked through the sides of sheer granite mountains. Actual road traffic was almost non existent.
And then, from this harsh, majestic vista, the slow, rolling outlines of large town gradually emerged; a jumbled clutter of brightly coloured clapboard houses, piled in ramshackle layers up toward a central, focal point. This, then, was Torshavn.
The Faroe Islands to these days belong to Denmark. Essentially, they are a cluster of eighteen small, rocky isles, flung like random specks into the harsh, menacing embrace of the open Atlantic ocean. The look and feel of these islands is very different to any of the other, Scottish islands that our cruise would embrace.
Torshavn- the name translates literally to ‘Thor’s Harbour’- is often claimed to be the world’s smallest capital city. On this freezing, fog shrouded Sunday, it almost felt like the world’s most deserted. I strolled in a state of mild disbelief through the winding alleys and flower strewn streets of what seemed to be a ghost town. Almost everything seemed to be closed.
I wandered around the battlements of Havnar Skanski, an ancient harbour fortress built back in 1580 to protect both the port and the main town. It shears above the town like some jagged, moss topped molar, studded here and there with ancient naval guns that have simply frozen, both in place and time. Their barrels still point with ghostly menace out over the sound. In all likelihood, not one of them ever fired a shot in practice, let alone in action.
The harbour itself is a tidy, trim little confection, with row upon row of perfectly manicured small boats that looked like so many colorful insects, forever preserved in aspic. There were stout, no nonsense fishing trawlers and a local, inter island ferry with wisps of smoke curling upwards from it’s brace of stubby funnels. Wooden trestle tables, empty on this day, were liberally draped across stone cobbled quaysides. On a warm summer night, I suspect the place would be quite magical in the eerie half light.
And suddenly there were people, too. Huddling across tables that flanked the glass walled bistros and restaurants that ran parallel to the quay; even a few brave souls walking their dogs here and there,
Carrying on, I wandered upwards through winding lanes of immaculate, flower draped clapboard houses in shades of blue, red and canary yellow. Brightly coloured swings, slides and roundabouts sat like so many lazy butterflies, draped across empty lawns.
From the summit, the long, expansive sprawl of Torshavn was a magnificent reveal; the big ferry sat centre stage, looking like nothing more than a wind up toy. Skeletal yacht masts barely splintered the skyline. Below me, the serried, snaking tiers of houses looked like something from a Monopoly board, rearranged in winding rows by some incredibly patient child.
Back down at waterfront level, the area called Tinganes is the seat of the old Faroese government. It comprises a fascinating brew of jumbled buildings, painted in a deep terracotta red, with grass roofs. Some of them are coated with black tar, with many dating back more than five hundred years.
The overall effect is instantly reminiscent of the Bryggen on the famous Bergen waterfront, but the actual site itself is even older, dating back as far as 850 AD. From them, winding alleyways and rows of stone steps form a series of haphazard routes back down to the broad reaches of the harbour itself.
In many ways, seeing Torshavn on a Sunday proved something of a blessing. Shorn of the usual, week long hustle and bustle of domestic shoppers, commuters and, yes- sightseers- it was much, much easier to take in the sheer beauty and contours of this northern gem. Easier to appreciate the near perfectly symmetrical allure of that waterfront. And, most of all, to actually get some kind of an appreciation- a feel for how the places once must have been-when the harbour played host to Viking longships, rather than ferries and fishing boats.
Back aboard the Marco Polo, I gradually thawed out with the help of some truly welcome mulled wine. We began the slow, stately procession down Kollafjordur, past rocky headlands, and then out once again into the open Atlantic.
But now our course was set firmly to the south. Over the might, the Marco Polo shrugged off the cold embrace of those secluded Nordic hinterlands, and set a course for the Orkney Islands, just off the north east coast of Scotland.