Secrets of the Faroes

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Renata Rubnikowicz finds a beautiful and occasionally bloody world in the North Atlantic

How far do you have to go from Britain to experience culture shock? Asia? Africa? What about two hours from Stansted? Shortly after touching down at V gar airport in the Faroes, I am in a small open boat of the kind islanders use for rowing races, skimming smartly beneath Europe's highest headland, Enniberg, with only the North Atlantic between me and Iceland. We have an outboard motor, but there are six other adults in the boat as well as two small boys. The tots have lifejackets. The adults? Come on, this is the Faroes.

I've been invited on a sheep rescuing expedition, an everyday chore made more leisurely by the long, light summer night. Two of the animals that graze on the sheer island slopes all year round have wandered too near to the sea line (shore would be too expansive a word for the few jagged rocks we approach to land two of the men and the five-year-old) and need help to get back up the cliff to the lush grass above. Fish-seeking puffins and kittiwakes divebomb the water around us as the landing party haul themselves up a rope left dangling for the purpose. In my soppy urban way, I am thrilled to be so close to the puffins and to see their little orange legs sticking out behind them as they flap about. Sheep mission accomplished, our helmsman recounts his previous day's hunting expedition with the Faroese prime minister on this same cliff.

"I caught 163 puffins," he says. The prime minister did pretty well, too.

Horrified, I listen to how the men sat on the rock waiting for the puffins to fly past before scooping them out of the air with a swift flick of their nets, like giant shrimping nets, then breaking their necks.

"It's easy to kill a puffin," says our local guide, Sissal, dismissively.

With her two-tone hair and designer jumper in shaggy local wool, I had her down as a cool, metropolitan type. "They are so clumsy. They're easy to catch, too; just don't look them straight in the eye." As I am still in the boat, I don't want to rock it with questions of how the Faroese treat pilot whales. Since the 10th century, when the islands were first settled by Vikings, they've been as much a part of the national diet as sheep - and puffins.

Later, on an evening walk around the hamlet of Vidareidi, my enjoyment of the Faroese simple life, evidenced by the sight of the prime minister's wife bringing in the washing from the garden, is shaken by finding a heap of unplucked puffins lying outside one of the brightly coloured cottages.

Although the 47,000 people who live on these treeless islands are now internet-hip to the 21st century, until recently they had to rely entirely on themselves, the vicious sea and the rocky land. Walkers, artists, poets and aficionados of the simple life will love the Faroes. Vegetarians will find it hard going. Fish, lamb and potatoes are what's on offer, even in top hotels such as the Hafnia in T"rshavn, Europe's smallest capital. The alternative? Carpaccio of whale, anyone? It is deep, blood red. The sliver I swallow is so small I have just a fleeting impression of strong, raw liver, but the good South African red washes the taste away fast. As for nightlife, T"rshavn has some fun bars, such as the cheerful Cleopatra or the dark Vaertshusid, illuminated by red and blue torsos.

Over the week, driving through long, dark tunnels blasted through the mountains, some made expressly so islanders can collect their scattered sheep easily, or braving rougher seas in the small Alfa Pilot boat (I can report the bathroom facilities are excellent, friends say the birdwatching is good, too), I see a wonderful, clean, unpolluted, empty country. The villages are few and distant from each other, the people English-speaking and hospitable: I've never had so much tea and home-made cake. The many small tourist offices have lots of maps for hikers, the ferries and buses are efficient and there's not one McDonald's.

So even though the wind and rain blast me wet through on a morning trip on the Nordlysid, a traditional wooden sailing boat that is so tourist-friendly it even has lifejackets and lifeboats, I relax into a faraway Faroes feeling afterwards, walking down their version of Whitehall - a narrow street of rusty red houses roofed with long, green, daisy-strewn grass. Warming up with tea at a harbourside cafe, I flip through some prints on sale. Might be nice to buy a set as a souvenir, I think. Then I reach the last one: a row of beached whales with their throats cut.

Typical. But touristy? Never.

More information: the World offers three nights' Bamp;B at the Hotel T"rshavn, based on two sharing, flying with Atlantic Airways, from pound;372 per person from Aberdeen and from pound;427 from London Stansted. Details: 01737 214204;

Bosnia is back

"Do we expect mass tourism?" asks Paddy Ashdown, high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the recent Lancaster House launch of the country's latest tourism initiative ( "Absolutely not. If you want to lie on the beach and stay in a five-star hotel, don't come to Bosnia and Herzegovina."

Instead, he promises visitors walks in remote green hills, a people with "hospitality in their DNA", adventure sports, wolves and bears in Europe's second largest primeval forest and avalanche-free Alpine skiing less than an hour from vibrant Sarajevo. Next month the bridge at Mostar reopens and, as for landmines, their locations are known and marked; by next year the country will be as mine-safe as Austria or Germany, says Ashdown.

"Where else can you drink the water you are rafting on?" adds Tim Clancy, former aid worker, now eco-tourism expert and author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Bosnia and Herzegovina (pound;13.95, The new airline Fly Bosnia starts twice-weekly flights from London Gatwick and Manchester from pound;199 return ( later this month, or, if you've already booked for Croatia, take a day trip across the border, says Tim Clancy, and see what you're missing. We have five free copies of the Bradt Travel Guide to Bosnia and Herzegovina to give away. To enter our draw, email or send a postcard marked Bradt guide offer to the address on page 3 by June 14.

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