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Trip 36 — Eysturoy Walk

Day 3: Oyndarfjørður to Norðragøta
Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Today: 21596 steps/14.31 km/8.89 mi/3h 49m
Total: 88586 steps/66.35 km/41.23 mi/13h 47m

I wasn't ready to wake up. I was so tired at dinnertime yesterday that I couldn't bother to cook the vegetable-soup mix properly; I just poured scalding water over the dry flakes and ate them in their insipid parboiled state. I almost let them fall into my mouth straight from the pouch. Thankfully the other item I'd picked up, packaged mackerel (Sjógæti distributes to supermarkets) with "Mexiko Mix" spices (why not?), couldn't be ruined even by my disastrous combination of fatigue and culinary folly.

But checkout time was ten, and so wake up and go I must. I'd walked barely three minutes when I came to a sign for "rocking-stones," massive boulders next to the shore that are said to bob with the motion of the water. One is secured with a chain in an effort to make the effect more dramatic.

I watched for a few minutes, listening for the gurgles. A boat was making some noise that would have drowned out any sound from the rocks' motion. I fixed my eyes on them intently. Did I see them move? Well, of course I did, the same way that it's obvious when wine disappears from Elijah's cup at Passover.

Across the fjord was the village of Hellurnar. A crag loomed over it, bisected by a waterfall. Somewhere in there was the path I was supposed to take, up through a mountain pass, much like yesterday.

A family of geese wandered by as I left Oyndarfjørður, and two drivers offered me rides. After a few minutes on the road, I turned left through a gate to begin the path around the fjord to Hellurnar.

My presence angered one seabird, perhaps a skua; they are known for being protective and aggressive. Maybe there was a nest nearby. It plunged down toward my head and then swooped back up and around before diving at me a few more times.

"Go away!" I shouted, running ahead. It followed me for a few seconds and then relented.

The path brought me to a beach, where I made my way along the rocks and around the fjord. I crossed a short bridge and chose the upper of two paths to bring me across a field of squishy grass to the middle of Hellurnar.

As I approached, I tried to find the path up the crag. I looked for where the mountain was least steep, just to the right of the waterfall, but I couldn't see a path. Did I feel confident about this one? I could get to tonight's house in Norðragøta by road, but it would involve a long detour, and it would bypass the town of Fuglafjørður, which I wanted to visit for a couple of reasons.

Then I saw motion up on the crag. People! And a dog. Well, if they could do it, so could I.

Near Hellurnar's church I saw a gate leading to the uphill path. I'm not sure it was an official public way, as it skirted a couple of houses, but the man who approached me did so with a smile.

"Fuglafjørður?" I asked, making an "over the hill" gesture with my hand toward the mountain.

"Ja!" he said, as if rooting me on.

Not only were there people on the path, but two of them were carrying something the size of a bench. This bolstered my confidence. Maybe I should try to go with them, I thought. Then I reconsidered. They might ask for help, or I might feel compelled to offer. Normally I'd be happy to lend a hand, but I barely trusted myself to get my own body up there. I wasn't sure I could keep their bench safe, or whatever it was.

I passed them and we nodded in greeting. The path zigzagged steeply up the mountain, changing direction every few meters. The path was narrow but visible and clearly signed with blue markers and cairns. It was grassy but not wet or slippery, despite yesterday's rain.

The group with the bench wasn't going all the way up, and soon I was alone. This path was much steeper than yesterday's, and I hunched forward, keeping my body weight toward the mountain. Today was warmer than yesterday, and I built up a sweat in my fleece sweatshirt and jacket. When I found a place wide and flat enough to stop, I took them off. At one point I wasn't sure of the direction, but a quick scramble upward put me back on track.

I reached the top of the crag and thought the path was going to lead me down again, but instead I was in a kind of giant crater filled with grass. On the opposite side of the crater, I'd have to climb again, but not as steeply.

This was a glorious world to have to myself: an easy ramble across the bowl. I looked back at the mountains behind Oyndarfjørður. I wasn't sure what lay ahead, but by now I trusted the path to take me where I intended to go.

I thought it was going to be a straight walk through the middle of the bowl, but instead the path led me up gently along its left side. The only sounds were my breath and footsteps, the sheep, and the tseep-tseep-tseep of the oystercatchers, their orange beaks piercing the air with color as much as their voices with their calls.

At the top of the pass was a fence with a rusty stile to climb over. A signpost indicated the distance to Hellurnar as 1.6 kilometers and to Fuglafjørður as 1.7. I still wasn't halfway done with this mountain hike?

There were also two large cairns. According to the lore, passersby should throw three stones at the cairns and praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order to ensure a safe journey. I took my chances in skipping this step.

I soon saw Fuglafjørður down the other side. The path down to the town wasn't nearly as steep as the one on the Hellurnar side, and I was glad I'd gone in this direction. The descent into Hellurnar must be brutal, but going down to Fuglafjørður was more of a frolic in a field.

It would be hard to describe any place in the Faroes as ugly, but with some industry involving smokestacks at its eastern end, Fuglafjørður lacked the charm of other places I've been in the Faroes. And it was busier than the others. It had souvenir shops, a yarn store, and a crowded marina. The library was in the old stone schoolhouse. There was even an ATM. I had no idea how much I should get, but I figured it would be helpful to have the equivalent of $30 or so. It was delivered in Faroese notes, interchangeable with Danish kroner here but useless in mainland Denmark.

Fuglafjørður also had what is throught to be the Faroes' oldest restaurant, Muntra, and that's where I had a lazy lunch, overlooking the marina. I was exhausted; the seven kilometers from Oyndarfjørður had been some of my slowest walking anywhere, taking over two hours. I had a herring salad and lamb roast and lingered while the staff had their meal.

Across the street from Muntra was the office of Visit Eysturoy, the closest thing the island has to a tourist center. I'd written to them earlier about my trip and one hike in particular, and Kristina had responded with some advice about getting to Oyri — this is in a few days — and to point out a detail about the Faroese language: The island's name starts with the letter "Ey," not the letter "E." I decided that this technicality wouldn't disqualify Eysturoy from its inclusion in the Abecedarian Walks.

Kristina was on vacation, and the other staff didn't seem too interested in my walk; the office is more of a shop selling handmade yarn clothing than a visitor's center. I did pick up a brochure called "Hiking in the Faroe Islands," which lists yesterday's hike on the narrow cliff path as "easy." I wouldn't go that far, but it was certainly easier than today's.

From Fuglafjørður I walked along the main road to Norðragøta, where I'm staying in an Airbnb for two nights. It's spotless if strangely laid out — the television set can't be seen from the couch or the bed or from one of the dining chairs as they are currently positioned, but then again, it gets only one channel, so it's not commanding much of my attention.

There is one restaurant nearby, Brimborg. It is technically not in Norðragøta but in Gøtugjógv, a village of 34 people, as Albert told me. Albert is the manager and was instrumental in getting the restaurant reopened after a feud between the owner and the chefs shut it for a few months. It's been open again for about a year, and it serves a small but excellent menu; today's only starter was a ceviche of scallops with Greenland halibut and arugula. I had that and the beef tenderloin.

I asked Albert about the beef; I hadn't seen any cows on Eysturoy, though I heard some mooing from the road into Norðragøta. He spoke passionately about the food.

"All the cows in the Faroes are dairy cows," he said. "The beef you had is Sashi beef": in this case, he said, an attempt to improve upon black Angus by breeding it with Finnish dairy cattle. The experiment didn't work as intended, "but it created an even better beef, with more fat. The beef is brought from Finland fresh, refrigerated, instead of being frozen. This preserves the blood, which gives it more flavor. When beef is frozen, it loses a lot of blood. The Sashi cows also grow quickly. They reach full size in a year and two months, while most cows take two years."

I had never heard of Sashi beef. The word is Japanese for "marbling," which is present more in Sashi than in most other beef.

"And the Greenland halibut you had — did you notice that it was cold instead of at room temperature?"

"I did. It seemed unusual, but you know what you're doing."

"That's because it becomes very oily at room temperature. You wouldn't be able to eat it. And the scallops are from a local diver."

Our conversation went on for an hour, touching on the Faroese education system (private schools are forbidden here, to standardize teacher quality), the implications of having a Faroese passport (all Faroese are eligible for Danish passports, but a few prefer Faroese documents out of passion for independence, even though Faroese passports don't allow for visa-free work in the European Union and aren't as universally accepted), and the dearth of fish in 1992, which severely hurt the Faroese economy.

"I support the Faroes breaking away from Denmark," he said. "But they cannot join the European Union. If they do, they'll be subject to all the rules about fishing and the environment, and that will destroy us."

He told me about the Faroese consumption of pilot whales. They don't go out and hunt them, but if a pod is spotted near the shore, people will capture them and distribute the meat among those who helped collect them, with more meat going to those who did the most work and the most going to whoever first spotted them. Then the remaining meat is distributed to other people in the village, and some is saved for those in need.

It becomes a kind of village ceremony and celebration. There's one that happens in Johan Harstad's book, which Albert hadn't heard of.

"In any case," he said, "pilot whale has too much mercury, and you shouldn't eat it. Like tuna. It can harm your brain and give you dementia. But once in a while I have a little."

"A little is enough," I said.

"I knew someone who ate pilot whale for thirty days straight."

He went back to the kitchen and brought out a package, which he unwrapped.

"Smell this," he said. "It's fermented sheep leg. We eat a lot of fermented food here." He gave me the name of a restaurant in Tórshavn that serves it; of course it won't be open while I'm there. "A strong smell, right? They used to prepare it at the restaurant, but the stench was so bad that people would come in and turn around and walk out. So now they prepare their meat somewhere else and bring it to the restaurant."

I told him I was from New York.

"Did you hear they're starting flights here from New York?" he asked.

"I did. But not until August! Why not until the end of the tourist season, I don't know. And only from Stewart Airport." I explained that New York City has three major airports, and Stewart wasn't one of them. "And it'll only be once a week."

"Actually, there are already flights between the Faroes and New York."

"There are?"

"Yes. But not for passengers. Only for salmon. It gets distributed to restaurants."

It was now nine-thirty and the restaurant had been closed since eight. He seemed to have boundless energy for conversation, and I liked learning from him. He couldn't have been older than 25. But I was getting tired.

"Well, thank you for the talk," I said. "I'm going to go home. But I will probably be back here tomorrow night. Not only is this a very good restaurant, it's the only one near Norðragøta."

Go on to day 4