Lands of Ice and Fire

by Mary Jo

Islands of Ice and Fire

Faroes 2

 Our North Atlantic cruise was so interesting that I'm breaking it into three parts.  (I could go on much longer, but I'll spare you. <G>)  I've already written about Norway, and now I'm writing about some of the other wonderful places we visited.  


Faroese waterfallThe Mayhem Consultant and I both selected the same cruise from a fat Viking Ocean catalog, and the reason was the itinerary. In the Wake of the Vikings was scheduled to go to all kinds of fascinating places that are hard to get to. I mean, really, how many people do you know who have gone to Greenland who aren't military? Irresistible! 



The first stop after the Viking Sky left Bergen, Norway, was supposed to be the Scottish islands of Shetland, the farthest north archipelago of Great Britain. The islands have been inhabited since Mesolithic times, and were solidly colonized by Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries. Though eventually the Shetland and Orkney Islands (to the south) were annexed by Scotland, the Norse influence is still very strong.

Sadly, the seas were too rough for our ship to land. This was a great disappointment. I wanted to see Shetland ponies! Plus we both wanted to visit the local museum dedicated to the Shetland Bus, which was the informal name for the perilous covert sea connection between the Shetlands and Norway during the harsh years of the Nazi occupation of Norway. Shetland is due west of Norway, and in the war it was the closest non-Nazi territory. Fishing boats sailed back in forth in dangerous seas, ferrying agents, refugees, money, and supplies.

Alas, the visit was not to be. I was so regretful that we visited both Shetland and Orkney several years later!

The Faroe IslandsFaroese Sheep

The next stop on our cruise was the Faroe Islands located about halfway between Norway and Iceland. Smack dab in the Gulf Stream, the climate is mild, wet, and green. I think most of us English speakers don't know much (if anything) about the Faroes since it has been a Danish possession since the 14th century, though with a considerable amount of self-governance. The Danish name translates to "islands of sheep," which is not wrong. <G>

But National Geographic Traveler magazine rated the Faroes as "the best island destination in the world," which is high praise indeed. Rich in rugged scenery and seabirds, it's a prosperous Nordic nation. The Faroese Parliament in Törshaven, ("Thor's Harbor") has been meeting on the narrow Tinganes Peninsula from 850 AD till now.  Now that's history!

Faroes childrenThe Faroese language is a descendant of Old Norse and is most closely related to Icelandic, though with more of a Danish overlay. You can see the Nordic DNA in this picture of three adorable little blondes. (English is taught in the schools so it's widely spoken.)

As you can see from my picture below, the buildings are brightly colored, which was true in all these North Atlantic islands that we visited. These lands can be gray and wet, so the colorful buildings are cheering.


Torshaven in FaroesWe also saw a number of turf roofs, which are charming and if you're really lucky, you'll see a goat grazing on one. Alas, we did not, but I'm told the turf is a very good insulator.

It's said that the island were converted to Christianity in the 11th century when a Norwegian envoy called Sigmundur Brestisson (961–1005) was sent to take possession of the islands, and he said people must become Christian or face beheading. This proved to be a remarkably effective tool of conversion. <G>

We visited two churches, (the state church is Lutheran), and our guide treated us to Faroes turf roof housessinging on the road and in one of the churches. He had a really first class voice and I asked him if there was a lot of singing in the islands.

The answer was yes. These are very musical islands, and live music is a feature of both private and public life and there are several grand open air music festivals.  It's easy to imagine people sitting around a turf fire in the winter, singing and playing musical instruments.

When WWII exploded across Europe, both the British and the Germans rushed to occupy the strategically valuable Faroe Islands. The British got there first (to the relief of most Faroese) and occupied the islands throughout the war.

I read that during WWII, when convoys to Britain were being blasted by submarines and aircraft, three quarters of the fish imported to Britain was brought in by the Faroese. Much of the catch was from around Iceland, but the Icelanders were not keen on having their fishing fleets blown out of the sea by the Nazis so the Faroese took over this dangerous transport of vital food supplies. And they paid the price–apparently the Faroese had the highest mortality rate per capita of any country involved in the war. Brave sailors and fishermen!

Fish farming in FaroesAs islands in the North Atlantic, it's not surprising that fishing and fish farming have always been principal industries. Here's a picture of a salmon farm that I took. Those circles on the water are fish fields. <G>

The islands are beautiful and rugged with lots of mountains and tunnels. I'd love to go back and spend more time. And maybe attend a music festival and see a goat on a turf roof. <G>


Iceland is the original land of ice and fire and is volcanically active. On an earlier visit to the country, we saw masses of lava flows and other evidence of volcanic activity, and a few years ago an eruption threw so much ash into the atmosphere that it interfered with air traffic for weeks.

Iceland TugIceland is the westernmost country of Europe, and Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world. Like the Faroes, it's warmed by the Gulf Stream and the climate is milder than one might expect.

It's relatively easy to get to reach; we flew Icelandair and came through Reykjavik on our flight to Oslo to begin our cruise.  (To the left is the cute little tug that came out for us as our ship approached Reykjavik harbor.)

However, on this trip we saw neither ice nor fire; it was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for traveling around Reykjavik. Our guide was a lovely fellow who was a retired commander of the Icelandic navy. At the port, he pointed out two ships he'd commanded, the Thor and the Odin. (All Icelandic naval ships are named for Norse gods, which sounds very appropriate. They are equivalent to coast guard ships.)

We saw some lovely sights on our tour of the city. One was this statue of Leif Ericson, which was a gift to Iceland from the United States. The inscription says:Lief Erickson from USA

Leif Ericson, son of Iceland, discoverer of Vinland. (North America)

The United States of America, to the people of Iceland, on the one thousandth anniversary of the Althing . 1930 A.D.

It's quite a tribute to Iceland and the Viking traditions of democracy.

The commander also told of the much prized Icelandic horse, which is compact but considered a horse, not a pony. (I got the impression that calling them ponies was Not Done. <G>)

Icelandic horseThe horses have two gaits not found in other breeds. One, the tölt, is a lateral ambling gait so smooth that it's traditional in a horse show for the rider to carry a glass of champagne in one hand, and drink it after the horse trial. (Picture at left from Wikipedia by Dagur Brynjolfsson).  I used those Icelandic gaits for the horses in my book Once a Laird.

The commander said that a well-trained Icelandic horse cost about the same as a Mercedes.  (!!!)

There's never enough time to see everything, but one of my last memories of Reykjavik is this striking contemporary sculpture of a Viking ship. To me, it's saying, "Come visit us again!"

Viking sculpture  Reykjavik

Have you been to Shetland, the Faroes, or Iceland? If  so, tell me about your experiences!

Mary Jo, born tourist

2 thoughts on “Lands of Ice and Fire”

  1. I’ve not been to any of those destinations, Mary Jo, which means that I appreciated your post all the more. Thank you for sharing!


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