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A paradise for troubadours and other travellers

Thorshavn lives up to its claim to fame as the world's smallest capital, but few cities are as big as this North Atlantic minitropolis




July 27, 2014
07:00

by Ray Weaver


A cluster of dark green islands juts gently out of the sea, like a handful of jade stones scattered across the water.

As the plane descends, more detail comes into view. Tiny towns are clustered around harbours filled with small boats.

There are countless sheep and endless distances of verdant space. The plane slips through what looks like a pretty darn narrow pass through the mountains and touches down without so much as a bounce, and I am in the Faroe Islands. 

I am a troubadour. Well, that’s what they call me in Europe. I am really just another singer/songwriter, acoustic-guitar-playing guy with a repertoire of whatever I can manage a passable version of on a beat-up old Martin.

These days that list includes everything from Leadbelly to Linkin Park. I have been hired to sing at a café in Torshavn, the capital city of the Faroe Islands.

I don’t speak a word of Faroese, but I soon discover that most folks here speak fine English.

The islands are part of the Danish kingdom, so the locals also speak perfect Danish. I am married to a Dane, so while my own Danish is a mile or two less than perfect, I get by. 

My host from Café Natur greets me at the airport and drives me into Torshavn. Now that the tunnels are open, the trip into town is a lovely 40 minute drive along the seaside and through the country.

Before the tunnels, it took a ferry ride to get into Torshavn from thte airport. Slower, perhaps more charming, but I am glad to be getting where I am going.

Torshavn bills itself as “the smallest capital city in the world”. The old town centre is a maze of lanes, narrow alleys, and tiny black houses with green turf on the roofs.

It feels like a movie set, but it is a real town dating from the Middle Ages. Torshavn combines this rustic feel with all the perks of a modern, albeit tiny, city.

There are world-class restaurants and hotels, museums, the ubiquitous European discos, good shopping and plenty of nature close by.

My first sight of Café Natur gives me a smile. It is a small, black wooden building located just up from the harbour. It has grass growing on the roof. I am pretty sure I have never played a place with grass growing on the roof before.

In the late afternoon the café is filled with the people that populate pubs and cafés the world over. Tourists just into town. Locals out shopping. Fishermen and other working folk having a quick beer before heading home.

I am not scheduled to start until 10 that evening, so after a quick introduction to the staff – whose names I will never remember, and, even if I do, will never be able to pronounce – I head  to my pleasant, simple room in the local youth hostel.

I often wonder why these places are called ‘youth hostels.’ I am well past being considered a youth, and this hostel is nicer than some pricey hotels I’ve stayed in. After a quick nap and a shower, and it’s off to the café for the Big Show.

The crowd is youngish, but not too young, mostly in groups. They are well-dressed in trendy European fashions, with some stylish (and expensive) Faroese wool sweaters tossed in.

There is a table toward the back of what appear to be young businessmen in jackets and loosened ties. They are speaking English with an accent I can’t quite get a handle on.

There are certain guarantees in pretty much any pub in Europe. Stuff like Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, the Irish classic ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, anything by CCR, and, oddly, ‘Hotel California’ will go a long way towards warming up a Euro crowd.

I throw a big fat pitch down the middle and open with ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’. People immediately start smiling and singing along, and I get a shock.

This is not some bawdy barroom shouting these folks are doing, they can really sing!

The Faroese, it turns out, are a musical bunch. Some people say it is the song of the ever-present wind that inspires so much music in such a small place.

It really is amazing how much music there is, considering the size and population.

The Faroese have their own symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, and it seems like everyone can play something or the other, and they all love to sing.

The total population of Torshavn is only about 16,000, and everyone seems to be in a band of some kind.

Anyway, ‘Brown-eyed Girl’ gets a nice hand, so I stick with the hits for awhile, getting the crowd on my side.

Café Natur is an old-style ‘basket house’, where the musician’s nightly pay is pretty low, but they pass a battered old black cowboy hat four or five times a night. The happier I keep ‘em, the more cash they will put in the hat.

The businessmen turn out to be a great group of mostly Icelandic guys, and they ask for some country music. I do a bit that I usually do when some asks for country music,

“So, do you want to hear a real country song, or do you want to hear Garth Brooks?” 

They laugh.“No Garth Brooks … Johnny Cash!”

So, it’s ‘Ring of Fire’, followed by a flashy (and pretty corny) finger style take on ‘Hotel California’, a sing-along to ‘The Wild Rover’, and my first set in Torshavn is in the books.

The rest of the night goes pretty much the same way, a lot of hits, a few misses, but the crowd stays and there are a few groans of “Nej” (No) when the last orders bell is rung.  

The old hat is filled with coins, some crumpled notes, and cigarettes. (People always assume musicians are smokers, and smokes are expensive here, so they are meant as a nice tip. I don’t smoke, of course.)

It counts out to a good night’s work. I give the bartender the cigs, and he cashes me out. If the rest of the week goes as well, it’ll be a trip well spent.

I think I am going to like Torshavn and I am glad it is now part of my songline.


Stay
There are a few good hotels, many B&Bs and a ton of other places to stay in Torshavn. The Hotel Hafnia is where the visiting bigwigs and politicos hang. Classy and old-world style.

If you are looking to sleep cheap and aren’t overly concerned with amenities,  you can’t go wrong with the Bládýpi youth hostel and guesthouse. Centrally located, inexpensive and friendly management. bladypi@hostel.fo

Eat
Torshavn, and the Faroes in general, are crammed with eateries. Sushi, pizza, local grub, even a Burger King.

The Café Natur does pretty good café food, featuring wraps and toasts.

Remember, you are in the middle of the Atlantic, and what is available can frequently be affected by the weather, dockworker strikes and other vagaries.

Shortages of chicken for the wraps are handled stoically, but there was a near riot when the beer kegs began to run dry during a dock strike a few years back.

Áarstova, located in the harbour across from the Café Natur is the place to try local favourites in an elegant setting.

Local fare like braised lamb, halibut and crab are carefully prepared and thoughtfully presented. www.aarstova.fo

Do
Well, get out of town, actually. 

Torshavn is filled with charms, but you are on one of the last remote natural refuges in the world.

National Geographic recently called the Faroe Islands one of the world’s most desirable destinations.

Book a tour to sail around the islands bird watching, horseback riding or hiking.

If you should luck out and be in town when singer/songwriter and Faroese national treasure Teitur is playing somewhere, go! It is like seeing Springsteen in New Jersey!

If you are looking to get your heartrate up, Fighting the Elements, an eco-tour that incorporates the four elements of fire, water, air and earth in a natural challenge tough enough for experienced outdoorsy types and still arranged so everyone can participate in the activities. info@coastzone.fo

 



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