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Northern waters: Iceland by boat

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Norröna in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland (photo © hidden europe).


It is surprising how quickly Denmark recedes into nothingness, and then the Norröna is alone among the waves. We travel on Smyril Line's flagship as she sails from Denmark via the Faroe Islands to the eastern fjords of Iceland.

Deck eight is for the tough men. They huddle in the lee of the ship’s great black funnel and their greatest creature comfort is a loaf of sliced white bread and a jar of nutella. One jar of nutella can go a long way - even as far as Iceland. The voyage from tame Denmark to the land of fire and ice takes sixty-eight hours, more than enough time to tire of nutella. More than enough time for the poets and philosophers on deck six to read the sagas as the ship runs north through fair weather and foul.

The ship’s funnel is embellished with a merlin. Not the Arthurian wizard but a feathery merlin. This small bird of prey is common in the islands of the North Atlantic served by Smyril Line. The company is based in the Faroes, a scatter of mountainous islands midway between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. Birds matter in the Faroes. Puffins, kittiwakes and guillemots have long been mainstays in the Faroese diet, with the meat of the birds served fresh, dried and salted. And as long as the birds are valued for their meat, their eggs and their feathers, the Faroese fowler will find a niche in island life. But no-one in the Faroe Islands hunts the merlin, locally called smyril, which commands respect as the only bird of prey in the remote archipelago. And it is that small bird, a member of the falcon family, that gives its name to the Faroese shipping company Smyril Line. The company’s sole ship is called Norröna, a name that underlines the vessel’s role as an ambassador for the north.

embarkation port: Esbjerg

Embarkation point is on the fringes of a vast desert of wharves and quays on Denmark’s North Sea coast. Esbjerg is a fishing port. Not one of those quaint ports that you run across on the rocky coasts of Cornwall, Brittany or Donegal where tourists flock round brightly coloured boats. You know the kind of place: ruddy-faced men touting trips round the bay. Esbjerg is different. Mevagissey with an industrial twist. Low slung warehouses, canneries and freezer plants, cranes that nod at mountains of containers that are arranged on the quaysides.

Container architecture is always interesting. Lego-like sculptures that give dramatic silhouettes to lonely quaysides, each container a silent emissary from afar. In Esbjerg they pile containers as high as apartment blocks, every unit of each stack proclaiming its urgent message with a megafont punch: Maersk, Cobelfret, Tor Line, Faroe Ship, Eimskip, Smyril Blue Water.

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