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A Weekend Trip to Finland
A travel feature by Helena Mary Smith

There was a buzz and excitement in the Viking departure lounge that I hadn’t felt before in Sweden. Refined Swedes were pushing, shouting and laughing; the atmosphere was celebratory. I was boarding one of the famous ‘floating hotels’ which travel between Stockholm and Finland: an improbably large ship, emblazoned with the Viking legend. The goal of the present-day Vikings plying these waters is not trade or plunder, but the single-minded pursuit of alcohol. The swish bars and discos of the ship were soon overrun; the duty-free was invaded. I decided to escape and go on deck.

The beauty of the view and the gathering darkness had silenced the few people outside. We were sailing through Stockholm’s great archipelago, which is composed of literally thousands of thickly-wooded islands. Some of the islands have Viking settlements, others have impressive medieval fortifications and lively harbours. But many of these dots of land are just big enough for a wooden summer house and a jetty. The tiny islands seemed touching, small traces of human habitation in a lonely seascape. Although I had a high vantage point out over the water, I felt dwarfed. I went back into the clamorous ship and watched our progress on an electronic map, the ship symbolised by a small red flashing light in an immensity of sea and scattered land.

We docked in Turku harbour, where I met my friend Milla, who spent the weekend showing me the sights and the nightlife of this vibrant university town, once the capital of Finland. Turku, whose buildings were almost entirely made of wood, was razed to the ground by fire in 1827, and has been rebuilt in a brash style, mitigated by the lively atmosphere and the presence of the river which runs through the centre of town. Milla and I spent an afternoon sitting on one of the boats, converted into pubs and restaurants, which are moored along the river. She insisted that it was the only way to meet Finnish boys, who are too shy to talk to anyone unless they are megalärvit (Finnish for very drunk). The boats were crammed with lobster-coloured lads – it was extremely hot – but they seemed more interested in achieving the megalärvit state than in conversing with the opposite sex.

The next day we visited the Handicrafts Museum: a humble and beautiful memorial to Turku before the fire, comprising a little network of wooden houses and workshops. This area, where goats were tethered to the chimneys to keep down the turf on the roofs, escaped the great fire, and evolved into a museum. Each household was engaged in some kind of craft or production signalled by a sign outside: a gilded twist of pastry denotes the baker’s house; a gleaming red volume the bookmaker’s; an ornate clock adorns the watchmaker’s. Milla and I strolled through the narrow grassed streets in baking heat, eating traditional sweets. Inside, the buildings were unexpectedly cool, the light dim. Half-made violins and cellos litter the instrument maker’s shop, marbled paper tumbles from a desk in the bookmaker’s workshop, and a fantastic array of gaily-painted wall-clocks line the blue walls of the watchmaker’s shop. Dedication to craft and industry is evident in the living rooms of the houses, with their small wooden box-beds painted with flowers, intricate patchwork quilts, wire birdcages and capacious tiled stoves. Milla told me that this rustic domesticity is still found in Finnish country homes, and that modest country values, exemplified by the purifying ritual of the sauna, are highly prized.

On my last day we went out driving to a lush park beyond the harbour, where the water begins to widen and embrace the archipelago. It was late May, and spring had just come to Finland. Although it comes late, spring appears to spring in Finland with a particular energy. Everything seemed a celebration of the passing of winter: the air was heavy with a hay-feverish concoction of scent and pollen, and people were revelling in the unexpected heat. We walked along the water’s edge through a thick corridor of greenery to see Turku’s “lace villas”. These are Edwardian wooden mansions perched on a hillside and almost lost in luxuriant gardens, each painted a different pastel shade and all embellished with delicate lacy scrolls of wood. Each villa has a corresponding jetty with a little ornate bathing-house painted in the same cool pastel colour as its parent.

We returned to the beach and Milla suggested that we wait to see the Viking ship that was to take me back to Stockholm; it was almost due in Turku harbour. The beach is unusually wide, and there is an annual rock festival there which is the biggest in Finland. Milla told me that people come from the interior of the country who have never seen the sea before, and they are always stunned when the Viking ship goes by. I felt blasé about the prospect of seeing the ship having actually sailed on it, but as the Viking’s giant prow emerged way above the tree-line and passed the beach, slipping through what seemed an impossibly narrow and shallow stretch of water, I was stunned too.

I said goodbye to Milla, and to Turku, its blunt medieval castle which was once an island, now fringed by trees and surrounded by the ugly but somehow cheerful sprawl of the town. On the way back to Stockholm, the ship passed through the Åland Islands (there are more than 6000 of them), comprising a sort of separate state distinct from Finland. Historically a pawn in the conflict between Sweden and Russia over Finland, the Åland people were used as reluctant messengers, carrying the mail across the frozen seas between Stockholm and Tsarist Russia. Roman coins were found on the islands, and there are many Viking burial mounds. I stayed on the deck of the ship until it was too dark to see the great masses of forested islands, edged by wooden houses on the shores of the sea.

Copyright © Helena Mary Smith 1997

Helena Mary Smith works for a noted travel guide publisher. Her travel writing has won her numerous press awards.

Rights: The author by email to <[email protected]>


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