Turku (9 – 12 September)

We arrived in Helsinki fairly early in the morning, but didn’t stop and headed immediately for the railway station. Helsinki had a surprisingly small train station for a capital, and we were soon on the train travelling to our next destination of… Turku.

Although I’d never heard of Turku before it was effectively the capital of Finland for hundreds of years, until shortly after Finland joined the Russian Empire when the capital was moved to Helsinki (all the better for Russia to keep an eye on the place from nearby St Petersburg). Turku continued to be the most populous city in Finland until the end of the 1840s.  It was a cheap travel ticket, yet the train was modern, quiet and very smooth. We had a table on the upper floor and admired the trolley lift which we later saw in use (so that the refreshments lady could move between the lower and upper floors!)  We also remarked on the view which was much less full of towns and developed land than the UK, instead we passed a few fields and significant woodland; something I’d love to see more of in the UK.  All in all it was a nice journey.

Turku was an even smaller train station than Helsinki, with just a couple of platforms (though it does have two other train stations, both which we stopped at on the way in). We were staying in a Radisson Blu; unusually for The40Project a chain hotel, but apparently Turku doesn’t offer a wealth of options. It was in a nice location on the riverside in a central part of the city, just beside a path which was popular for locals to walk and cycle along. But it was a somewhat aging design and the interior reminded us of the Hotel Viru in Tallin; very 70s! A small display cabinet showed items from it’s history dating back to 1974 showing it had changed hands and names several times. Unfortunately it appeared that the decor did not keep up. We also found that the advertised “super” breakfast really wasn’t that super (just expensive!). All reminding us why we prefer individual hotels.

Our first stop was to visit Turku Cathedral on the Great Square, which was small but interesting. The cathedral was apparently originally built out of wood in the late 13th century, and was dedicated as the main Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of Finland in 1300 (referred to as the Mother Church), the seat of the archbishop of Turku. It was badly damaged during the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, and was substantially rebuilt after. It is well known around Finland as it’s bells are broadcast live on national radio at noon daily. It had some nice stained glass and an impressive organ.  A number of relatively minor luminaries are buried in the cathedral, but in the small chapel to the left of the main altar is the monumental sarcophagus of Karin Månsdotter.  She is relatively unknown by most people,  however she did manage a number of firsts in her life. She is considered to be the first official royal mistress in Sweden (with her own apartments, expensive clothes and retinue), she was the first royal mistress to become queen (of Sweden), the first commoner (her parents were a soldier and a peasant) to be ennobled and become queen, and they were the first royal couple to have their children present at their royal wedding (they had previously married morganatically before she was ennobled).  She was popular in Finland and very successful in managing her affairs, making Liuksiala Manor (her retirement property) the most lucrative estate in Finland. She died at the manor aged 61 and was buried in the cathedral.

Next we visited the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, a unique outdoor museum. The museum is located in the only whole area of the city surviving the Great Fire of 1827. The wooden houses, many of them dating to the 18th century, are in exactly the original sites they were built, and in summer the place is manned by craftsman demonstrating some of the traditional crafts associated with the original buildings such as watch makers, bakers, furniture makers etc. As it was officially winter far fewer buildings were occupied, although we did enjoy chatting to a nice guy who manned an information room who told us some of the history of the museum, as well as drawing our attention to the photo on the wall of the time Queen Elisabeth II visited.

We returned to the hotel to grab a short sauna break, and relaxed for half an hour or so. We chatted to a nice Danish guy in the sauna, who was a guest at the hotel on business and also noticed a couple of young Finns (we presumed) who were enjoying a beer in the sauna before going out for the night. On the subject of food we ate in a restaurant called Pub Niska specialising in Niska Åland flatbreads; very much like pizzas. They were very tasty and I enjoyed an excellent local craft beer with them whilst enjoying the atmosphere of the lively restaurant (which had an intriguing interior décor using packing crates as tables and chairs).

In the morning we ambled through Turku market hall, which sold a wide variety of lovely local foods and Hansa Emporium – a shopping centre which has a splendid, but expensive, outdoors shop (Partioaitta). We couldn’t stop however as we were destined for the bus station and a journey to the seaside town of Naantali. Naantali is apparently a very popular resort with the Finns in summer time, but we arrived to find the place almost deserted. It seems that out of season, like much of Scandinavia, there are hardly any visitors and most shops and facilities were closed. It felt quite special to have the place almost to ourselves, and with a beautiful blue sky and some sunshine we walked to the tiny island of Kailo – joined to the mainland via a bridge at the harbour. It was here that we stumbled across Moomin World – very popular with Finns, apparently;  but not off season, as it was closed. However we enjoyed wandering around the paths on the island and admiring the expensive looking holiday homes on our meandering return to the bus stop.

In the remains of the afternoon we visited the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, part archaeological museum and part contemporary art collection. Original plans were to build a contemporary art museum, but during the construction they discovered a number of artifacts and structures going back to medieval times. In fact an archeological dig uncovered much of a 14th century street with a surprising amount of artefacts with which they have been able to reconstruct detail about how life was lived there. It was interesting being able explore the excavations alongside the interpretation of the findings in the museum built over them. Dinner was Viking food at Viikinkiravintola Harald, which was not bad, though rather by the numbers and not as good as the similar restaurant we visited in Stockholm. The décor was like an overlay of Viking theming by IKEA and it came as no great surprise to later find out that it was part of a chain aimed at tourists.

For our next day we hired (well, borrowed as they were free) bikes from the hotel and set off along the path outside the hotel, following the river. After a pleasant ride of about 30mins we came to our first stop – Turku Castle. It was a large and prestigious building reflecting the Turku of it’s time, having been built and expanded before the Russians moved the Finnish capital to Helsinki in the days of the Empire. It is one of the oldest (of the same vintage as Turku Cathedral) and largest medieval buildings still in existence in Finland. It was originally built in around 1280 as a Swedish military fortress and administrative centre for Eastland (what Finland was known as while a province of Sweden). The castle was considerably extended during the 16th century under Prince John (son of Gustav Vas, King of Sweden) who ran the administration of Finland. Since then the castle has not been added or extended, just refurbished.  The importance of the castle waxed and waned, being ruled in different stages of its history by the castle sheriff, commander, regent, duke or governor-general. Not particularly figuring in the defence of the realm it was more a significant player in internal Sweden-Finland power struggles. The castle has seen it’s fair share of disaster including being destroyed by fire in 1614 during the visit of King Gustav II Adolf, and in 1941 during the Continuation War of World War Two the main castle was hit by incendiary bombs.  The current renovation was finally finished in 1987 and although it is owned by the Finnish state it is entrusted to the city of Turku. The castle is first and foremost a museum but also includes banquet / conference facilities, a church for the local congregation and a restaurant.

We’d originally allowed between one and two hours for our visit, but I think it took almost three; we’d not fully appreciated the vastness size of the place. We left our rucksacks in the cloakroom (very good move with hindsight!) and began our tour with the Renaissance Bailey which has been restored in the style of the period. It had a large number of rooms with a very impressive amount of information for visitors, including multi-lingual information panels. We were also really impressed by the amount of material aimed at keeping kids engaged, including dress up options (which “Knight Ed” enjoyed), puzzles (which Greg enjoyed) and a series of audio tracks of “Tales from the Castle Elf”, which we both enjoyed.  After the historical information rooms we moved on to the second section of the bailey which focused on furniture, showing rooms furnished in the style of different periods of the castle’s history, including a very intricate dolls house which was a detailed replica of the castle. We thought our tour was concluded at the end of this, but the very cheerful ticket lady waved us onto an entrance we hadn’t spotted earlier, to take us into the keep proper. This proved to be a further sequence of rooms almost as large as the ones we’d visited already!  The keep is medieval and like the bailey is restored in the style of the period it was built. The vast rooms felt much more traditional castle like with thick stone walls and small windows. The “attic” rooms contain an interesting display of traditional Swedish accessories (shoes, fans, handbags, etc) and jewellery, followed by a display of small, decorative interior furnishings and also a room of traditional toys.

By the end of the visit we’d enjoyed the experience, but definitely felt in need of refreshment and visited a food kiosk shop over the road. The lady there was rather elderly and very chatty, with reasonable English. She told us that it had been such a hot summer that her kiosk had reached 35 degrees one day! Happily it was a lot cooler for us, which made our subsequent cycle ride very pleasant.

After the castle we travelled much further afield, as our destination was a small island just over 10 km away called Ruissalo. This wasn’t far on a bike, but we did have to go over a couple of bridges and the fact that the bikes had no gears didn’t particularly help the climbs. However shortly after the bridges we were on the island and were able to take a cycle/walking path through it. The path wended itself along fields and through forests generally away from the road, and ending up feeling somewhat like the vehicle-free Sark. It was nice to explore the island in this relaxed manner and from time to time we passed other cyclists or joggers sharing the tranquil experience. The sun was out and it was a pleasant journey as we continued through the island passing various small buildings including a farm and a golf course. At the far end we cycled through a camp site, and ended up on a small rocky beach overlooking the sea. We sat for a while by the shore, mostly by ourselves but occasionally with other visitors (from the campsite it seemed) walking past, and watched some ships sail past. After an hour or so we returned to our bikes and retraced our steps back to the hotel.

Dinner that night was in a cellar restaurant, Wanhan Paronin Kellari (The Old Baron’s Cellar) which exceeded our expectations and offered particularly nice food. We both had splendid fishcakes as a starter, and for mains I had lamb shank and Greg veal; both excellent. My dessert was an interesting orange creme brûlée, which proved a tasty end to a very enjoyable meal.

One last night and then first thing in the morning we were back on the road to … Helsinki (again!).

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