Between Sweden and Finland lie the Alands.
That, at least, is the way of putting things preferred by the natives. The islands are a highly autonomous region of tumultuous history, currently belonging, officially, to Finland – though for most of its history it was Swedish. The locals speak (often only) Swedish, the road signs are in Swedish, the architecture is Swedish. The only concession to the current owners are Finnish flags flying alongside those of Aland and Sweden.
That the Alands belong to Finland now is an accident of imperial history: they were briefly conquered by Russia in the 19th century, and when the Empire fell and was carved up, Finland took the islands with her. Because of the strategic value of the archipelago at the time, there are now far more traces of Russia on Alands than of Finland, scattered among the few places worth sight-seeing.
You can easily see all the main tourist attractions of the usual kind in half a day. Most of them are conveniently spread around one small area, the tallest and oldest (the continuous rising of the land means that you can usually tell the age of a place by how tall it is) part of the archipelago, in Sandvik and Sund. The largest of these – though easy to overlook even as you pass right through – is the old Russian fortress at Bomarsund; once a mighty rampart, it has been reduced by the British during the Crimean War to a pile of curious rubble. I say it’s easy to overlook, because the way it’s been built – using oddly shaped hexagonal blocks of stone – makes the ruins seem like an oversized crazy golf field, or a zoo. It’s only when we passed a row of cannons that we decided to stop and see what all the fuss is about.
The other set of things to see is in the nearby Kastelholm: a substantial castle, flying the Stag Banner of the Aland, and a small open-air museum of iron-red coated cottages, windmills (of which there are plenty everywhere) and barns. A few miles to the north-west from there, in the middle of a forest surrounding the archipelago’s tallest point, are scattered remains and reconstructions of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer settlement; the bark tents and the dugout boats look as if their owners had just left them to gather some more berries and mushrooms (the forests are bountiful in the summer).
It’s not surprising that the oldest human remains can be found on the tallest hill: the Alands rose from the Baltic mere 10,000 years ago, and keep rising, at the rate of half-an-inch a year. That means some of the reefs and islets scattered around the main islands may be no more than a century old. Seen from above, Aland reminds me of the map of Le Guin’s Earthsea, a vast, scattered archipelago linked with boats and ferries.
The capital Mariehamn is a tiny town, stretched between two harbours. Most of it is rather ugly, built up in the 60s and 70s, a typical seaside resort, with plenty of shopping galleries for the tourists and ordinary, old fashioned cafes and restaurants. It’s hiding one real gem, though – the back alleys of Lilla Torget, lined with old wooden houses on one side, and a pottery and glassblowing barn on the other; in midday, in the summer, the colorful glass playing on the vines and reflecting in the window panes makes a lovely sight.
Overlooking the eastern, busier harbour and marina, is the Alands Parliament building and garden – all neat lines, straight angles, and dazzling white surfaces. Over on the other side, in the western harbour, stands Pommern, a four-master 19th century merchantman, symbol of the town. Linking the two is a leafy, linden-tree-line avenue of old wooden villas. That pretty much expires the list of interesting things to do in the capital, unless you’re fond of visiting small museums and galleries.
Sightseeing historical and architectural landmarks, or strolling about Mariehamn, is not really what tourists flock to the Aland for in the summer – rather, it’s the birch forests, golden beaches, unusually warm sea, or uniquely flat and convenient hiking and biking trails; but for us the finest part of the Aland stay, and one that made it most worth the stop-over (you can simply go from Stockholm to Turku, bypassing the entire archipelago) came last: the slow, leisurely ferry ride between the eastern islands.
We headed for Kokar (or “Shocker”, as the locals pronounce it), a tiny islet south-east of the mainland; non-natives are forced to stay overnight if they want to use this route, but we didn’t mind. In fact, both Kokar, and the ferry ride itself, became one of the highlights of the entire trip. The sea was flat as glass, rippled only by gusts of wind, and the 6000 islets and rocks of the archipelago ensured that the view out the window remained interesting throughout. Kokar itself, though tiny and out of the way now, turned out to have a fascinating past: lying historically in the middle of the fastest route between Stockholm and Turku, it was an important Hansa outpost, manned by a community of Franciscan monks. The excavations, gathered in a ruined monastery chapel near the island’s main church, show that the monks enjoyed a life of relative luxury, dining on Flemish and Flanders plates of the same sort that we used to find while mudlarking in the Thames Estuary, brought in, no doubt, by the same Hansa tradesmen.
I haven’t yet mentioned the food of Aland, for which the islands are rightly famous: the sweet, dark bread, the apples and apple juice, the spring onions, the berries and mushrooms, and the Alandspankakka, a half-an-inch thick pancake served with cream and stewed fruit.
The ferry from Kokar to the mainland reaches a tiny port of Galtby, 70km from Turku. There are no campsites around it, and we reach it late at night – so hopefully we can find a spot at the nearby marina…