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Aland Isles - where Sweden meets Finland - a Scandinavian secret.
Scattered in the centre of the Baltic sea - the Aland Isles
The ferry from Stockholm (Sweden) heading for Helsinki, (Finland) has ploughed on through the night.
Soon we arrive at the first port of call; a place I’m anticipating will be a unique experience. Scattered in the centre of the Baltic Sea are the Aland Isles.
It’s a stunning early morning sight, having breakfast while sailing through this archipelago of more than 6,500 islands and skerries of which only 65 are inhabited.
The ferries dock daily at Aland, the largest island, home to 90 percent of the population. It boasts the only town, Mariehamn with around 10,800 inhabitants.
Mariehamn - Aland
Summertime and the pace is easy. Mariehamn is a pleasant, lively town and best discovered on foot.
Shopping is a must. Local creativity is displayed in the handicraft shops. Many items, like the exquisite candles, are crafted during the winter months.
Individual stores display crafts and textiles of strong vibrant design and colour. Many specialise in glass, ceramics, handmade silver jewelry; the silver flower shapes are exquisite.
Handcrafts in Mariehamn
I must mention Aland’s culinary specialty. The daily baked black bread has a taste I still long for.
Aland’s pancakes knock the socks off any I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve sampled a few.
Served with thick whipped cream and jam, I confess to addiction.
The mention of islands often conjures up swaying palm trees and tropical elements.
In complete contrast Mariehamn is often referred to as ‘the town of a thousand linden trees.’ While this is poetically exaggerated there are around 700 lime trees, the first planted in the town square in the 1890s.
The islands are also known as the oak zone of Scandinavia. Deciduous trees such as oak, ash, maple, birch and elm flourish.
Nature conservation is significant, ensuring the protection of plants, wild flowers, rare orchids and many mammals and birds.
Throughout the islands around 40 nature reserves have been set aside to preserve different types of nature – the intention to benefit future generations.
Aland has a complex history - Swedish, Finnish, Russian. Today it is proudly autonomous and demilitarized. No military presence and the islands may not be fortified.
While it remains a province of Finland the official language is Swedish.
The Swedish language is used by regional, municipal and state authorities and is the language taught in schools.
In 1861 Aland and Finland were part of Czar Alexander 11’s empire. Alexander himself conceived the wide open boulevardes and avenues of the town he named after his Czarina Maria – Mariehamn.
Today it is self governed boasting its own flag, stamps, car number plates, and is a member of the EU, Euro being the official currency. Past political upheavals, cultural heritage and traditions are well documented in the Aland museum.
A Fortress and Castles
In 1832 the Russian forces in Aland started to build a fortress they named Bomarsund.
Despite millions of hand-made bricks and massive quarried granite blocks it was never completed.
Enter the French and British and the Crimean war. After 22 years of building Bomarsund fell after just four days of battle. The rosy pink granite ruins are still commanding and offer a view of the archipelago.
A few kilometres from Bomarsund stands Kastelholme castle. Like most ancient castles it has tales to tell - of pirates and imprisoned kings - of decay and destruction.
Now partially restored, the past is also exhibited from the excavations. A large glass case displays scooped up remains; animal parts, feathers, human bones, teeth, flesh. It’s compelling and chilling.
Kastelholme Castle -
The Nautical Connection
Messing about in boats isn’t compulsory in Mariehamn but it surely helps. The island is steeped in maritime traditions. Captain Gustaf Erikson lived here; known around the world as the greatest and last of the windjammer ship-owners.
He first went to sea at the age of ten. During his lifetime he owned more than 40 ships. You can sense his dedication in his enthusiastic quote - “Nothing is impossible for God and for a captain on board a sailing-ship.”
After Erikson’s death his family presented the town with the windjammer Pommern, now a museum ship.
Clearly this is one of the foremost attractions for tourists. Built in Scotland in 1903 she remains the only four mast sailing vessel in the world kept in original condition.
Today there is access to all parts of the ship and it is fascinating, even to a non-nautical person like me.
As the Pommern was once on the Australian grain run there are many links with Australia to be seen in the hordes of photographs and exhibits on the decks.
Down to the Sea
The Maritime museum has a display of nautical artifacts including numerous imposing figureheads. Small boats are still being built - boat outings to other islands are readily available.
If you’re into fishing you’re in the right place. Plenty of charter boats and fishing teams on offer although you must buy a fishing licence, available locally. Experienced divers can join a dive to a shipwreck.
Darkness to Light
During the dark winter months the sea between the islands freezes, turning into an ice road. In spring the weather turns around and festivities begin. The midsummer celebrations herald the light, symbolizing Aland and the Alandic summer.
On Midsummer Eve around 60 official maypoles are erected. As each village has its own traditions no two are identical and they vary from year to year.
Some are decorated with juniper garlands and birch leaves. Others are wreathed in brightly coloured flowers. And it’s time to celebrate.
Throughout the months celebrations continue. Viking Market days where market stalls tempt with authentic handicrafts while hotheaded warriors re-enact battles.
The annual peasant wedding market re-enacts a 19th century Alandic wedding complete with celebrations and procession.
There’s more to come. The tall ships regatta, a mail boat race, self governing day festivities, crossing the line ceremony, jazz and country music festivals, even Elvis shows.
For golfers - two 18 hole courses. Beach volleyball, trotting races at the track, hunting and fishing, or cheer on the soccer team - IFK Mariehamn. If nothing suits, island hopping is an option.
How about sampling the spirit of Aland? In France you might sample Calvados – in Aland it’s Alvados - brandy distilled from a variety of apples.
If you can have spirit you can have ale. The brewery staff are eager to share their product and explain the beer brewing process.
Sample a range from Stallhagen light beer to Stallhagen dark lagers and Export.
St Mikael's Church - frescoes and wooden sculptures
Back to Town
Perhaps time to mention churches. Sprinkled around the islands, built with thick granite walls, many date back to medieval times. Impressive St Mikael’s displays beautifully preserved15th century painted frescoes and wooden sculptures, while hanging from the ceiling is a model of a ship.
I was fascinated by the history of Hilda Hongell, the first female architect in Finland who spent her childhood in Aland.
Long before feminism, at a time when only males were accepted into industrial schools, she made a difference. Her exceptional results saw her accepted to begin a career in architecture.
Hilda designed 98 buildings in the Mariehamn district. Take a stroll and you’ll be sure to find some of her work - around 44 of them are still standing. The ornamental Swiss style was much favoured at the time.
Hilda Hongell, the first female architect in Finland
No problems getting around the island. You can bike, hike, hire a car, local bus, taxi, or hire a guide and car from tourist companies. Accommodation ranges from camping, B&B, cottages and rooms, to splendid hotels.
If you find yourself in Aland head for the Information Centre, it’s the place to start.
And do yourself a favor – sample the Aland pancakes. I only wish you could bring one back for me.