FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Ferry through the archipelago

Posted in Åland, Finland, Mariehamn, Turku by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

Our short stay in the Åland islands came to an end all too quickly. We picked up our cases from the hotel in the city centre and made the fifteen minute walk to the ferry terminal at Västerhamn, checked in and waited for our ships to arrive. You might think that the middle of the afternoon would be a relatively quiet time at the terminal, but not a bit of it. There is actually something of a mini rush hour which sees four ships comes and go within a half hour window.

A view of the Amorella at Mariehamn from the top deck of the Viking Grace

Two Tallink-Silja ships were in when we arrived – the Baltic Princess, bound for Turku, and the Silja Galaxy, bound for Stockholm. Fifteen minutes after they left their berths were taken up by two Viking Line ships – the Viking Grace, bound for Turku, and the Amorella, bound for Stockholm. The boarding gates for both Viking Line ships opened at the same time, with a brief pause on the passenger walkway while the connection to the ships was established.

Our travels would take us on the Viking Grace to Turku, a journey which takes around five and a half hours. It was notable that there were more passengers and cars on this daytime crossing than we had seen in the early hours of the morning, but we were still only talking about something like 30 foot passengers. On this occasion we had booked a cheap but rather smart inside cabin to store our bags and as a retreat for the less enthusiastic ship-goer! We were on board at 14.10, ready for the 14.25 departure.

The Amorella heads away from Kobba Klintar towards Stockholm

The Amorella left first, closely followed by our ship. It was lovely to get a daylight view of the harbour, which I have only seen in the low light of the evening and early morning. A few teenagers sprawled out on the concrete towers along the coast watching as our ship passed by. We followed the Amorella as far as Kobba Klintar and there our paths diverged, with the ships going either side of the famous rocky outpost.

The Viking Grace is an interesting ship with a number of measures designed to minimise her impact on the environment, powered by sulphur-free liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hydrodynamic design of the hull helps to minimise waves which makes a big difference in the five hours or so that she spends in the Turku archipelago. However, the The most most visually impressive feature of the Viking Grace is a 24 metre high rotating sail.

The rotating sail uses the Magnus effect to reduce fuel consumption. I was astonished to learn that this technology was originally devised in the 1920s and that the first rotor ship crossed the Atlantic in 1926! The winds were quite blustery on our crossing, resulting in the rotor sail spinning faster and faster. As we set off you could easily read the words printed on the sail but once we were midway that became an impossibility. Perfect conditions for a bit of fuel saving!

The impressive rotor sail on the Viking Grace

It slightly screwed with my head that we were starting in a location running on Finnish time, heading to a destination running on Finnish time, but had a late-lunch (or was it early dinner!?) sitting timetabled in Swedish time. Our meal was booked in the Aurora, one of seven restaurants on board, which serves a buffet. If you have booked in advance you get a meal coupon at checkin which has your table number printed on it, so there’s no need to worry if you are not part of the initial surge into the restaurant on opening. So far I have been impressed with the food offering on every crossing we’ve made in the Baltic and this was no exception.

The Viking Line buffet offered a vast and utterly marvelous array of dishes – lots of variations on herring (such as aquavit and juniper flavoured dill herring; pickled fried herring with leek; and blueberry herring) and an assortment of fish, meat and vegetarian dishes. Alongside this were some tasty specialty breads (such as nettle+buck wheat crispbread and black bread from Aland), cheeses (great with the sea buckthorn and apple marmalade on offer); small desserts and macarons. All washed down with lingonberry juice and Lapin Kulta beer. It all seemed much better organised and replenished than the Tallink equivalent we had experienced a few days earlier.

The rocky islet of Loistokari in the archipelago

The Turku Archipelago made quite a sight, so much so that I found it hard to stay away from the upper decks to soak up the view. The archipelago is made up of between 20,000 and 50,000 islands and skerries (estimates in the sources I read seemed to vary wildly), which stretch all the way from the Åland Islands to Turku. Many are in a pristine natural state, while others were populated with wonderfully positioned summer homes a few steps away from the water.

On our passage through the archipelago we caught sight of a few interesting ships such as the FinFerries commuter ferry Stella which operates between Korpo and Houtskär. In these waters FinFerries and Rolls-Royce have been conducting some fascinating work, leading to the launch of the first autonomous ferries in the archipelago. The first autonomous ship, Falco, can conduct its voyage without human intervention but a captain monitoring the autonomous operations from an office in the city centre of Turku can take over at any point if required.

Other ships we saw in the archipelago included the tourist ship M/S Rudolfina, the vintage steamer S/S Ukkopekka and the cargo ship Fjardvagen. On our approach to the port of Turku we could also see the Silja line ship that had left Mariehamn just before us, the Baltic Princess.

The Viking Line terminal at Turku

Our ship arrived in Turku just before 8pm and for convenience we jumped in a taxi for the relatively short ride to our hotel – the Radisson Blu Marina Palace. I would like to say that I chilled out in our room but the evening light was too perfect to resist. I walked back nearly all the way to the port to take some photographs of more ships!

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Highlights of Mariehamn

Posted in Åland, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

Over one and half days we found time to visit the sights of Mariehamn, slotted around an outing to Kastelholm. The compact nature of the capital, positioned on a narrow peninsula, makes it very easy to get around. Indeed, it takes just 15 minutes to walk from one side of the city to the other. It’s a charming city too, with many pretty nineteenth century/early twentieth century wooden houses to admire.

The only place we didn’t spend much time at was the Maritime Quarter, though we did get a chance to wander the shoreline here in the early hours of the morning. We attempted to take a look at the small seafarers chapel at the end of the pier here until a dive-bombing seagull stopped us in our tracks. A second attempt 24 hours later was no more successful – we took the hint from a series of low-flying swoops and some pretty loud screeching!

Model Town Mariehamn
Modellstaden Mariehamn

The scant information I had discovered online for the Modellstaden Mariehamn had said that it was located in Mathis Hallen’s basement in the corner of Norragatan-Ålandsvägen and operated fairly limited opening hours. I conjured up a vision of a model town in the basement of an elderly gentleman, so I was highly amused to discover that Mathis Hallen was actually Mariehamn’s largest supermarket!

The entrance to the model town

The set up that awaited in the extensive basement was far more impressive than anything I could have imagined. The entire space was filled with glass cabinets that presented a vision of the city in the 1920s that includes more than 600 detailed buildings. I soon discovered that this was the result of 30 years work by a group of pensioners in Mariehamn, which has been only been on display to the public since 2015.

I could see that the enthusiastic volunteers were proud of their masterpiece and rightly so. One chap took the time to point out to us the school he attended and recalled that the doors were locked dead on 8 o’clock each morning and if you were not in on time you had to wait outside in the cold. After five years he had enough and went to sea!

Mariehamn in the 1920s

The city was founded in 1861 so most of what you can see was constructed in the architectural styles of the late 19th/early 20th century, much of which is still very recognisable. We had not seen enough of Mariehamn to appreciate what we were looking at when we went in, but once we started walking around the city afterwards we started to spot the beautiful buildings that we had seen in miniature. Quite marvelous.

The model town is open to visitors this year each day from 1st June until 31st August between 12pm and 4pm. Entry is free.

Aland Maritime Museum and Museumship Pommern
Ålands sjöfartsmuseum och fartyget Pommern

The Pommern is the star attraction of Mariehamn. A four-masted and iron-hulled merchant sailing ship built in 1903 by by John Reid and Co of Glasgow. The first owners of the Pommern were the the German shipping company F. Laeisz of Hamburg whose ships acquired the nickname of the Flying P-Liners on account of their speed. The company sold off many of their older ships in the 1920s and the Pommern was acquired by Åland shipowner Gustaf Erikson in 1923.

Museum ship Pommern

Once on board the rather enjoyable audio commentary talked us through the story of the Pommern’s voyages to Australia on the grain run. The Pommern won the grain races twice, in 1930 and 1937, with many of the other races going to other Flying P-Liners in Finnish ownership. Inside the ship there are a few more interactive displays and an audio-visual re-creation of a storm at sea.

The maritime museum next door holds plenty of interest too. Among the highlights is the preserved cabin of the Herzogin Cecilie, a four time winner of the grain race, which was inexplicably beached off the coast of Devon in 1936. Attempts to save the ship failed and the ship was wrecked. The ship owner, Gustaf Erikson, had the salvageable parts of the ship transported back to Åland, including the captain’s saloon.

Other exhibits on display include one of only two authentic skull and crossbones pirate flags known to exist (a real curiosity, at 200 years old and now faded from black to light brown) and yet more of those porcelain Staffordshire dogs that seem to be everywhere in Scandinavia!

Åland Cultural History Museum and Åland Art Museum
Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum och Ålands konstmuseum

Two museums in one – one telling the history of the Åland islands and the other presenting the art collection of Åland. It was fascinating to discover the complex path the islands have taken to the autonomous and demilitarised status of the present day. There are enough exhibits on display help to tell the story in an engaging way without it being overwhelming. The importance of the passenger traffic between Stockholm and Helsinki is mentioned again here and I never tire of seeing models of Viking Line ships (there were plenty in the maritime museum too).

Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum och Ålands konstmuseum

I wouldn’t say that much of the art grabbed me, but there were individual pieces that grabbed my attention. There are only a couple of rooms to wander through so it doesn’t take long to have a look around.

Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf

I always enjoy a good game of crazy golf and this course is among the crazier that I have seen. There are 2 courses of 9 holes, each with some challenging holes, which together make for a very enjoyable game. The cost of entry was 8 euros per adult for 18 holes, payable at the bar (the course is in the grounds of a pub).

Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf

Quite a mad course with many crazy and near impossible shots which ends with a shot to get your ball through a tunnel up and over a bridge onto an island. The fact that a net is provided to fish balls out of the water gives you some indication of the failure rate! I reached the maximum allowed shots on a few holes, failed to get anywhere near the hole on a few others and my ball had to be fished out of the water twice at the final hole. However, I still only narrowly lost!

Robot man and dog

One of the coolest surprises on our wanders through Mariehamn was the discovery of a robot man and dog standing guard outside Övernäs school. The robots are the work of artist Johan Karlsson and have proved a popular addition according to news reports. Another of his creations was on display in Ålands art museum at the time of our visit.

Robot man and dog in Mariehamn

St Görans church

The church of St Görans was completed in 1927 and sits at the very heart of the city, on Norra Esplanadgatan, surrounded by green spaces. The building was designed by local architect Lars Sonck with striking ceiling paintings by Bruno Tuukkanen, perhaps better known for designing the Finnish flag.

St Görans church in Mariehamn

One of the three bells in the church was originally to be found in the garrison church at Bomarsund, but was taken back to England as a trophy of victory after the surrender of the fortress. The bell remained in the Tower of London until it was returned to Åland in 1925.

Post Office

Åland has issued its own stamps since 1984 and they make great souvenirs. It’s worth dropping in to the Post Office to see what stamps are on sale. The designs are usually rather splendid, such as the sets showing the passenger ferries familiar to the waters of Åland.

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36 hours in the Åland Islands

Posted in Åland, Bomarsund, Kastelholm, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

A day and a half in the Åland Islands was never going to be enough to cover much ground, but we made the most of our time in the islands to cram in some historic sights, museums, art and a game of minigolf.

Our early start, arriving on the early morning ferry, gave us an opportunity to wander the streets before most folk were up and about. It’s not exactly the busiest during the working day, so it was eerily quiet at this time with just the occasional cyclist and dog walker to give us any indication that people lived in the city! It was a good way to get our bearings and pick up on some sights that our information had omitted.

Kastelholm

The first day’s sightseeing began in earnest with a trip to Kastelholm in Sund district, half an hour by bus from Mariehamn. This was fairly straightforward, but I had misread the timetable. The schedule for buses from Monday-Friday includes a note that shows that the first bus of the day on this route is at 7.55 on a Monday and 9.30 on Tuesdays-Friday. Thankfully a friendly bus driver put us out of our misery and we returned at the right time.

Take the bus to Kastelholm

The buses are actually very comfortable coaches and the no 4 bus towards Hummelvik deposited us at Kastelholm at 10.02, just after opening. It was a terrific way to see a bit of the countryside with the occasional treat, such as the medieval St. Olaf’s Church in Jomala, possibly the oldest church in Finland. You couldn’t miss the stop for Kastelholm either – the stone buildings really stood out against the surrounding countryside.

Kastelholm offers three sights in close proximity – a castle, a prison museum and an open air museum. On their own all are fairly modest attractions but the combination works quite nicely, especially if you factor in some food at the rather lovely Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus (a cafe associated with the highly rated restaurant Smakbyn). The infrequent bus timetable makes timings a little tricky – we had a choice between 1 hour or 3 hours and opted for the latter. Too much time, rather than too little.

Kastelholm Castle

The origins of the castle at Kastelholm are a little unclear, but a first reference to ‘Kastelholm House’ in 1388 is thought to be the first evidence of the existence of the fortified stronghold. In its time it has seen some famous visitors, notably Gustav Vasa, the founder of modern Sweden, who stayed with his family for a couple of months in 1556. Gustav’s son John later chose to imprison his deposed brother Eric here for a while.

Kastelholm Castle

The castle was dropped from the royal property portfolio in the 1630s and its steady fall in importance eventually saw it used as a grain store. Only in the twentieth century did the castle get the love and attention it needed, making the ruins one of the most recognisable tourist attractions in the islands. It doesn’t take long to follow the circuit around the castle and get a sense of how it all fitted together.

The Crown Prison – Vita Björn

Vita Björn was constructed around 1783 and served as a prison for almost 200 years. It’s the oldest building of its type in Finland and today presents four custody rooms furnished as they would have been in the early 1800s, 1850s, early 1900s and the 1950s.

Inside the Crown Prison – Vita Björn

I was astonished to learn that it was part prison and part family home, with the warder’s family living in the opposite end of the property. You can get a little sense of that in the presentation of the warder’s dwelling, bedroom and children’s playroom as they would have appeared in the late 19th century. Even stranger, we learnt that one of the custody rooms was used by the family when empty. Strange to think of a family home expanding and contracting depending on the level of crime in the area!

Jan Karlsgården open air museum

The open air museum, established at Kastelholm in the 1930s, was rather lovely. The museum gathers together around 20 buildings from across the Åland Islands, including three windmills arranged on the rocks overlooking the site.

The museum takes its name from the most impressive building, a farmhouse from Jan Karls of Bamböle, Finström parish, which was moved to the site in 1934. It’s worth taking a good look inside to see the parlour which is painted with wonderful painted landscapes, copies of 19th century originals from Västergårds in Bamböle. It’s beautifully light and feels incredibly liveable, unlike many of the dark spaces you tend to see in open air museums like this.

Jan Karlsgården open air museum

Other buildings around the site included a granary on posts, a loft shed, a kiln with a horse-drawn thresher, a smoke sauna, a boat shed, a splashmill and a brightly decorated midsummer pole featuring the colours of the Åland flag.

Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus

A mid-morning stop at the Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus gave us an opportunity to try some of the wonderful pastries baked on site, such as a lemon and elderflower filled doughnut-ish delight. The welcoming host in the cafe took the time to explain the background to the dishes and drinks to us which we really appreciated. Everything looked really good!

It was a measure of how good the cafe was, as well as how much time we had to kill, that we came back for lunch. On our second visit we opted to try the Åland pancake. Not really like a pancake as we would think of it in Britain, but instead a chunky baked pudding made with semolina porridge and cardamom, served with cream and stewed prunes. Not exactly sweet, but tasty and very filling. A one off taste sampling I think.

We washed this down with a couple of bottles of Åland Munkcider, a non-alcoholic drink made with apples and gooseberries by Peders Aplagard. This was apparently inspired by the Franciscan monastery on Kökar Island, one of the outermost eastern Åland islands. A surprising but very refreshing taste.

Aland Pancake

Mariehamn

The afternoon bus dropped us back in Mariehamn just a little before 3pm, giving us time enough to visit a handful of sights – the Modellstaden Mariehamn; St Görans church; Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum; Åland Art Museum; and Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf. We probably wouldn’t have picked up on the latter if we hadn’t spent hours wandering the city in the early morning light, spotting the striking crazy golf course on a walk down to the Lilla Holmen park/bird sanctuary.

On our second day in Åland we visited the Åland Maritime Museum and the Museumship Pommern. Our wanders allowed us to see the city afresh, spotting many of the buildings we had seen in the model town. At the time it felt like the model town was from a distant time, but increasingly we saw that the city had not changed as much as we might have first thought. Our wanders also revealed one of the quirkier sights of the city – a robot man and dog outside one of the city schools.

I will explore the sights of Mariehamn in a bit more detail in the next post. However, our overall impression was that a couple of days in Åland works really well as a stopover and we loved the calm feel of the place. I still can’t quite get over the considerate nature of the local road users in the islands and can see why cycling holidays are really popular here.

With a bit more time, would have been good to work in a visit to the ruins of Bomarsund, a Russian fortress, just a short way down the road from Kastelholm. The original plans for a grand fortress never came to full fruition, but the part that was built – a main fortress with 162 casemates and a floorspace of 18,000 square metres, is still the largest building ever to have been constructed in the Åland islands. The construction works continued over a 23 year period from 1830 to 1853.

Bomarsund was put to the test with the outbreak of the Crimean War. In August 1854 the fortress was surrounded by a combined Anglo-French fleet of 25 warships. The uneven battle saw 21,000 British and French soldiers pitted against 2200 Russian and Finnish soldiers inside the fortress, eventually culminating in a brutal bombardment of the main fort. The commander had no choice but to surrender. As the victors did not wish to maintain a force in the region the decision was made to demolish the fortress.

Today, the ruins can be explored and a small exhibition can be visited in the old pilot house on Prästö. It should be possible to combine this with a visit to Kastelholm by bus but it only really works well with the current timetable on Mondays (with the 07.55 morning bus from Mariehamn to Bomarsund, then the 10:08 bus back which gets to Kastelholm at 10:14). Unfortunately we were visiting on a Tuesday, so we were out of luck!

It would also have been quite nice to visit Kobba Klintar, a small island in the Åland sea with a pilot station which makes a popular boat trip from Mariehamn.

Practicalities

Around 2 million tourists visit the Åland Islands each year and 88% come from Finland or Sweden. Hardly surprising given the ease of the transport connections between the two countries.

Our itinerary was planned around a weekday stay in the Åland Islands as the bus schedule at the weekends is very limited. We took the number 4 bus from the bus station in Mariehamn (in essence 4 bus lanes and a modest shelter at the northern end of the city) to Kastelholm at a cost of 3.40 euros each way.

The scenic bus stop at Kastelholm

Kastelholm Castle and Vita Björn is usually only open in the summer months. In 2019 the schedule saw the museums open from the beginning of May to mid-September. We picked up a combination ticket for 10 euros that covered both attractions and the Åland Museum of Culture and History + Åland Museum of Art in Mariehamn (a saving of 5 euros).

It was a little hard to gauge the number of tourists in town during our stay as two cruise ships were in port at Mariehamn – a relatively rare occurrence with just 24 cruise ship calls scheduled for 2019. Still, it didn’t feel too crowded despite the cruise ship passengers on our first day equating to around 12% of the population of Mariehamn.

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Next stop: Mariehamn

Posted in Åland, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 2, 2019

One of my travel ambitions as a 12 year old was to visit the Åland Islands, an autonomous region in Finland made up of over 6,700 islands and with a Swedish speaking population of around 30,000. If that seems like a rather peculiar ambition, it has to be said that this came off the back of a trip across Europe to Helsinki that had an enormous influence on me at a very impressionable age!

It has taken a while to get around to this, but our travels around the Baltic this year gave us an opportunity to enjoy a short stay in the capital, Mariehamn, and see a little of the surrounding countryside.

Our ferry from Tallinn to Mariehamn: The Baltic Queen

Ferries from Stockholm to Helsinki, Turku and Tallinn all make a stop in the Åland Islands. The stop was handy for us, but its primary purpose is to allow the ships to take advantage of the special tax status of the islands and offer duty free goods to passengers. Needless to say, all the ships plying this route have massive on-board stores!

Our journey to the Åland Islands began with the 6pm sailing of the Tallink ferry Baltic Queen from Tallinn to Stockholm. It’s a big ship with the capacity to take 2800 passengers. It probably wasn’t at its busiest, but it was by no means quiet. Yet, when we reached Mariehamn at 4.40 in the morning just 5 passengers (including us) walked off!

The view as we approached Mariehamn in the early hours of the morning

The terminal is a very short walk from the city centre so we took this at a leisurely pace and then stored our bags at the hotel, ready for an afternoon check in. Time to explore…

Practicalities

We were a little unclear about some of the detail of our ferry trip, so I hope this is of some use to our fellow travelers…

The Tallink ferries depart from Terminal D in Tallinn. At the time we traveled the terminal was being re-developed, which makes it pretty crowded just before a ferry sailing. In effect, this work means that most of the floor space is closed off until Summer 2020 so it’s not a space you want to arrive too early at.

Boarding for the Stockholm sailing of the Baltic Queen opened at 16.30 (i.e. 90 minutes ahead of departure). The self-service machines were easy enough to use to print our boarding passes which double as cabin passes. Ours never worked in the cabin doors so we had to get them re-printed at the information desk when we were on board. All very easily done.

All the information we had seen in the build up to our trip had stressed that there would be no announcements on board the ship for our arrival at Mariehamn and that it was down to us to be at the disembarkation gate ten minutes before our arrival. In practice, a member of staff knocked on our door and shouted Mariehamn five times!

Once we were up and about we were soon directed towards the door that would be used for disembarkation. Another member of staff was checking off names against a list. I suspect that they would have worked out quite quickly if someone was missing.

Display board in the terminal at Mariehamn

The ship really doesn’t stay very long at that time of night – just ten minutes at most. By the time we had made our way into the terminal building the ship was already heading off to Stockholm.

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