FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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