Turku: Making the most of Finland proper (Scandinavian Review, Summer ’01)

Finland proper. That — as the proud, even arrogant, residents of Turku and its environs are fond of reminding visitors — is the proper term for their history-drenched, if comparatively little-known corner of the world. This somewhat high-blown, if defensible expression derives from the salient and inarguable fact that this southwestern corner of Suomi was the first part of Finland to be inhabited in significant numbers, a development which began in the first two centuries of the last millennium, when settlers from the Continent began to invade terra magica, as this beguiling land of endless forests and lakes has also been called.

Turku (or Finland proper, if you insist) can lay claim to a number of other significant firsts. In addition to being the first city of Finland, it was, as Turkuans can also be counted upon to tell you, the capital of the Finnish province during the long, four century period of Swedish rule. For a time then, Turku was Sweden’s second biggest city, before Finland reverted to Russian rule in 1809, following the Napoleonic Wars, whereupon Czar Alexander I decided to transfer the seat of his new possession to Helsinki — or “that town in the East,” as Turkuans sometimes derisively call Helsinki.

Additionally, Turku — or Åbo, as Swedish-speakers call it — was, and still is, the headquarters of the Finnish Lutheran Church, as represented by Turku’s awesome 14th century cathedral, where, every year, Christmas Peace is promulgated by a delegation of four Finnish bishops in December. This holy tradition was begun over 700 years ago, and has continued uninterrupted and unchanged ever since — except that these days the service is also broadcast.

Turku was also the site of Finland’s first university, erected in 1640 during the rule of Gustavus Vasa, before the czars moved it to Helsinki, after which it became the present-day Helsinki University. In 1908 Turku got its own university back again, the formidable institution known as Åbo Academy.

In recent years, as local boosters — including tour guides — are also keen to point out, Turku has strengthened and renewed its reputation as a fount of knowledge and learning with the establishment of BioCity, the Nordic regions biggest agglomeration of biotech know-how.

As a veteran Baltic hand and Fennophile, I already knew most of the above information long before I debarked at Turku Central Station on my visit to the region last May.

With the exception of one dimly recalled sojourn in the early 1990s, however, my prior acquaintance with Turku — like that of many visitors to Finland en route from Helsinki to Turku harbor and the massive cruise ships which daily depart there for Åland and Stockholm — had essentially been a passing one, based primarily on seeing it from the boat train. The six-hour journey from Turku, first through the skerries and islets of the magical Turku archipelago, then after a beguiling interval of open sea, through the matching, if somewhat larger, more spread out, and no less magical Åland archipelago, is one of my all-time favorites. Consequently, I have come to regard Turku, with its bustling, crane-filled harbor, as the place where I leave my worldly cares and troubles behind.

Now, I had decided, it was time to make a proper visit to Finland Proper.

Guiding Lights, Daytime Sights

As one who likes to create his own Baedeker as he goes along, I tend not to be keen on either guided tours or tourist guides. Since only two days had been originally allotted to my sortie to Varsinais Suomi, I decided to drop this prejudice and asked the Finnish Tourist Board in southwest Finland to provide me with assistance.

I am very glad that I did. The trio of local guides, all natives of Turku and proud of it, were well-informed and good company to boot. They made sure that I was properly taken care of. My two days in Finland Proper stretched to three, then four. Of course, I did not yet know about the wonderful, nearby resort town of Naantali and the incomparable Naantali Congress Spa located there. More about that in a moment.

But first, Turku.

Debarking from the Pendolino Express, the fast and efficient express train from Helsinki which covers the 102 miles separating the two cities in a little under two hours, I was greeted at Turku Central by my first guide, a friendly woman in her 40s by the name of Arja Yl-Uotila, who immediately deposited me at my hotel, the centrally located Scandic Hotel Turku. Apologizing for the rainy Finnish weather, Arja said she would wait for me downstairs. She knew the perfect place for lunch. And indeed, as it turned out, she did.

First, however, I insisted on a walkabout of the main city square, or Kauppatori. The heart of Turku, the large square was built after the great calamitous fire of 1827, which destroyed four fifths of the city and required the metropolis to essentially be rebuilt from scratch. Although it is roughly the same size as Helsinki’s magnificent Senaatintori, or Senate Square, there is no point in comparing the two. Senate Square, with its looming Lutheran Church and endless cascade of stairs, is one of the great squares of Europe. Kauppatori is not.

It is still a very nice square, however. Two of Turku’s most significant buildings, the imposing Orthodox Church, and the fine old Swedish Theather, look out upon the Kauppatori. Also, the square is the site of the city’s luxuriant market, which is held every day and features every sort of flower, fish, fruit, and vegetable that Finland proper has to offer.

To me, the Turku market, with its tent after tent bursting with salmon and perch, along with the usual clutch of snooty Turku sea gulls hovering about, is much nicer than its better known counterpart, the Helsinki harbor market, which seems to be getting more commercial and clogged with souvenir stands and the like every year. Unfortunately, because of the rain, it was not the best day to linger at the Turku market, which is still very much “the real thing.” Be sure to spend a few hours browsing about there when you visit Turku yourself.

What has changed is the vast and somewhat irksome amount of construction going on about the market square. Arja and I had to step lively around the many piles of concrete and accompanying earth-moving equipment as we made our way to lunch. Turku — like most of the rest of Finland — is obviously booming.

The spot that Arja chose for our tête-á-tête, the well-regarded Angel Restaurant, two blocks away from the market square, was the ideal spot for our purposes. A cozy, old-fashioned wooden place, the restaurant is divided into a number of small, self-contained, candle-lit rooms. Each room features the work of a different local artist, all of whom have been charged with painting the walls with — guess what? — angels.

Not surprisingly, the Angel Restaurant menu also has a celestial sub-theme. Thus, soup and starters include “Seventh Heaven” (Angel’s lobster soup with cream and white wine), “Forrest Angel’s Picnic” (a creamy soup with wild chanterelles and a taste of cognac), and “Storm Angel’s Adventure” (garlic marinated shrimp). Meat offerings include “Pennies from Heaven” (filet of steak) and “Romance in Moonlight” (fried fillet of wild duck, thyme sauce, potato cake and wild mushrooms). Fish dishes include “Angel’s Temptation” — well, I think you get the picture.

After due consideration, I settled on “Romance in Moonlight,” which, I can attest, was, for want of a better word, heavenly. So was the radiant waitress who had that rarest of qualities in often dour Finland: a genuine smile, although perhaps I could have done without the gold tinsel crown which staff are required to wear.

As I glided through my meal, palpably putting on pounds with each blessed course, Arja brought me up to date on the talk of Turku. Turku was indeed booming, she confirmed, particularly since the city had been chosen to be a regional development center. Telecommunications giant Nokia’s decision to base its mobile production center in the nearby town of Salo had also clearly contributed to the once-depressed town’s vastly improved prospects.

Nevertheless, Arja said, some Turkuans were concerned that the new prosperity had also engendered a new wave of mindless development akin to the one that the city had suffered during the 1950s and 1960s, when unscrupulous developers were allowed to tear down a number of architectural landmarks and replace them with anemic, characterless housing developments and office blocks that still blight large districts of this historic city. “Turku sickness,” it was called.

Thus the talk of Turku, at least as of last spring, was the massive underground parking garage scheduled to be built under the town’s landmark Jugendstil art museum, which sits atop a hillock at the northern end of Aurakatu, two blocks north of Kauppatori. In the meantime, the museum — which I had intended to visit – had moved to temporary quarters in the city observatory. “We don’t really need it,” Arja said. “But, I suppose, progress has its imperatives.”

So did our bountiful meal, which, by now, had progressed to dessert. I selected “Angel’s Grand Dessert,” a scrumptious assortment of three Angel Tarts, to share with my guiding light. When we exited the restaurant we were given our own tinsel crowns and enjoined by the management to wear them all the next day.

As Arja walked me back to my hotel, past the rather forlorn-looking Taidemuseo, sitting deserted atop its soon-to-be-excavated hilltop, I noticed there were also plenty of empty parking spaces around.

At the same time Arja also pointed out one of Turku’s lesser-known and off-beat attractions, a bust of V.I. Lenin, serenely standing on the opposite corner, along with a complementary plaque affixed to the wall world, the stern-looking, life-sized likeness, erected in 1977 by Turku’s then sister-city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the monument is a surprising, almost macabre reminder of the dread old postwar days of “Finlandization,” when Finland had a politically-constricting, if economically-profitable relationship with the Soviet Union, a period which most Finns would rather forget.

Why had the city fathers left it in place, I asked Arja? “Well, it was a fact of our history,” she said, referring to the extraordinary 40-year-old Fenno-Soviet “friendship,” which officially came to an end in 1991, when the U.S.S.R. dissolved itself. “And it isn’t a bad statue, is it?”

Somehow, one can’t imagine a Lenin monument being allowed to remain in place in Helsinki, but, tellingly, Turkuans, with their slightly academic, if touching, reverence for their entire history, warts and all, have decided to let their Lenin statue stand.

Later, in Naantali harbor, I would have another surprise encounter with a plaque honoring an even less beloved Russian “friend” of Finland, Alexander III, the same czar whose efforts to “Russify” Finland helped spark the Finnish nationalist movement in the late 19th century. To me, such encounters with fragments of previous “slices” of Finland’s striated history constitute one of the chief joys of exploring Suomi (by contrast, virtually all Russian or Soviet-era monuments have been systematically worn down in the nearby Baltic States and former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where feelings towards the Russian bear continue to be highly charged).

The Wee Hours

The next phase of my round-the-clock tour of Tyrjy was a healthy sampler of the city’s nightlife. Aware of my interest in the after hours, the tourist board had scheduled a round robin tour of Turku’s renowned pubs, which are located in such unlikely places as an ex-schoolhouse, an ex-pharmacy, an ex-bank, and an ex-public toilet. The X-Pub tour, I suppose you could call it.

My guide for this bibulous stretch of my visit was an extraordinarily erudite and knowledgeable Turkuan by the name of Reijo Raunio. As I expected, the pubs were very interesting. I liked the School, as the place is popularly known, with its incongruous old maps and portraits of former Finnish presidents presiding over a crowd of serious beer drinkers clustered below. The Pharmacy, with its multitudinous medicine jars and bottles, was also highly amusing. So was the Toilet, a tiny, circular place with a high rotunda and a gleaming bar, which is adorned with mirthful reminders of the great old days when The Toilet was a toilet.

If you like offbeat pubs offering endless varieties of beer, Turku is definitely your kind of place. Personally, I preferred the modern look and less enforced conviviality of my hotel bar. In any case, I can aver, Turku does indeed have its own pulsing nightlife, which also includes, I was reliably told, a number of good discos which I did not have time to explore myself.

The real highlight of my Turku night out was the debonair Raunio himself. A former banker who departed the financial world — as did so many others — during the Finnish banking crisis of the early 1990s, the middle-aged Turkuan, who speaks six languages and is conversant with the cultures of at least a dozen European countries, has clearly found the cultures of at least a dozen European countries, has clearly found his métier as a professional tour guide, working in Turku and throughout Northern Europe. Fluently discussing the vagaries of European and Finnish history as he guided me from one pub to another, magically pulling useful anecdotes — and no less useful taxis — out of thin air, Reino proved the perfect companion for a night in the rainy, unfamiliar city.

Despite his manifest knowledge of the world beyond Turku, my escort made it clear that he reserved his greatest affection for his hometown. True to Turku’s arrogant traditions, he even seemed to think it bred a better sort of people.

Were Turkuans really different from Helsinkians, I asked over a whisky at the Toilet, at the end of our whirlwind tour. “Yes,” Reijo said with a perfectly straight face, as two comically entwined dummies sitting atop a chair suspended from the rotunda looked quizzically down on us, “I think we care more about people.”

That’s Turku pride.

Before exiting, I also noticed a gadget on the wall showing the likeness of a drunken Finnish man with a red, three-dimensional button for a nose. Beneath the flushed visage was a Finnish caption: Paina nenasta torin aija kertoo lampotilan. Reijo translated. “It says, ‘Press my nose and you will hear the weather.’”

I pressed it, whereupon a squeaky voice emerged. “He says that it’s supposed to be 18 degrees Centrigrade tomorrow and cloudy,” Reino said. And back out we went into the dark, but welcoming Turku night.

The man with the red nose was right — or roughly right. The next morning it was indeed about 18, or perhaps even chillier, and overcast. No matter. There was a lot of ground to cover.

Some Special Places

First off, the extraordinary — if somewhat somber, at least at that hour — Luostarimaki Handicrafts Museum is located on Cloister Hill, one of the city quarters that existed even in medieval times, and the only section that survived the great fire of 1827 intact. The museum itself, which was established in the 1930s, consists of several dozen wooden-frame buildings, each restored to its venerable, pre-conflagration condition, each housing a different craft as practiced 200 years ago, with accompanying instruments, and where applicable, edible, wearable, or playable examples of the same. Thus, the large compound includes a violin-maker’s workshop, a coopersmith’s workshop, a bakery, and a carpenter’s shop.

There was only one problem on that particular dark spring morning: the light, or rather, the lackof light. True to their antique forbears, most of the museum buildings rely upon natural light only. This means that on a wet, dark morning the chief function of the Handicraftgs Museum seems to be to serve as a reminder of how depressing such days must have been on Cloister Hill before the invention of gas and electricity. If that is what you wish from a museum experience, then by all means go to Luostarinmaki Handicrafts Museum on a dark and dank Saturday morning; it captures the real, early 19th century feeling, as you stumble from one dark hut to another.

Otherwise, you are better off leaving it for another, more clement, day, for there is indeed much to see and savor at the museum, as the colorful, fact-filled museum handbook confirms — when you can see it.

Next stop, by my request, was the nearly as venerable Turku Synagogue, which was of special interest to me as a Jew. The previous day I had been surprised to learn from Arja that there even was a synagogue in Turku; as far as I knew Finland’s only Jewish congregation was located in Helsinki.

I was wrong. At one point before the turn of the century, Arja had told me, Turku was the site of a flourishing Jewish population. Eventually, most of the city’s Jews left for other places, including Israel and the United States. But there is still a small, but hardly Jewish congregation with about 140 members, and there is still a synagogue on Brahenkatu, in all its Jugendstil glory. It stands there proudly, if somewhat forlorn, behind padlocked gates, a symbol or Jewish survival. Another surprise.

Next, as Major Turku (whose real name, I later learned, is Stig Roholm) dutifully stood by, I embarked on a spontaneous photo shoot-cum-walkabout of the elegant old neighborhood near the observatory, which contains a number of old turn-of-the-century buildings whose well-preserved Jugendstil facades bear the carefully etched-in-stone names of their original owners. I was particularly struck by one such house bearing the name “Hjorden.” More finds; more surprises. Another early 20th century building nearby had the words “Jupiter 1926″ mysteriously emblazoned on it.

Onward we sped along the scenic Aurajoki River that divides the city, past the great Waino Altonen Museum, housing the works of that superlative sculptor and Turku native; past the majestic museum ships, Suomen Juotsen, which once served as a mother ship for submarines, and its neighbor, Sigyn, the world’s last barque-rigged, ocean-going cargo vessel; onward, to the great unmissable, Turku Castle.

Deliberately sited at the mouth of the Aurojoki, facing towards the mainland — the better to deal with medieval Finnish insurgents — this brooding super-castle was built in five stages from 1280 to 1560. The high point of its fortunes probably took place during the 1570s, when Duke Johan presided over a merry, riotous court. The fun ended when Johan’s brother, Erik XIV, invaded the castle and had Johan transported back to Sweden in chains. Johan got his revenge on his perfidious brother when Erik went mad, whereupon his hapless wife, Katherine Mansdotter, the then Queen of Sweden, was exiled back to Finland.

After all that excitement, the castle gradually fell into disrepair. Its low point probably occurred in 1944 when the already ramshackle edifice was “accidentally” bombed by the Soviet Air Force at the close of the Continuation War between Finland and the U.S.S.R. (1941 – 1944).

Castle and Cathedral

Turku Castle is generally considered the single most significant historical structure in all of Finland. Thanks to a fantastic restoration effort it now looks pretty much the way it did when Erik XIV last saw it, except for a vast coat of white paint, which has the affect of making the exterior, with its tiny windows popping out here and there, look like a three-dimensional Russian Suprematist composition. The groups of suitably awed Finnish, German, French, and other schoolchildren shuttling up and down the labyrinthine staircases; the castle matrons, attired in nun-like habits, standing about, apparently musing upon the eternal verities; and, of course, the inevitable (and relatively commodious) gift shop are clearly visible against this stark backdrop.

Turku Castle is the size of a large aircraft carrier, and about as complex. With its dozens of staterooms, guardrooms, chapels, dining rooms, and dungeons, it is entirely possible to spend a full day without seeing the same room twice. (It is also very easy to get lost.)

Unfortunately, I only had an hour. Stig made sure that I made it productively, guiding me to the most important rooms, while imparting helpful particles of historical illumination. (He also made sure that I did not get lost.)

I was awestruck by the principal stateroom, and in particular by the massive, foreboding oil painting (on loan from the Ateneum in Helsinki) titled “Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klas Fleming.” A work by Albert Edelfelt, Finland’s great Parisian-based 19th century realist painter, it was executed in 1878, when the artist was only 24, and more or less accurately depicts the hair-raising scene which occurred in that very room, when the glowering duke mocked the corpse of his recently defeated and deceased opponent, Klas Fleming, by pulling the deal man’s beard.

While I was admiring the painting, Stig pointed out one of its “secrets.” “Look at the Duke’s boot,” he said. “You’ll notice that it continues to turn toward you as you walk away from it.” He was right, I noted, with a shiver.

The final stop on my blitzkrieg tour of historic Turku was stupendous (a deserved word here) Turku Cathedral, situated on the other end of the Aurojoki, overlooking the city’s original market square. If Turku Castle is Finland’s most history-drenched edifice, then Turku Cathedral is, arguably, its holiest. Consecrated in 1363, the eight-centuries-old cathedral is Finland’s equivalent of Westminster. Entering its vast, upturned valley-sized nave, pierced by precise shafts of alabaster light, I was immediately moved, humbled, and awed. As my helpful guide-cum-chauffeur patiently waited in the foyer, I walked up the long side aisle, trying to take everything in, glancing upwards at the complex frescoes on the cathedral walls depicting kings meeting bishops, sideways at the various chapels leading off the nave, and downwards at the crypts of the various political and religious worthies buried beneath the cathedral’s floors, including the aforementioned, luckless Queen Katherine of Sweden. As I reached the end of the aisle I found myself walking straight into a baptism, complete with priest, baby, and somber, well-attired Turku family. It seemed a fitting coda to my visit.

Turku had one more surprise, however. As I emerged from the church I was confronted by the formidable sight of men and women of all ages running en masse over the Aurojoki across Aninkaistenkatu Bridge. I had run smack dab into another revered local rite: the annual 5 kilometer Turku run. The somber-faced, if brightly-dressed participants, jogging over the bridge in tight double file, stretched along the river for as far as the eye could see. Most of Turku, it seemed, had turned out to say goodbye.

At that point, frankly, thoroughly tired and saturated with sights, sounds, and myriad particles of historical illumination, I would have been very happy to call it a wrap. But I pressed on to Naantali nonetheless, for which I was very glad.

Winding Down in High Style

There were two reasons for this.

Firstly, there was Naantali itself. Finland’s most famous resort town, and its fourth oldest city (founded in 1443, after Turku, Porvoo, and Rauma), this little archipelago metropolis of 12,000, located 13 kilometers northwest of Turku, is a beatific world unto itself. For Finns, Naantali is a synonym for relaxation and grandeur of the old kind. Kings, queens, czars (including the aforementioned Alexander III), czarinas and other big shots — including the Finnish president, whose summer palace is situated in Naantali — have been taking the local waters and supping of the tonic air since the early 18th century. The moment I sat down for a fine salmon luncheon at Merisali restaurant, overlooking Naantali’s almost unbearably picturesque harbor, with its trim sailboats and yachts bobbing hypnotically up and down and its seagulls performing leisurely aerial reconnaissance above, I decided that I wished to take the waters as well.

Riitta and Pekka Nurmi, the kind directors of Naantali Congress Spa, whom I met afterwards, were only too happy to oblige — which brings me to the second reason for my extended stay. One of Europe’s most popular spa hotels, and one of the world’s most unusual, Naantali Spa Hotel consists of both a full-serve, five-star spa, complete with every sort of therapeutic sauna, bath, pool, and therapeutic treatment conceivable — combined with a luxurious floating Yacht Hotel overlooking the archipelago. The spa, which plays host to over 200,000 visitors a year, has been in existence since 1986; the yacht hotel, with its 100 luxurious suites, dropped anchor three years ago. In my exhausted state, I was happy to drop anchor at the spa hotel as well.

In two days, I managed to take six saunas, three swims, one massage, one facial, and several bracing walks to town and harbor, including a visit to Naantali’s extraordinary Convent Church, built between 1443 – 1462 and the site of the annual Naantali Music Festival I also had a very pleasant chat with Dennis Livson, the somewhat gruff — but nevertheless lovable — president of Moominworld, the famed, family-friendly — “and,” as the chain-smoking Livson somewhat incongruously pointed out, “eco-friendly” — Naantali-based theme park based on the bouncing, bungling, hippity-hoppity characters developed by the late Tove Janson, the Moomins, including Snorkmaiden, Moominpappa, and the other famed Moomin fold.

Alas, Moominworld, which is tucked away on the island of Kailo in the Naantali mini-archipelago, was closed at the time of my visit. But I promised to visit next year, when I return for the music festival (which sounded marvelous). Indeed, after hearing Mr. Livson’s infectious pep talk about the unique virtues of the Moomins (which resonated with Reino’s previous statement about the Turkuans and how they putatively cared more about people), I was tempted to audition for the role of Moominpappa myself. In the event, I did not. Instead, I took another delightful dip in the spa’s outdoor heated pool. Several twists and tangos later, I reluctantly departed the spa, Naantali, and Turku. It certainly had been a proper visit, and a memorable one, as well.

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