As capital cities go, Mariehamn is on the quiet side of peaceful. It sits, minding its own business, on the largest of the 6,500 Åland islands, where the Gulf of Bothnia meets the Baltic Sea midway between Sweden and Finland.
Even this most metropolis, where most of the 24,000 Ålanders are concentrated, bursts into life during the summer, when the islands become a mecca for well-to-do Swedes and Swedish-speaking Finns. So I decided to escape to Kökar at the southwester corner of the archipelago. I boarded the ferry for the three-hour journey and sat back, waiting for total tranquillity to descend.
Sitting opposite me on the wooden benches was a friendly group of ruddy-faced bearded men. Suddenly they burst loudly into song: “A miracle happens every spring when life begins after its winter dream.”
I had fallen into the company of the Mariehamn Men’s Chorus.
“When light is playing, the earth steams and frozen water becomes a stream,” they continued, under the fervent direction of an earnest conductor who had sprung to the head of the small passenger compartment.
And so began the slow, quirky Åland rhythm of things. During a break in the singing I spoke to the choir leader, Knut Grüssner, a music teacher from Mariehamn, He and his singers were en route to Kökar, population 300. Here I was taken under the wing of Tomas Dahlgren, who runs the island hotel with his father and had agreed to serve as my guide for the day.
I had intended to spend only a few hours on the islet before heading back to Mariehamn. How much, after all, could there be to see on Kökar?
“You’ll see a lot of birds,” a slightly jaded hotel clerk in Mariehamn had advised me.
But Dahlgren, an intense, former Hell’s Angel, insisted that I stay overnight as his guest so that I could enjoy the full Kökar experience.
First, my host took me on a whirlwind car tour on the main island of Kökar. We stopped at the island church, built in 1784, and walked through the tiny cemetery — populated with pirates, according to Dahlgren. Inside, I found the Mariehamn choir, in full-throated rehearsal: “The lark flies over the dark village, touching it with its wing. And paints the sound of a thousand bells, cirrus clouds against the blue sky.”
After a lunch of pike perch and potatoes back at the hotel, I was taken by skiff to the magical satellite island and ultimate hide-away of Kallspar, 0 kilometres and a topographical world away. No verdant expanses here, as on most of the larger islands — just plain, windswept feldspar. On this remote nugget of land, Dahlgren explained, the King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf, found the privacy he needed to cour his future queen. There are numerous beautiful holiday homes set into the Baltic side of the island, one belonging to Tove Jansson, the Swedo-Finnish author.
All the while, Dahlgren regaled me with his distinctive opinions on such things as the need for independence from Finland for the Ålands and the story of his conversion from Hell’s Angel to Kökar resident.
“When I was a Hell’s Angel, I was out there. Now I’m still out there,” he said, as the gulls circled overhead. And, in a weird Ålandish way, it made sense.