Sunday, July 15, 2018

Travel Diary of the Aland Islands in Finland

The first time we saw the Aland Islands was in the stamps that we collected with boats, landscapes, apples, cats, and the summer festival. They sent us the stamps home and for us it was a way to travel. The truth is that our first trips were through the stamps. We saw ourselves cycling through those paradisiacal landscapes, from island to island.

We wanted to be in those magnificent parties of the midsummer decorating Maypole with the rest of the inhabitants of the Aland. To dream was also to travel. We are now on a ferry that takes us to the Aland Islands from Stockholm. The dawn surprises us through the porthole, showing us the silhouettes of islets, of some wooden houses. We are arriving at the Aland Islands. It seems that dreams come true sometimes.

I do not know at what point we will have crossed the skerry called Market. It is located west of the Aland archipelago, halfway between Stockholm and Helsinki. The mainland Finland is 150 km from the Market, and Sweden 30 km away. A border in the water that for our eyes is an islet with a lighthouse, and in which fortunately there is nobody asking for a passport.

Although the Aland archipelago belongs to the Republic of Finland, Swedish is spoken, the only official language. From the Middle Ages it belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden, like all of Finland later. But that hegemony ends in the early nineteenth century and begins the Russian Empire, so that Finland and the Aland are ceded to Russia by Napoleon.

In 1917, when the Russian Empire was transformed into the USSR, the Baltic countries and Finland became independent. And the Aland parliament call for a union with Sweden, which creates tensions with Finland. To avoid them, in 1921, the League of Nations decided to demilitarize and convert into an autonomous region.

At the end of our trip to the Aland Islands, we will not really know if they are from one side or the other, which confirms the absurdity of the borders. They are, like many places, a mixture of cultures. What is certain is that, both for Swedes and Finns, it is a true paradise, for the beauty of its geography, its exuberant nature, and the wild. It is also for having a milder climate than in other Nordic countries.

The golden reflections in the Baltic waters herald a resplendent summer day. The truth is that the days we spent on the Aland Islands were the brightest of all our trip through Finland. I guess it was also because we had dreamed for a while with them. Those last days of summer with some yellow forests of the ruska that announces the autumn contributed to that. We were captivated by these islands located between Sweden and Finland.

Although we knew it, we are surprised by the large number of islands that we see passing from the ferry. It is incredible to think that only on the Aland Islands there are 30,000 islands and islets, of which 6500 have a name, and 65 of them are inhabited.

In fact, during our stay in the Aland Islands, we will have the privilege of staying on an uninhabited island. It is an unusual and wonderful fact that we would have never dreamed of.

That landscape of islands defines the country. It is an image that we will see throughout our journey of a month in this Nordic country. As happened later, when we traveled by ferry from the Aland islands to the continent, we cross the beauty of the Turku archipelago. We see hundreds of islands and will always associate Finland with this image of islands and forests.

As soon as we got off some of the ferry passengers from Stockholm to the Aland Islands stay back. It is strange, since the ship was full. We realize that many Swedes dedicate to spend the weekend on the ferry, as it is also a place of fun, with several pubs, bars, and restaurants. We were amazed by the incredible nightlife. That's why almost no one got off at the Aland. They were sleeping after a long night, ready to go back to Stockholm.

Mariehamn, the capital of the Aland, still stretches her arms when we arrive at port. We get off the huge ferry and excited to tread on Finnish lands. The silence is clear in the dawn of the islands, we walk slowly through the quiet streets. As it is still very early, we do not want to wake up anyone and we decided to go around the city. They are pleasant neighborhoods of large colored wooden houses. Their porch is reminiscent of the rural architecture of the United States.

Our hotel also has that architectural style. It is also very well located, facing the sea and the Maritime Museum. After settling in, we borrow the bikes that will take us to discover a good part of the Aland Islands. The adventure begins.

We love to use all possible means of transport in the trips, since the points of view multiply. In Finland we were fortunate to see the country from the sea, from the ferries that took us to cross the Baltic, the archipelago of Turku, or between the Finnish islands. We also navigate the Finnish lakes by canoe, a leisurely way to discover places. It is quite the opposite of the jet skis that we drove through the rivers of Rovaniemi, feeling a sense of incredible freedom.

Another one of the means of maritime transport or of recreation, we should say that we used was the floating cesses of Jyvaskyla. We managed ourselves through the lakes. Of course, we drove through the forested roads of Finland, where we drive really slowly. We never knew a country where he would conduct himself so calmly.

Although the majority of the kilometers that we made in the Nordic country were by rail, what a wonderful journey to the autumn of Finland by train! A means of transport that works excellently. But we must say that one of our favorite means of locomotion is the bike. I feel light with backpack on my back.

I start pedaling and feel the breeze or the cold, the landscapes, the cities that pass at a different pace, without hurry, and at the same time feeling the movement. I am able to stop freely in any place that catches my attention and to be able to leave the bikes in any place without worrying that nobody will take it. And enjoy the places without time.

We did that on our trip to Berlin to explore the city by bike for a week, a very interesting point of view, the city that happens as if they were stills. Another way of merging with people, who also uses the bike as a means of transport, to be one more.

The Aland islands are an ideal place to ride a bike, for the magnificent scenery, because the roads are quite flat, with hardly any difference in level. In addition, on the Aland Islands, as well as in the rest of Finland, there is a good network of bike lanes, which covers a good part of the country. They are wide lanes, so much that they look like roads.

Many times shared with pedestrians and well marked. Finns can ride a bike without worrying about cars, which is why they often use them to get around. In addition, the bikes can be easily parked as there are always bike parks in the cities. It is almost not necessary to pad them because of how much private (and public) property is respected in this country.

On the other hand it is possible to take them on a trip by subway, train or ferry. On the Aland islands, we can go by bike from one island to another thanks to the bridges. For the travelers, the bike is an interesting option since there are services of rent or of loan, in private companies or in the Tourism Offices.

In hotels throughout Finland, were able to borrow bicycles that are reserved for customers. It allowed a part of the kilometers that we traveled through the country to ride a bicycle. They are usually bikes without gears that brake with the pedal, to which we quickly get used to.

Excited, we get going. Very soon we will know some islands that until recently we saw very far away. We start our bike route through the capital, Mariehamn, and immediately we realize that nature penetrates the city. It is something that will surprise us during our trip to Finland. The forests seem to want to conquer the towns and cities, with which we conclude that for the Finns nature is very important and is part of their lives.

The children go on excursions and give some classes abroad. The inhabitants seek that constant contact with nature, whether to go as a family to look for mushrooms or berries. It is a tradition that is already well established in Finnish habits, whether for walking or practicing all kinds of sports.

In Mariehamn we find leafy forests where we get lost, dirt roads that take us to areas of moss where the mushrooms are reproduced. And even in the city, the trees and gardens multiply. And the feeling that we have is that the city does not eat nature. It envelops the first, which is characterized, more than by tall buildings, by low wooden houses. We would say that it is a habitable, human city.

As we get lost around Mariehamn, we arrive in a new neighborhood with buildings that are not too high. It tell us about contemporary architecture on the Aland islands, and by extension in Finland. At first glance they look like many of the buildings that we already know. We get a lot of attention, because they all have large glazed terraces.

So we realize and we will confirm it throughout the trip that the light It is fundamental in the conception of architecture. In addition, these new neighborhoods respect the harmony of the environment. Clearly, nature is integrated into Finnish architecture, making buildings more human.

And, on the other hand, there is the classical architecture. We see the colorful wooden houses, with their garden, located in wide streets, that make up neighborhoods full of color and charm.

Mariehamn is on the largest and most populated island of the archipelago called Fasta Alan. From its borders we set out to explore the south of the archipelago. We travel on lonely roads, almost without traffic, crossing bridges on the Baltic Sea that sneaks everywhere. We load in our small luggage with photographs of the typical landscape of the Aland islands. We enjoy the blue of the Baltic and the lines of the coast drawn of forests, with brushstrokes of houses and wooden jetties.

We travel kilometers for hours passing through the islet of Tunngrund, and the islands Styrso, Granhol and Rodgrund. It is amazing to go from one island to another almost without realizing it. The conquering landscape of the Aland illuminates the day. We stop to see the boats that return or those that go fishing or enjoy the day. Almost everyone has a boat, or at least a small boat, so many kilometers of coastline.

We see everyday scenes of a woman and a dog that greet the man who goes fishing on his new sailing boat. We see a couple who went out to explore this island in kayak, another point of view that we hope to experience very soon. It is still summer, and people make the most of the last days of heat, because when winter approaches, it will be different.

It is still our first day in the Aland and the architecture has us in love, those bright colors, the windows, the gardens around. It's all so perfect and ideal. These islands seem like a story.

At some point we arrived at the island of Nato and we went through a forest where we decided to get lost a bit, even though we always had the map in our hands. We return slowly and discover one of the most beautiful corners, perfect for photographs of the Aland islands that we know will represent this trip later. Those will be some of the images that remain in our memory of these islands that have already trapped us.

We see a jetty of a bright shingle color, pink granite rocks rounded by glacial erosion, typical of the Aland. We see the reflections of green, golden trees in the calm blue of the Baltic. A paradisiacal corner for us alone that invites contemplation.

We return little by little to Mariehamn. Although the route has not been too tiring, we began to feel hungry and the desire to get off the bikes. The sky continues very blue in Mariehamn and the sun still very powerful illuminates the houses of the city. We cannot resist entering a street full of large wooden houses, each one of a different color. Although the architectural style is the same, the shapes and decorative details of the houses change.

A white house with a nice entrance because decorated on the top with a festoon that looks like lace. We see the garden separated from the sidewalk by a white wooden fence. We see the next red house with white windows and a red garden fence. We see a white house with a roof and green windows, a white and beige house with several terraces and two turrets finished on a hipped roof. Many houses follow each other exposing their beauty to these amazed cyclists. The huge trees, exuberant, are also proud to inhabit such a beautiful neighborhood.

And on the quiet streets of Mariehamn we cycle along the bike path to the port, looking for a place to eat. We went through a restaurant boat that is not open, maybe it's too late, so we continue. Attracted by the red of a group of houses, we arrive in the picturesque maritime district.

We had been told about this place by its craft shop that is still open. In Salt, high quality handicraft pieces are handmade by artisans from the Aland Islands. There is a lot of entertainment and a restaurant with a large terrace! We will definitely eat here.

The restaurant attracts attention for its decoration, very maritime. We see nets that cover some corners, wooden boxes where fish should be kept that make tables. It is also striking the way of ordering food. They do not serve out. The client has to go inside, ask for and take a number to the table.

As soon as the food is ready, a waiter comes to bring it to the table with the order number. Also, coffee and tea are free,. We just have to go inside when it's finished, and serve ourselves. We would see the same in almost all restaurants in Finland.

While our pizzas do not arrive, we enjoy some craft beers from the Aland Islands. It is a pleasure to be in that corner looking at the sea through the nets, tasting a good beer, while the sun warms our faces.

Some children play in a boat full of sand in front of the restaurant, we watch them enjoy. The truth is that it seems that everyone here is enjoying. The day is splendid and there are not many of them in Finland, so people can see that they appreciate it.

We still have a good time here until we see an impressive sailing ship arrive and we approach the port as it approaches. It seems that it is a boat that makes a tour of the islands, this is one of the activities that can be done on the Aland Islands. Go out by boat to see the islands from another point of view.

From the pier, all the houses in this neighborhood look beautiful, bright, full of color. There is a red and yellow that looks like an old warehouse. Then there are all those red houses, and next to the sea a strange triangular construction that catches our attention.

I think these are other snapshots of the trip that will make us remember the Aland Islands. We leave our bikes for a while to visit two of the most interesting museums in Mariehamn. The visit to the Maritime Museum was one of the most rewarding. We take a trip through the maritime history of the Aland, told through eight thematic sections.

We see 18th century agriculture to modern navigation. We see the last fleet of sailboats world, memories of the sailors of exotic destinations, like a pirate flag of the 18th century. The museum has interactive rooms to learn how to tie knots, and climb a mast.

Anchored behind the Maritime Museum, in the western port of Mariehamn is the Pommern. It is a sailing ship of the early twentieth century that crossed the oceans between England and Australia. Another museum that surprised us pleasantly was the Museum of Cultural History of the Aland. Here we learned a lot about the history of the islands. The exhibition is divided chronologically guiding us through the 7500 years of Aland history.

After visiting the museums, which require a lot of time because of how much they contain their exhibitions and how interesting they are, we take a walk around Mariehamn in search of a place to eat something, before the end of the day.

Before continuing our cycling tour, this time in the east, we see one of Mariehamn's most charming cafes. It is located in a beautiful colored wooden house of 1886. The interior is bright and welcoming, with several rooms, intimate, where people sit down to eat. We have a coffee accompanied by some portions of cake. In all of Finland we saw this kind of charming cafes, in old houses. The classic decoration create a warm atmosphere where people feel comfortable for a light meal, often with soup, and a homemade dessert.

After the meeting in which we learned more about the archipelago, we continued our bike route. On the main island, west of Mariehamn, we head to a lighthouse that is in Hamnnas. On the way we passed the huge Mariehamn football field, we got ourselves stocked in a bread, cheese and beer supermarket.

In the Aland there are many varieties of cheese, all with a tasty appearance, but in the end we opted for a smoked cheese. The varieties of bread are endless , as we will see throughout Finland, and we will fall again and again into the temptation to try them.

We crossed Mockelo to reach Kungso and headed to the coast in search of the lighthouse. We see the sea, shining in the background and we run towards it, a wide field with a colored maypole and a beach in the background invite us to stay. So we decided to make our picnic in this delicious corner that after a lot of pedaling will feel great.

On journeys there are moments like this, where silence reigns, light covers everything with color and a happy tranquility. Then time stops there. It only becomes impregnated with the moment and contemplate the beauty.

That same afternoon we embarked towards Vardo that is to the east. I say we embark because to get there we will have to pass by ferry from Prasto island to the island Tofto. Our hosts come to fetch us from Mariehamn by car. They run an immense campsite in Vardo.

Before that, we stop at the castle of the Swedish period Kastelholm, where merchants who went from Sweden to Finland were taxed. Around the castle there is a set of red wooden houses and a mill, a place full of charm.

We continue on our way and stop at the Russian fortress of Bomarsund, built in 1832 by Russia and destroyed at the end of the Crimean War. It had been a strategic point for the Russians to control the Aland islands, strategic to defend themselves against the Swedes. We climbed to the highest point where the fortress was located.

In the demon hill (Djavulsberget), the Russians had installed an optical telegraph. The views are overwhelming. They make us think about the great powers of that time in the Baltic. After transfer by ferry to the island of Tofto, we arrive at the impressive campsite. It has numerous facilities, several houses, a camping area and floating saunas!

There is still time to take a kayak ride through the calm waters of the Baltic, looking for another view of the Aland. When night falls, we headed to one of the most magical places we were to an uninhabited island, which during one night and one morning will be just for us.

We have just picked up the canoes after sliding through the calm waters of the Baltic for an hour. We have discovered the bird nests without disturbing them and the beautiful wooden jetties where the Finns keep their boats. In the Aland Islands almost everyone has one, to move from one to another. The same thing happens on the continent, since Finland is a country made up of lakes and people usually have a boat to go out for a walk, to fish or to move from one place to another.

The immense campsite is silent, with the magnificent empty cabins and the terrain for the tents, deserted. We are at the end of the season and almost nobody comes at this time. A pity, because the weather is still pleasant and in Vardo there is always a lot to do. In the water the floating, beautiful, lonely saunas await someone to come and enjoy the relaxation that these beloved places of the Finns produce.

We prepare a fresh fish before taking us to the deserted island where we will spend the night. The dinner is simple but delicious, accompanied by the always irresistible Finnish bread and a white wine with a lot of flavor, that conquers us from the first sip. It is a Bulgarian wine brought from the Balkans.

We would like to spend more time chatting, because it is always nice to have long conversations with people from other places to learn more about their life and their country, or simply to philosophize about the world in which we live. We go through the deserted island, before the night makes the boat trip difficult. In Finland there are many people who have a deserted island!

We go to the pier where the motor boat awaits us. With hardly any luggage, we boarded and began to sail the Baltic at full speed. The cold water splashing our excited faces, the last sun dying red the calm waters and a stillness broken only by the vibrant trail left by the purring engine of the boat .

There are islets everywhere, the panoramic view is splendid from the excitement of the boat. The sun is hiding little by little, the sky is already almost red and begins to reflect in the waters that, when we toured them in canoe, they were of an intense blue. The deserted island is closer and closer, its contours are drawn, the small jetty is already a few meters away.

The boat slows down and maneuvers on the small dock so we can get out. The enthusiasm increases when stepping on land. We are already on the deserted island. After a few instructions, the boatman leaves us alone, delivered to the night that begins to be sketched in our new empire.

We stand, not knowing what to do, first silently and then talking on our elbows, nervous because we are alone on a deserted island. Before going to see the cabin that awaits us, we decided to explore what will be our land for one night. It's not very big, at least it did not look like that from the sea, so we go through a part before the light goes away completely.

It's granite, a stone that I know very well. This is the shortened coast of the sea from which I proceed, farther south, where the waters are brighter, and the coastline is made of granite rocks . It is strange to tread now a familiar terrain thousands of nautical miles. To think that I am on a deserted island in the heart of the Aland, in Finland, as if I were on the island of Salvora, also deserted, where the sea is different, but the earth seems the same.

Lost in my thoughts, I see that my traveling companion is already far away, silhouetted in the red of sunset, one of the most beautiful I saw in a long time. The sky still blue in the upper part, below and very red, more and more intense. The black rocks already, and the water that suddenly becomes unreal, as if it were smoke.

The atmosphere of the island becomes increasingly mysterious, as the minutes pass, and the prevailing silence is so extraordinary that it seems we are in another world. A world where evil would have disappeared when the human being disappeared, an empty world, inert of humanity, at peace with itself.

Who has never dreamed of going to a deserted island and staying there for a while. Sleeping in a solitary hut in the middle of low forest and granite rocks, surrounded by sea everywhere. We were fortunate to find this accommodation in the Aland Islands , the typical Finnish wooden cabin , with large windows, with its front and rear porches, located in the highest area of ​​the island. A fairytale cabin.

We open the door and we come across a single space that shares the room, the living room and the kitchen. The large bed with flower bedspread, candles on the headboard, two rocking chairs in the living room, the stove for the cold winter of Finland, and the small kitchen with everything you need. The bathroom is outside, has an ecological WC, and the shower is external.

We return to the shelter of our cabin. The window opens to a huge, starry sky, which we see from the rocking chairs. We hope of seeing northern lights, which are supposed to begin at this time of the year in Finland. The conditions are given. We are away from the light pollution of the cities.

With clear skies, the Aland is a good area to hunt them. We fixed our eyes wanting to see what only a few months ago we saw in Iceland. That sun dust that crosses the magnetic shield of the earth, playing in the skies of the country that roars inside, one step away from the Strokkur geyser.

Our cameras had turned those northern lights in a show of intense green halos that left us speechless. But everything could not be so ideal, and the Auroras do not deign to visit us.

It would be so nice to see northern lights from our Finnish cabin, a magical night on this deserted island. But we settle for the starry sky and with some shooting stars that adorn it. Silence is what draws our attention in this extraordinary night, the tranquility of this island in which the birds also sleep.

It is strange to find ourselves here on one of the Aland islands, alone, so close, but so far from everything, the silhouette of the other islands aligned to the horizon. A few hours in which time ceases to exist because on this deserted island there is hardly anything, just us and this amazing cabin, our home for one night.

Remember the movie Breakfast with diamonds, where the most chic was having breakfast near one of the most reputable Jewelry stores in New York. Today in the production of many travel journalists and bloggers there is still that kind of simple snobbery, where most of the most is still to travel the asphalt of magical cities such as NYC, Venice, Rome, Paris or London.

Sign up for the surface photo with a fake smile and a well-known emblem in the background. There are still diamonds, generally hidden, in those cities that deserve to be discovered and shared, but the banality of useless luxury, fashion and selfie has spread with the speed of the Internet.

All that comes to mind when the sun rises slowly over the sea, in a corner of the world, in this place, a little forgotten, a little deserted, very quiet, not polluted and pleasant. That's when the real diamonds sparkle. Of course, I speak from a subjective and particular, unique feeling that occurred in an instant and a place, and that perhaps it would not be repeated in that same place but in another moment.

Perhaps that is the best teaching of a trip, something that by definition has an end and that does not allow materially appropriated what is discovered, known, stepped on. A paradox that should make us think a little more about useless struggles for power and ownership of money and possessions. Life is a journey with a marked and definitive ending. There is no further, we only have the enjoyment of our time, experiences, friendships and sensations. And, of course, the enjoyment of the memory, the possibility of returning to those places we met.

What I remember are roads that did not exist on rocks, stacked granite blocks that were really just one, the island. Trees that sprung on the scarce earth, almost sinking their roots in the stone. Moss where our feet sank, birds surprised by those strange beings that inhabited their paradise.

But they did not worry much, they knew that we would leave soon and the stillness of the island would return, when the sound of the ship's engine died down. Lichens, algae, mosses, storm fragments and lights of a fresh and majestic alba. How to describe it? It costs me a lot, but I see it clearly in the memory.

That distant island is already mine, ours. An island where you could live, with some provisions, some canes and a little wood, some time. A unique refuge, a redoubt to isolate yourself for a while and think about how to amend this world of ours that goes crazy in the eyes.

The danger, to think that it is still, this privilege to live outside of pain and problems can last forever. The deserted islands serve to recover, to reinvigorate our battered humanities and to return to the world, to live it, tell it and maybe try to change it.

Aland Islands travel mariehamn ferry

Day 2

It dawned in the same way, when the sun completed its loop and returned to the other side of the world, awakening nature. The sun colored the night that lost the battle. A new day was born with the aroma of hot coffee and some delicious bread. Then we decided to discover the domains that we were going to lose in a few hours.

Our cycling route through the Aland continues starting from the campsite, exploring the island of Vardo. We cross forests to the island of Sando, and so on until the land ends and we find ourselves opposite the Ostra island which we reach by shuttle.

Watching the landscape of the Aland Islands from our velocipedes, we felt that we would not mind staying in them for a good season. We want to experience the midsummer and the construction of the Maypole. I think we would be very happy here.

It is late in the Aland Islands and we go to one of our favorite places to watch the sunset. We reach the western port of Mariehamn, where the Maritime Museum is located, on the seashore, next to the Pommern ship. Slowly, the skies of Mariehamn are colored, yellow, then orange and red. A boat comes back from its ride on this splendid day that still looks like summer.

The Maypole silhouette that rose last Midsummer is silhouetted against the dawn. Thoughtful, we remember the stamps that came from the Post Office of the Aland Islands and our travel dreams. We look at each other accomplices, smiling and we turn our eyes to the paradise in front of us.

We drink a good coffee. We feel a palpable well-being, as it does us good after this day spent fighting against this damn wind. What happiness to savor the tranquility of this nature yet sometimes so impetuous, as for the heart of the turmoil, our tired bodies sometimes want to abandon us.

We enjoy the calm, we feel in harmony with the nature that surrounds us, in communion with the landscape. The golden light of the end of the day illuminates the glowing rocks to the delight of our eyes.

We arrive around 18:00, exhausted. As much as our strength allows, we store, fold, dry up a lot of things and try to find some comfort in the sauna available (the owner of the campsite gives us the gift of the session). Our sore muscles relax completely and our minds are released, allowing us to take a step back on our end of the day.

We open our little bottle of champagne that we took care to take with us! The night is rainy and we wake up in the early morning in a marshy land! We spend the evening exchanging our impressions of the days we have just spent with some satisfaction. What beautiful and good moments lived, rich in emotions, in sensations, only lessons learned about ourselves.

In the middle of the night, a glow illuminates the whole interior of the tent and makes me leave despite the laziness, my cozy duvet. The night is clear and fresh but the show rewards me by offering me a great moonlight on the sea. Splendid!

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