Monday, August 25, 2014

Âland of gentle surprises, set in a chilly sea...

There was a time, not so long ago, when a travelling bureaucrat would have been in some big city, looking at big things, flying on big planes. But times change, and so have my, or should I say, our travels.

The Äland Islands are a Swedish-speaking collection of Islands and skerries which form the western end of an archipelago that reaches out from Turku, in south-western Finland, across the lower Gulf of Bothnia towards Sweden. 25,000 or so people live in what is an autonomous province under Finnish sovereignty. That autonomy is such that they have their own flag, their own post office, a parliament and a bunch of exemptions from European Union regulations, and all of this is the result of a 1921 ruling by the League of Nations that was the talk of international jurists everywhere.

But enough history, why come here?

Mariehamn, the capital, isn't big - just ten thousand or so people - and it isn't exactly bustling. What it is though, is gentle, especially out of season - the summer bus timetable ends in mid-August, and most museums close for the year in mid-September, not to reopen until May. You can walk across from shore to shore in about fifteen minutes - there is sea to the east and west - and the bus service is slightly erratic.

It is a maritime town, with a history that looks to the sea, of brave men who set sail for the four corners of the world but whose roots were in the small communities and rocky outcrops that were their island home, of the women who raised their families and waited patiently for them to come home.

Perhaps it is the fact that, unlike some island communities, the locals are pretty friendly and very helpful, and, on a sunny day, with the sun reflecting off the water and the wooden houses, it is just the place I might live for a while. And then one is gently reminded that the average temperature is above ten degrees centigrade for four months of the year,  Stockholm is six hours away by ferry (it's five to Turku), and in the depths of winter the average temperature is below freezing for three months or more. Hmmmm... maybe not...

So, come to Mariehamn, bring a sweater and perhaps a hat to keep the rain out of your hair. Take a walk, catch a bus, grab an ice cream and some herring - but not at the same time, perhaps. And, at the end of the day, kick back with a beer and relax in the knowledge that, tomorrow, you won't be in a hurry...

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