Demeaned by Russia to become Finland’s ‘second city’, Turku is a wondrous place of history, charm and culture.
Established in the 1200s along the green and winding banks of the River Aura, the original citadel was the site of the first Catholic Bishopric and today, for all Finns, it remains the ‘shrine of Finland’.
We arrived on a sunny Saturday morning to organised chaos. It was the day of the Turku Marathon, an annual endurance event held in memory of one of the country’s greatest athletes, Paavo Nurmi, a nine-times Olympic champion.
Eventually finding parking down on the riverside we had a front row seat as the runners streamed by in confident (or shaky strides) tackling the 42kms in punishing heat.
The route went past all the city’s historical and cultural landmarks, so we followed it, strolling along the river and using historical bridges and a free foot passenger ferry, the bright orange Fori.
Turku expanded with trade along the river during the 1400s and some of its medieval streets are preserved in a subterranean museum, Aboa Vetus (old Turku).
The site was apparently discovered when a new gallery for modern art was being constructed. A decision was quickly taken to incorporate the old warren of lanes and cellars. It shows the value that Turku places on its ancestry, with perhaps a little smirk in the direction of Helsinki at the capital’s lack of demonstrable heritage.
Turku Castle was established in the 1200s but it had to wait until the 16th century to achieve its Renaissance splendour.
Gifted by the King of Sweden to his son Grand Duke John and wife Catherine, a Polish princess of the Jagiellonian dynasty, the castle held a lavish court complete with new luxuries. Catherine introduced to Finland dinner forks and ladies-in-waiting.
The austere but atmospheric castle now sits strangely amid the docks of the Baltic-crossing ferries.
At the other side of the old city the enormous Turku Cathedral towers above its steep staircase built upon the ‘knoll of sheep’, a place of pagan worship. It was a centre of Christianisation by the Swedes on the pagan Finns, growing larger as the centuries passed.
We could only peek inside briefly at its massive columned knave and blue-painted celestial dome. A wedding, one of two in rapid succession, was underway and anxious guests milled around the heavy rope cordon at the end of the aisle.
Anxiety was in the air and we found out why behind the cathedral. Tuomiokirkkokatu (Cathedral Square), the oldest part of the city, was filled with a crowd of shaven headed people bizarrely performing Nazi salutes.
Chatting separately to two engaging locals, Jussi and Henrik, both passionate about Turku and both community activists, we heard that two demonstrations were being held in the city that day.
Earlier, a large crowd of local people had held a silent vigil to commemorate the victims of Finland’s only act of terrorism, a knife attack in Turku market place by one individual who killed two people and injured eight more exactly one year ago.
The city authorities had banned any public display of mourning, and in doing so attracted the attention of right wing groups from across Finland and Sweden. These were the people in the square. Heavily armed police patrolled agitatedly around them and a testy standoff commenced when the group marched to face the gathered locals, on opposite sides of the river.
Talking with Jussi and Henrik was deeply informative, and we were grateful to them both for their time and excellent English in which they explained the polarisation of politics in Finland currently. Their concerns echo our own about the rise of nationalism in post-Brexit Britain. It was fascinating to discuss together.
The river hosts a collection of upmarket restaurants and eateries, some on large boats which come alive at sunset decked with candles and lights. A large student population keeps the atmosphere lively and the prices more-or-less manageable, so we enjoyed strolling amongst the evening crowds and joining them on deck for a glass of beer.
Finland is famously expensive, with a rate of 24 per cent tax applied to goods and additional increases for various products. Alcoholic drinks have a whopping 60 per cent of added tax. To maintain this pricing policy the government has a monopoly on selling alcohol through its Alko stores.
Typically a bottle of imported Aussie wine that you could pick up for £4.50 at home, would cost around €14, however the same bottle would cost between €30 – €40 to buy in a bar or restaurant. A beer in a bar costs the equivalent of £7 for less than a pint.
We had been struck by the numbers of well-groomed people we had seen in groups, or in couples, drinking publicly throughout the day. Bottles of wine and cans of beer were being guzzled along the riverbanks. Now we understood why. In addition, 15 cents are applied to each bottle/tin and explained why some people scavenged through bins to reclaim the tax at local stores in exchange for monetary coupons.
If the government’s Alko policy is an attempt to curb drinking, then it is simply not working. Something that Johanna, an Alko seller, willingly told us herself.
Our two days in Turku were to be our last in Finland. We had managed well with the demands of our stringent budget by camping for free for six of the seven nights, taking our chances at sanctioned but not always secure overnight parking spots. For the one night we stayed at a campsite we were charged the equivalent of £31 for the privilege of parking in a scrubby field, so we didn’t repeat it.
We had bought coffee and two beers out, each time making use of wifi and sourcing a cheeky power supply to charge up our essential tech. We hadn’t been able to afford a basic meal, but shopped at Lidl so still managed to feast like kings. Fuel at €1.50 a litre and the one night’s camping were our major expenses and we were set to leave, unexpectedly, with our budget in the black.
However, on arriving for our early morning ferry to Stockholm we were turned away, Bertha being 20cms too high for a space on the car deck. Finland wasn’t finished with our budget yet!
Back in the terminal, another Johanna made it her task to get us on the next possible crossing, leaving that night. She pulled strings to wing us a cabin and parking space, for an extra €100, on the flagship Viking Grace which turned out to be a magnificent cruiser.
So, later at sunset and on board the beautiful ship, we recouped some of our extra costs by joining the Asian and American passengers and indulging freely, if naughtily, in their generous wine and cheese buffet.
It was a taste of high life on the high seas!