Mavericks on the Baltic

Dugald Jellie explores Finland's oldest city, a culture hotspot and maritime centre set in mediaeval streetscapes.

For most, there are two ways to Turku. One is in a hurry from the east by train from Helsinki at 160km/h through a blur of countryside so prim and pleasing it looks like a cliche. The other is on a slow boat from Stockholm in the west, meandering through a maze of islands strewn across this neck of the Baltic Sea.

Both lead to Finland's oldest city - the country's cultural heartbeat - a picturesque mediaeval outpost at a historic juncture that from the late Middle Ages held the keys to unlocking this distant corner of Europe.

"Helsinki's another world away," says Marika Andersson, a former professional volleyball player turned tourism officer who is six-foot-something and speaks six languages.

"You see more the Swedish influence here, not the Russian. It's more relaxed."

Which is why I visit, arriving by train for a long weekend, extending my holiday because I've fallen in love with all things Finnish and am intrigued by this city on the south-west tip of Finland proper. Locals say it's a mellow alternative to Helsinki's crisp edge; a place of summer music festivals, riverboat restaurants and bohemian cafes filled with writers, artists, scholars and acrobats from the country's only circus-training school.

It's also the provenance of the world's biggest cruise liners. Who knew Turku was such a global heavy-lifter? A shipbuilding centre since the 16th century, Turku's yards most recently laid down and launched the $1.1 billion Allure of the Seas - a last word on floating luxury that took its maiden voyage this year on a leisured loop (with ice-skating rink and Broadway musical) of the Caribbean.

Derived from the Swedish word "torg", meaning "marketplace", this resilient city at the top of the world has, since settlement in the 13th century, quietly gone about its trade in ideas and endeavours. Once the second-largest town within the realm of the Swedish kingdom, its port attracted resident merchants and craftsmen from all sides of the Baltic, making it a regional seat of power - until the Russians arrived and in 1812 favoured Helsinki as a capital.

"They took our universities and they took our public buildings," says Johanna Aalto, a city guide, of that political shift towards St Petersburg.

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"The only thing Turku got to keep was its status as the country's centre of religion."

The town's mediaeval cathedral remains its centrepiece and the mother church of a Lutheran faith that's a state religion - with about 82 per cent of Finns paying a 1.2 per cent tax on income to be members. (Those who choose to opt out can do so by email.)

"We call it a national shrine," Aalto says of the striking gothic-style cathedral, built on a pagan worship knoll and known throughout the country for its Christmas celebrations and the chiming of its bells broadcast at noon daily on national radio. "It has the longest aisle in Scandinavia. If you're getting married here, there's plenty of time to change your mind."

Atop the 280 steps leading to the cathedral's front door is where I begin a sightseeing tour - and behind the visitor's desk is where I meet a woman in her 60s who tells me a story that takes me back to the world's other side.

Her name is Liselotte Hellberg, her sister lives in Maroochydore and she says her father left Turku in 1926 for London, where he crewed the four-masted Mozart to Sydney, carrying spruce and Baltic pine. He jumped ship on arrival and spent five years variously cutting railway sleepers in NSW and Queensland, and helping build Canberra - where he planted the capital's birch trees.

"He learnt Australian English by reading newspapers," Hellberg says.

Two hours later, on the Turku River's other side, I encounter Joy and Ken Beames, sheep graziers from Dunedoo. The couple are browsing in a gift shop at the city's castle, built in the 1280s as a stronghold for the Swedish crown . They have come to this end of Europe to see their son, who is studying international politics on exchange at one of the city's two universities. We talk wool prices. They flew to Frankfurt and took trains to Stockholm, where they caught a ferry.

Turku-Abo, as the city is known officially in its avowedly bilingual stance (Swedish is the mother tongue of 5.2 per cent of its 180,000 residents), is a river port straddling the mouth of the Aura (residents call the east bank "this side", the west bank "that side"), halfway between two old-world powers, where children from the age of nine learn two languages, locals are steeped in the two-way tide of foreign passage, and the running joke is to ask newcomers if they've been on the to-and-fro river cruise on the Fori, from Turku to Abo. (These are, of course, the same place and the Fori is a tubby passenger ferry that's like a city mascot, crossing the river on a daily free shuttle that takes all of about, oh, 90 seconds).

For three days along its narrow waterway, I succumb to Turku's serene charms, from the heady aroma of smoked fish (Baltic herring, mackerel, trout, pike) at its outdoor market square, to a pub crawl that takes me inside a former bank, a girls' school, a pharmacy and a public lavatory - all converted to bars.

During my stay, I touch up Paavo Nurmi, one of the "Flying Finns", feeling the bronze toes and calf of a statue of the famous 1920s runner (and learn that while in Turku in 1954, John Landy became the second man to break the four-minute mile). I muck about with boats at the maritime centre. And at a charity clothes shop, I supplement my wardrobe with a fetching vintage Finnish ski-team tracksuit.

In the tradition of the flaneur, I lose myself in local customs, with a map and sensible shoes, seeing the sights of a city that was last year a European capital of culture, with its riverside promenade of museums, galleries, bookshops, library and restaurants. And from my first night, eating pan-fried Arctic char with herbed spuds and a crayfish hollandaise in a room of blondes by the water at Pinella - a former artists' club and the oldest licensed restaurant in Finland - the city's attractions seem self-evident. Beneath spreading limbs of mature linden trees on the riverbank, lined with couples deep in conversation, I later find a cafe serving bear sausages and, in the interests of reportage, order some (tastes like beef, only gamier).

I marvel at mushrooms and berries sold by the litre at open-air stalls. And in the 1890s-built Market Hall, where locals queue at Christmas for hams (some sauna-smoked), I find comfort in a blueberry cake served in a cafe built from the furnishings of a Russian "Blue train" that once linked Moscow to the outside world.

Needless to say, I leave Turku on a full stomach, catching a train back to Helsinki, thinking of trade routes and future travels. Next time I hope to go west in a boat, into the Archipelago Sea, where 20,000 islands await.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Finnair and Turku Touring.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Finnair has a fare to Helsinki from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1980 low-season return including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr with a partner airline), then non-stop to Helsinki (12hr 30min); see finnair.com. This fare allows you to fly via a number of Asian cities and back from another European city. Pre-purchased tickets on daily trains from Helsinki to Turku (26 run on weekdays) cost from €28 ($35) for the two-hour trip; see vr.fi. If coming from Stockholm, Viking Line and Silja Line run daily morning and evening ferries for the 10-hour cruise across the Baltic.

When to go

May to September, although high summer in July is best for the midnight sun and beers and herring on the river boats, with days filled with music festivals and the Mediaeval Market. December is also busy, with Turku the official Christmas City of Finland, although the average daily low drops to minus 5.6 degrees. January and February are colder still.

More information

See turkutouring.com.

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