For a country of its size, it is surprising how little of Finland registers in the minds of British travellers. Helsinki in the summer and Lapland in the winter remain perennially popular, but the rest of the country tends to get the cold shoulder, despite covering an area larger than Poland or Italy. Soon, a third destination may squeeze itself in. Last month, the EU council of Ministers announced that Turku would be the joint European City of Culture in 2011, a status it will share with Tallinn. And while the Estonian capital is now familiar to British travellers, Turku remains almost unknown.
The more you see of Turku the more this surprises you. After all it’s the oldest city in Finland, the country’s former capital, the seat of its oldest university and gateway to the beautiful Finnish archipelago. Because of its venerability, it also eschews the criticism levelled at many Finnish cities: namely that they are a bit too modern and efficient for their own good.
Indeed, the old capital remains as quaint and as eclectic as an antique store run by a dotty old uncle. A compact city centre is bisected by the handsome River Aura which leads out to the archipelago and the Baltic Sea. There’s a castle, an old cathedral, a Dominican monastery that was consecrated in 1249, as well as sailing ships in the harbour and a wealth of traditional timbered houses.
For a city of just 175,000, moreover, Turku has of the densest concentrations of culture anywhere in the Nordic region. Not only does it boast three universities (including one exclusively in Finnish-Swedish due to the large concentration of speakers there), the city boasts at least seven museums, (including one dedicated to Jean Sibelius), several theatres and an orchestra. And while you get the sense that Turku takes itself and its former capital status extremely seriously, it also knows how to have fun. The city plays host to three music festivals, encompassing elecronica, classical and heavy rock.
But all you really need to sample Turku’s past is to take a night on the town. The Old Bank was recently voted as one of the top ten bars in Finland (one of only two from outside Helsinki). Around the corner is the bar Koulu, the former Swedish language school, which doubles as a restaurant and it triples as a brewery (its Christmas ale is sublime, full bodied with notes of cinnamon and cough candy). Then perhaps cross the river for a pint amid the wood panels of the Uusi Apteeki, or the new pharmacy, which paradoxically dates back to the early 20th century and has been restored by six friends who have turned it into a temple of beer (it has over 20 on tap). Finally, finish the night at the subterranean Puutorin Vessa a bohemian bar fashioned from an old public convenience. Old buildings never die in Turku, they just get converted into new places to drink.
That, you soon realise, is the point of Turku. It is a city that clings defiantly to the past. Although the city remains the capital of Finland Proper, you get the sense that it has yet to reconcile itself to its loss of status. Then, there is the great fire, which gutted the city in 1827 to consider as well as the pounding it received from the red army during the Winter War. What is has it tends to hold.
Even in the city’s trendiest bars and restaurants the past pervades. Bar Koku is stuffed full of retro Scandinavian furniture, all of which is for sale. Alvar (Alvar, 7 Humalistonkatu 231 4370) is named after Alvar Alto, Finland’s most famous architect, and the large eclectically decorated bar is housed on the ground floor of one of his buildings. The city’s chicest restaurant, Blanko, which offers both Scandinavian and Asian cuisine, is situated in a cross-domed cellar that once belonged to grand old house. After the kitchen closes the bar comes alive with guest DJs, playing house a mix of house music and bossa nova the night we were there.
Turku is popular in the summer when boatloads of Swedes arrive across the Baltic from Stockholm. But Christmas also makes a good time to go. While most of us associate Lapland with Christmas, Finns are more likely to visit Turku. In December the city plays host to one of the largest Christmas markets outside Germany.
One criticism of Turku is that it is not blessed with an abundance of great hotels. Omena, a new chain of self-service hotels, is a welcome addition, especially as its in the same Alto building as Bar Alvar. For good value for money and a central location The Sokos Hotel Hamburger Börs is hard to beat.
Take a trip to Turku. It’s worth extra connecting flight or train ride from Helsinki and you will find a city packed full of culture, long before it becomes a capital once more.