Sweden or Finland? Do My Ears Deceive Me?
Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands, is a surprising place. Through the course of hundreds of years, ownership of the island has changed hands many times so that now the people speak Swedish, but it is an autonomous territory under Finland. (Being an autonomous territory means that they have a large degree of self-governance.)
The archipelago of the Åland islands contains about 6,500 uninhabited islands and about 60 inhabited islands with Mariehamn, and its 12,000 residents, being the only town. In fact, the population of all the islands is only about 30,000 people.
Mariehamn has been inhabited since 5000 BC with some of its residents being Vikings who used the port for fishing and as a stop between Finland and Sweden.
Viking Cruises was great to provide free shuttles into town when walking was longer or more difficult; however, we took the included tour of the island and then walked back to our ship.
Mariehamn became a port city in 1861 because a trading center was needed in the area and it has harbors on both the east and west sides of the island. One of the first things we noticed upon docking was a large windjammer in a nearby dock. Indeed, Mariehamn is known as the port of the last windjammers. Now there is only the one windjammer left, the Pommern, which last sailed in 1939. The windjammers sailed to Australia, South America, and then back to Europe with their primary cargo being grain. The windjammers challenged themselves and the other sailors to Grain Races. (Anything under 100 days from Australia and England was good.) Although the windjammers sound and look romantic, the life was hard and the trips were long.
Mariehamn is a beautiful town with over 600 types of flowers that flourish due to the great soil. Our tour bus road smoothly over the roads which are made of Atlantic red granite instead of concrete or asphalt that would crack in the extreme weather. Our first stop was St. Olaf Historic Church in Jomala, a parish near Mariehamn. (There are 16 churches on the small island with 11 of them being stone churches from the medieval time since Christianity came over 1,000 years ago.) The still-active church, built from the Atlantic red granite, is surrounded by a graveyard with burials dating back to the Iron Age.
Another stop on our tour was the Maritime Quarter. With its shed, boats, workshops and souvenirs, it was a fun way to learn more about the history of the island. We decided to walk back to the ship which was a great decision. We walked through the small, bustling downtown area with its shops and restaurants before walking through one of the many greenspaces lined with linden trees. (Mariehamn is known as the Town of a Thousand Linden Trees.)
The afternoon held a special treat for us with an excursion aboard a small boat. Vilhelm “Ville” Holmberg, the captain of our vessel, was also the owner of both boats and gave us a great tour of the harbor with information about the history of the islands.
Our first stop was on Kobba Klintar, an intriguing stop with history and art. The old pilothouse had been abandoned in 1972, but it now functions as a museum and café. (The café was closed when we were there.) The pilothouse still contains its massive foghorn on the second floor. (The foghorn can be heard 8 miles away!) The pilothouse served as Mariehamn’s Statue of Liberty for sailors coming into the area. A local artist made statues that are situated around the island. They are so lifelike that we thought they were real people—until they didn’t move!
Ferries and cruise ships still pass by this island on a regular basis. It can be confusing since the largest employer in the islands is Viking Ferry—not Viking Cruise Lines!
The island’s beacon has been replaced by a pyramid-shaped building that serves as a museum and venue for special events. The pyramid’s reflective surface allows it to be seen from a great distance. The barrel at the top of the pyramid signified that alcohol was available there during prohibition.
The captain graciously took us to his island for our next stop. Yes, Ålanders own many of the small islands in the area and use them as their summer homes. In fact, non- Ålanders cannot buy property in the archipelago. The captain had built everything on the island including their sauna and house. They use solar power for general use, but they also have a generator if needed. We stopped for traditional snacks and to explore this peaceful piece of beauty before going to our last island, Lilla Båtskär.
Lilla Båtskär formerly served as a pilothouse, a lighthouse, and an ore mine, and now houses a wind turbine farm. We enjoyed walking around the island picking up a few small pieces of the abundant ore for grandchildren before reboarding our boat and heading back to Mariehamn to get onboard the Viking Jupiter. (It was exciting to see Kobba Klintar with its pyramidal beacon as we sailed out of port to our next stop, Gdansk, Poland.)
A special note: Our Scandinavian Cruise was originally planned to go to St. Petersburg, a highlight for us. For safety reasons, Viking changed the plans so we were kept away from dangerous areas. Viking provided interesting new stops and always gave free shuttles into an area if they weren’t in walking distance.
For more information about our Scandinavian adventures, this time in Stockholm, click here.
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