Friday, November 29, 2019

Åland Islands On a Motorcycle

Aland is a collection of islands about half way between mainland Finland and Sweden. Although technically a part of the Republic of Finland, it is an autonomous region - with its own government, its own flag, its own license plates, and, most importantly, its own deal with the European Union. Aland is a tax-free zone, and if a ship calls at the port of Mariehamn on its way from one EU country to another, it can sell duty-free alcohol on board. Which is why there is a daily connection between the archipelago and the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

I had been fascinated by Aland for a long time, and even made the effort to get up in the middle of the night on occasion, coming back from Stockholm, to catch a glimpse of the island as the ship nuzzled up against the dock for ten minutes. But in the summer of 2019, several factors came together to motivate me to finally book the trip. The proximate cause was a trip report by a writer I follow, Amal el-Mohtar, who visited Aland for a literary convention, and had extremely nice things to say about it. In addition, I was struggling with a challenge I’d set for myself, to go abroad at least once in every month in 2019; I had nothing planned for July. Finally, the schedules lined up well: I could catch the evening ferry out of Tallinn after work on Friday, get off at Mariehamn at the crack of dawn on Saturday, spend two full days on the archipelago, and catch the returning ferry from Stockholm on Sunday night - then be back at work only a little late on Monday morning. I had enough experience with Tallink to book cheap, too: the boat there and back again cost me only just over a hundred euros.

So here I was, riding my Yamaha Fazer into the bowels of the Victoria I, on the way to a nearby destination that had eluded me so far.

The overnight cruise ferries between Tallinn and Stockholm are designed to entertain; there was a time when they were the affordable option to reach Sweden, but these days, a plane ticket is almost always cheaper. That said, I’d spent a lot of time on these boats, and there was hardly any novelty there for me. I checked out the duty-free supermarket, but I had no intention of filling my panniers with discount booze on the outward leg. The performance troupe that was in residence at the boat’s cabaret was offering an early-evening backstage tour, which I joined with interest, but I did not hang around for the main floor show, despite the coupons for half-off drinks that I got with my tickets: I had an early wake-up call, and a long day’s ride ahead of me, so I wanted to get as much sleep as I could. In my cabin, I watched the Estonian Song and Dance Festival on TV - it was happening that weekend, a once-in-five-years massive event. I had the cabin to myself, which was a nice surprise - I had booked a single berth, which normally means sharing the cabin with three truck drivers. But apparently Tallink will not put passengers heading to Aland in the same cabins as those heading to Stockholm, to let everyone get a good’s night rest, and the only other vehicles getting off at Mariehamn were cars whose families had booked entire cabins. So on the way there, and the way back, I got complete privacy at a discount price. Not bad.

Coming from Tallinn, the ferry calls at Mariehamn at 4.50 AM; and around 4 AM, a ship’s steward knocked on my door to wake me up and tell me to muster on the disembarkation deck. Even though every sailing features an Aland stopover, the procedure for handling passengers and vehicles is awkwardly ad-hoc: a security guard read off the names of foot passengers, while a loadmaster came up to fetch me - the only one in motorcycle gear - to reach the car deck via a service stairwell, since the normal passenger lifts are shut down until the morning. As the ship’s ramp dropped, I saw sunshine, and my Michelins rolled out onto Aland soil.

I’d expected the early arrival to be a problem, and indeed, Mariehamn was comprehensively closed, with the exception of a 24-hour Shell station. The solution I had in mind involved finding a nice quiet strip of waterside woodland where to hang my hammock and watch the sunrise. Searching for the right spot, I ended up at a campsite just outside the city center, quiet at this hour but absolutely packed with tents and caravans. As the mist burned off, I sat on the beach, accompanied by flocks of entirely unintimidated geese.

I had considered camping, but in this aspect again, Aland is distinct from the rest of Scandinavia: almost every bit of land is claimed, and you can’t just pitch a tent somewhere in the forest. The particular weekend I’d picked to go, it was because I could book a bed at the Godby Vandrarhem, the only cheap hostel on the island. Cheap is a relative term, and a bunk bed still set me back twenty euros - but in Scandinavia, that’s as good a price as you can expect for a dry warm bed and a shower, and no more than I would pay at a campsite. Hanging out on the beach as the holiday village slowly woke up behind me, I was reaffirmed in my decision: this far north, even July nights can get frosty.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the city and parked the bike at the Shell station - in view of its surveillance cameras, but in a spot where no car could have possibly fit. There are different schools of thought regarding bike security, with the common wisdom being to carry a cover that makes the bike invisible. When I’m off the bike in the middle of a city for a few hours in the middle of the day, I tend to just leave the bike in full view on the main street: there is nothing anybody can grab off the bike that isn’t locked inside a hard case, and visibility deters idle hands, at least while everyone is sober.

I walk through a park with some interesting public art - or maybe it’s a playground; or maybe it’s both - and find the earliest open cafe for my morning coffee, and a breakfast of a shrimp wrap. Seafood while traveling is always a calculated risk, but I figure that on an island with such a strong fishing culture, I am reasonably safe. After that, I stroll down the main shopping street, past the first booths of the weekend open-air market, towards the statue of Empress Maria Aleksandrovna. She was the godmother of the town - the furthest northwestern outpost of the Russian Empire. Aland was captured from the Sweden and incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Finland under Russian rule, which is why this Swedish-speaking archipelago stayed a Finnish dependency after World War I (and not, as one legend tells it, because you could reach the Finnish coast always within sight of land, whereas Sweden was over the blue horizon). All this and more I find out at the surprisingly engrossing Aland Museum of Culture and History. The history part is a series of well-annotated dioramas, with lovely anecdotes such as the fate of the Aland provincial banner - taken to Stockholm to be displayed at the funeral of a beloved king, and mixed up with the banner of Oland, a completely different part of the Kingdom of Sweden, to be returned only many decades later. I also realize that Reval, as Tallinn was called back then, has always been a key trading partner for Aland; as a fully fledged Hanseatic city, it was not that much less of a trade hub than Stockholm or St Petersburg. The culture part of the museum is partly a permanent exhibition of Mariehamn sports memorabilia - its football team apparently punches above its weight in the Finland league - and partly a very good audiovisual installation. The artist, whose displayed works include sculptures finished in a particular kind of velvet-like material, was even considerate enough to provide a separate piece of that material on the wall for visitors to touch.

I get back on the bike and head south. Stretching down from the town is a road that stretches across several tiny islands, combining them effectively into a very skinny peninsula. It is not a fast road by any means, but it does meander through extraordinarily picturesque bays, making it enjoyable even at fifty kilometers per hour. I follow a local biker to a tiny yacht harbor, then after trying to reach the southern tip and coming to a private-property gate, I turn around and head for the Stickstugan Cafe. If Aland is all of Scandinavia compressed into one tiny place, then Järsö island is Denmark - flat, watery, and incredibly manicured. The Stickstugan is hygge embodied: a summer cakery that sprawls behind a handicrafts barn that is stuffed with every possible kind of yarn and wool-based product. The cafe is a nice walk down a garden path that is very carefully constructed to be authentic, with extra tables inside an old greenhouse. This is the place that so enamored Amal El-Mohtar, and I know exactly what to order. The Aland pancake is a thick slab, served hot, with plum jam and whipped cream - enough to constitute lunch on its very own. I spend a pleasant half an hour in the sunshine with my coffee, pondering the local fishermen wrapping a square of pancake in a linen cloth to bring out for a day’s fishing in the cold Baltic waters.

Then it’s back to Mariehamn for its final must-see attraction: the museum ship Pommern. One of the biggest sailing ships ever constructed, it is a memorial to a very peculiar economic circumstance, and the peak of Aland’s relevance in world events. In the first half of the 20th century, as steamers took over commercial haulage, there was one last profitable route left for Tall Ships on the High Seas: the Australian grain trade. Fast clippers that were no longer needed by their British or German cargo lines were bought up cheaply by enterprising Aland Swedish businessmen, who raised capital by selling shares to a local population that had been pooling their resources and sharing the profits of extended voyages for as long as the community existed. Every year, as South Australia brought in its crops for the season, the grain was loaded into the cavernous bellies of Gustaf Erikson’s beautiful Windjammers. With a crew of no more than thirty, they unfurled their sails and rode the trade winds around the tip of South America, racing for the honor and glory of being the first to reach England; perhaps even to set an all-time record. They may have taken incidental cargo on their outbound leg to the New World, but it was just the one hyper-profitable run per season that kept them going; once the grain was in, it was cheaper to take the ships back to Mariehamn for the rest of the year. For the few decades when these eco-friendly bulk haulers could legitimately compete, they brought prosperity to the archipelago. The last commercial run around Cape Horn was in 1949, a full decade after the Pommern had been moored in Mariehamn for good.

But just because this beauty had not left the harbor, doesn’t mean it has been neglected. The attached museum of the Aland commercial sailing fleet would have been worth the entry price alone, but the vessel itself has been kitted out to the finest standards of modern interactive museum design. With full access from crew & officer quarters to the lowest bowels of the steel hull, the Pommern is an absolute delight - and if you are into this sort of thing at all, it alone is worth the trip to Aland.

It is now late afternoon, and I have spent most of the first of my two days in Mariehamn, so it is time to head north. I navigate a sequence of roundabouts that takes me onto the main road, past a supermarket advertising local goods - I will return there yet - and onto Godby. This village is the crossroads of the main island, and one of its larger settlements. My summer hostel is the residence hall attached to the archipelago’s main, and rather fancy, sports facility - complete with a full-length pool, filled but not accepting guests. (Presumably, young Alanders are encouraged to build character by swimming in the waters of the North Baltic throughout the summer.) The hostel is typically Scandinavian, which is to say, plain but comfy. My assigned space is in a large room with dozens of bunk beds, but as there is only one other person in the room with me that night, I cannot complain; I have my pick of location, next to a window but with a good blackout opportunity, and conveniently next to the chargers. I get the panniers off my bike and leave them in the room; the food I still have from the ferry goes in the fridge of the very well-equipped, clean and spacious communal kitchen.

I head further north. I had to suffer a stretch of unsealed road on my way in - summer is busy season for roadworks, but it’s worth it if they are kept so immaculate. On my way out, I clock another location to return to - the Stallhagen Pub - and navigate along back roads, through villages and loose settlements, across narrow causeways between lakes or deep inlets. My destination is Geta: not quite as far up as the roads go on a map, but as high as my bike will take me today. This is where pan-Scandiavian Aland has its Norway section: an outcrop of ancient volcanic stone that provides appreciable verticality and an Arctic landscape, windswept and beautiful. There is a campsite up here, with huts and motorhomes and tents; there’s also a pub which I don’t go into, a bird-watching or fire-observation tower which I do, and a well-marked hiking loop along the lava fields that are in the process of conquest by hardy Nordic shrubs. I happily share the path with a family, then return to sit in one of the stone and log thrones that are set up to overlook the downs and the sea beyond. If you do decide to pitch up on Aland, this is definitely the best spot.

I have time still, in the long Nordic summer evening, and so I take in an extra loop before heading back towards Godby. My Yamaha’s 110 kilowatts are certainly wasted on this island, where the speed limit is generally 50 and you never really want to go faster than that; even in the countryside, the roads meander between homesteads in a relaxed manner, without the visibility or the inspiration for great speed. Aland is often touted as a bicyclists’ paradise, and it’s not untrue, but neither is it an easy pleasure ride. The archipelago’s outline suggests that it just barely sticks out of the water, but in reality it is not at all flat. These hilly roads may be far less enjoyable without an engine.

Back at the hostel, I change out of my motorcycle gear, and put on some comfy shoes. Outside, a local couple is using one of the facilities to beat out their rugs; they have an absolutely adorable dog that they untie so it can play with me for a while. They have a house nearby, but they don’t live on Aland year-round; I wonder how many people do.

It is a three-kilometer walk to the pub, but I’ve got my headphones, and I can take a shortcut through the village. The Stallhagen Pub is attached to the eponymous brewery, the larger of Aland’s two local craft producers; I’m too late for a factory tour, but very much in time for dinner and a pint. I stay outside, enjoying the sunset on the lakeside deck, which carries the stage decorations of a summer play. The experience is very nice, and the beer is fine, if not exactly mind-blowing: Stallhagen is definitely on the mainstream side of the craft beer revolution, and I won’t find any of the freaky potions I love here. Eventually the sun sets, and I feel I’ve reached the happy equilibrium that will get me just about back to my bed so I can crash into it. I have plans for tomorrow, but I do not have an alarm set.

A leisurely breakfast allows me to greet the other hostel guests - some of them solo, but a family as well. I drop off the keys at the sports center, and this time I head east. My first and most important destination of the day is Kastelholm, a magnificent medieval keep that was built by the Swedes to secure the archipelago province (and also, on occasion, to warehouse an inconvenient royal sibling). There is an open-air museum attached, with relocated farmhouses from the area, and two more of those tiny, highly specific museums: the local jailhouse (in use until surprisingly recently), and a museum of the Aland postal service - not at all insignificant, as this was the fast mail route between Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. Kastelholm itself is well-preserved largely because it was understood to be indefensible against modern weapons by the early 19th century; when the Russian Empire took hold of Aland, it constructed a new low-slung earthwork fortress east of here at Bomarsund. I ride past that one, figuring I might stop on my way back if I feel like it - it’s a large open space full of ruins, the fortress itself having been thoroughly smashed by Anglo-French bombardment during the Crimean War, and it just doesn’t look as interesting - less so, even, than the factory shop of a chocolate factory a few kilometers back.

Instead I follow the road east, and take a local cable ferry across an inlet. This one is a true road extension, puttering back and forth all day without rest; but beyond the next few kilometers, I reach the end of the line on this side of the island. If I kept going east, I would be at the very start of a long multi-hop journey that eventually reaches the Finnish mainland outside of Turku. Instead I turn north at Vardo, and go to the end of another causeway. The ferry departs just before I get there, but I don’t have the time for a return trip, anyway - instead I take a breather and start heading back. Just in time, too; I roll into Godby and the first gas station I see on fumes. 

Just short of Mariehamn, I turn left and head onto the southeast side of Aland - this looks like the agricultural heartlands of central Sweden. Here I have a very specific destination in mind: the Open Water Brewery. These guys are much more low-key than Stallhagen, but they are My People. The factory shop is a few shelving units on the back side of a barn, but inside are the treasures I am looking for. One of the brewers is manning the counter, and we talk drink. He gives me a sample of their previous year’s cider, which apparently took up a double-digit percentage of the island’s entire apple crop for that season. It is crisp, fresh, incredibly flavourful and natural, not at all sugary, but also devoid of the vaguely urinal undertone that most bottled dry ciders have; it is beyond doubt the finest example of cider I have tasted to date. I can’t have a bottle, though; they’re sold out, and can only give little tasters from what’s left on the bottom of the house’s private keg. Alright then; I’ll just stock up on whatever beer seems interesting. I pick out however many bottles I think will fit in my panniers, then the master looks at my selection and says “that’s the 2018 version of that spiced stout, and it’s shit; keep that bottle for free, and I’ll replace it with the much nicer 2017 version we have in the back.” Later on, some friends of mine did a blind comparison test, including a certified beer sommelier, and the brewer was absolutely correct. My panniers barely close.

One more stop on this road: Amalia’s Lemonade Factory. The gift shop above the soft drink works is charming and full of wonderful local items, including the thing I am after: a gift box of truffles by Mercedes Chocolaterie. A Venezuelan has moved to Aland with her Finnish diplomat husband, and set up a business creating the most beautiful and delicious high-end candy from the best cacao beans that a lifetime of local connections can buy. I saw them before in that gift shop on Mariehamn’s main street, but it will be closed on Sunday evening. This place stocks them, and now I’ve got my obligatory souvenirs sorted. Outside is a weird minivan; I realize it’s converted for the use of a family with a paraplegic relative, whose motorized carrier wheels in and out easily. I feel sorry for the person, but also glad that Scandinavian society gives them an opportunity to remain outgoing.

Back west, with heavy panniers. I’ve still got plenty of daylight, and my boat to Tallinn is not until 1 AM, so now I head west, along Aland’s Highway 1, the only road with a well-trafficked bus route. Before now, I only knew Eckero as the name of one of the smaller players on the Tallinn to Helsinki ferry route, but the company’s bread and butter is the fast vehicle line from the archipelago’s Western edge to mainland Sweden; they have their own coach services on both ends of the sailing. I’m not there to look at the port, but rather at the Eckero Customs House, a neoclassical edifice that has recently been renovated, and now houses a lovely museum. When I arrive, it hosts a fascinating temporary exhibition of contemporary art and craft from small islands across the Baltic - including Estonia’s own Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. I enjoy a game of “guess the origin” as I review the beautiful pieces, most of which are at least partly functional. Then I sit down for a cup of coffee and a far less inspiring version of Aland pancake. After a little hike along the water’s edge and the remnants of the old trade warf, I am on my way back.

Before heading into town, I stop at that supermarket; it’s open late, and it’s a great opportunity to stock up on both local specialties and Fennoscandic staples that have mysteriously not yet made their way onto Estonian shelves. I grab some local black bread, cheese, apple juice, and remark upon the display of Stallhagen beer: by either Finnish or Swedish standards, it is surprisingly affordable - and I am used to the Systembolaget monopoly that restricts supermarket sales to weak beer. But Stallhagen is local and is not to be restricted; and Aland’s autonomy, along with its special tax status, gives a distinct advantage to local heroes. For the sake of fairness, there’s also a respectable selection of Open Water bottles.

I putter along Mariehamn’s street grid for a few minutes and park next to a rock bar that appears to be the only thing open late on a Sunday. The crowd inside is friendly - mostly a large group of locals engrossed in conversation (one of them, as I find out, is a Lithuanian girl that lives here), but there are a few stragglers at the counter with whom I make conversation over my supermarket burrito. What the bar is short on, however, is beer: the owner explains apologetically that it’s the end of the weekend, he won’t get a delivery until the start of the week, and the patrons had polished off his entire supply of the good stuff. My two choices are Carlsberg, which is too boring to contemplate, or a Finnish mass-market lager that is only slightly less insipid. At least it’s something for me to complain about on Untappd. Anyway, I’m limiting myself here - I still need to get my bike down to the docks at the end of the night.

Around 11pm, even this bar closes up. My new buddy - I forget his name - gets a call from his girlfriend and apologizes for having to leave me; I enthusiastically excuse him and tell him to go and make his woman happy. I have time to kill, but I might as well do it down at the port, so that’s where I take my overloaded Yamaha. They let me into the staging area early, and at least there’s a toilet there; I kill some time talking to a group of Russian bikers who came here the long way around, island-hopping from Turku, and are now taking the sleeper to Helsinki. It leaves an hour before mine. I watch the Tallink superboat appear way out at the mouth of the inlet, putter up, turn around, and back up to the ramp. It opens a single section, and me and handful of cars roll on board. The guards quickly rush us abovedecks, offering to take on the job of securing the bike - passengers are not allowed down here while the boat is under steam, and they only have ten minutes in Mariehamn. I am, again, the only person to have booked a shared berth for this half of the leg, and it’s bought me a private cabin. I fall asleep; wake up; disembark in Tallinn; and go straight to work.


| More