A visit to Äland, the last ‘Treasure’s Island” – World Meanderings (n°76)
By Frederic de Poligny
Lying right in the middle of the Baltic Sea, Äland is the main island of an archipelago of the same name, which consists of thousands of islands. It’s quite surprising, a Finnish archipelago with a Swedish speaking population. Even the official language is Swedish.
After a long dramatic history full of conflicts between Sweden, Finland, Russia and even a coalition of French and English troops, it has been part of Finland since 1921. With its semi-autonomous government, its special laws, its flag and its own stamps, Äland is the true link between Sweden and Finland. Totally demilitarised, Äland is an international symbol of what can be done to protect a minority and to guarantee its local culture, language and traditions. There are rigorous laws to avoid massive immigration – even from Finland – the reason being that it is thought that any immigration could destroy the fragile balance between nature and human activities.
This “protection” from any outside danger allows the inhabitants of Äland to possess a welcoming attitude and confirms another name that the archipelago is proud of -‘Islands of Peace’. Combine this stress-free atmosphere with a large expanse of beautiful scenery and a feeling that you are both inland and yet close to the sea, and you have a perfect holiday spot. If you only want a pure stress-free holiday, stay by the seaside in one of the comfortable bungalows. If you want an active holiday then you are spoilt for choice. There are lot of available activities like hiking, biking, sailing, great fishing and even diving. And to discover a bit more of the archipelago’s life and landscapes, board the local ferries and go islands-hopping to any of the most remote places.
An authentic Treasure Island
In the early days of July 2010 Christian Ekström was diving in the black waters of the Baltic Sea, along the shores of Äland Island, looking for one of the many WWII wrecks that lie on the bottom of the sea. Despite the murky visibility and the cold (the water temperature never gets over 3°C) he suddenly distinguished like in a fairy tale tells signs that he was near a wreck. After a systematic search he found a strange glass bottle and then another and another until he had located a group of glass bottles half stuck in the mud. Taking only one bottle from the cargo, he very slowly went up to the surface. As he headed to the surface he was admiring the strange design of the bottle when, by chance, he noticed that the cork was slowly moving out of the bottle’s neck. Immediately he placed his thumb over the cork to keep it in place, a job really tougher than expected. On board his boat he freed the cork and, curious about the liquid in the bottle, he tasted it. Not bad he thought to himself. It was sort of fruity and ever slightly sparkling drink. The seawater hadn’t spoiled it.
After the official declaration of the wreck ship by Ekström, the bottle was presented to experts who, tasting it, concluded that it could be a very special old Champagne. The Äland Government, the legal owner of the entire wreck ship and its cargo, announced that the wreck of an 18th Century ship with a cargo of champagne had been discovered. In all, 178 bottles were found and it was possible to say that they came from the champagne houses of Juglar, Veuve Cliquot and Heidsieck, and dated from between 1830 and 1845.
At an international auction in 2011 a sole bottle was sold for €30,000. Then on 8 June 2012 there was a second auction, with ten bottles being sold for an average price of around €10,000 each. Did Ekström receive any finder’s fee? Not even a penny!
Despite this Ekström is working on his own treasure. He is the owner of a local brewery and bar, the Pubstalhagen <www.stallhagen.com> in Godby in the middle of Äland Island. There he produces a large variety of beers that are more than appreciated by all. His bar is a real good place on weekend nights to join with friends, sharing beers and sitting along the large wooden tables that await visitors.
How to get there
Ferries link Äland Island with both sides of the Baltic Sea. The two main ferries companies are the Tallink-Silja Lines <www.tallinksilja.com> and the Viking Lines <www.viking.fi>. They offer a large choice of routes and timetables. The Tallink-Silja’s cruise ferries make a stop at Äland Islands up to 8 times a day, coming from Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki and Turku in Finland and Tallin in Estonia. There is a notice on board announcing that products are tax-free. So you will see so many passengers disembarking with huge packs of beer and spirits.
Marienhan, the capital city of Äland, is built in the middle of a narrow peninsula between two sea lochs. It’s a tiny town with large avenues lined by small buildings, some of them still wooden. In the fishermen’s harbour you will find the shipyard where carpenters still build traditional, wooden boats. The aroma of wood chips mixed with the strong smell of tar must be the same sort of scent that existed in bygone days when sailing ships were the only method of travel. Today, there are sailing trips for those who want to visit the islands as people did over 100 years ago.
Standing among wooden houses, Salt – a charming art and handicraft shop – is a good place to discover a selection of various souvenirs produced by local craftsmen. Nearby you’ll also find a jeweller, a silversmith and a goldsmith. Within a stone’s throw, the Äland Museum <www.museum.ax/en/> presents a very good overview of the history of this little part of the world.
A five-minute walk will take you across the town to the second loch and you should make time to visit famous Äland Maritime Museum. The cherry on the cake is to board the world- renowned Pommern, a four-mast 310-foot clipper on the rear of the museum.
Inland Äland Island
For those drawn to nature the Äland archipelago is a haven for those who seek a quiet life. Äland has hotels to suit any budget and there are many places to hire cottages, most of with sea view and direct access to beaches and boats. What could be better than to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, on your own cottage terrace in the early morning as you body warms in the first rays of the sun?
You can rent cars or hire bicycles and whichever road you will take you’ll find unspoilt landscapes, small villages and attractive local restaurants and pastry shops. If you pass by, don’t miss to stop at the small bakery of Ulf and Karin Eklund, the Pettas eco-bakery hidden in a former primary school lost in the middle of nowhere. Karin prepares different types of breads using a large number of herbs and plants foraged by Ulf in the nearby forest. They provide many tasty and some unusual pastries. Pettas is open only during summer time.
Kastelholm Castle and historical sites
Known as Äland’s cultural cradle, Kastelholm Castle is a middle age castle built near a small lake. Sheltered by the nearby hills you’ll find the Jan Karlsgarden Open-Air Museum, where a large number of old wooden houses, windmills and barns from the entire archipelago have been moved to recreate a true and authentic island village. This is not only a place to please children but it’s a real page from the history book of Äland islands. There you could imagine Robin Hood emerging from the trees and on the look out for rich merchants!
A stone’s throw from the castle is Smakbyn, a cultural project created by the celebrity chef Michael Björklund who has been twice crowned Chef of the Year. Next to his Jan Karlsgardens Värdshus restaurant, Michael has built Smakbyn, a sort of ‘Food Village’, a place where local producers get the opportunity to showcase their products and to present their food preparation techniques. And of course it attracts visitors who come to sample the delicacies on offer. For example, visitors will discover the fish smoking technique used here and learn about many Nordic ingredients. “That will help to preserve Nordic and Äland culinary traditions that are about to be lost for ever“, he explained to us. With a perfect location – the Kastelholm Golf Course only is at a few yards – he aims to keep Smakbyn open all year around.
Many other historical sites are open to public, among them the immense Somarsund fortress, the beautiful building of the Eckero Post and Customs House and the ruins of Lembote Chapel. It may be a small island but there are more attractions here than visitors would find in places ten times larger.
A huge range of activities
From mid-March to the end of October, Äland offers a long list of events including a film festival, a salmon trolling contest, a tar market, rowing competitions, country music and jazz festivals, a Viking market and a harvest festival. In July, two major events take place, the Rockoff Festival, which shakes the island’s quiet life for nine days and the Gustav Vasa Days taking place at Kastelholm Castle where jousting is the main highlight.
For those who prefer more individual activities far away from the crowd, the choice is large. All out-door activities are on offer to suit people of all ages. Built a sand castle on a small sandy cove with your kids, go-kart with your teen-agers, try to catch a pike or loose up your few extra pounds by doing bike tours on a daily basis. At least the bicycle trip will help remove the weight you’ve put on by overindulging on the local gastronomy and its terrific beers. Surprisingly you will find a casino, in Marienham, plus a few nightclubs. But maybe you would like to follow the footsteps of Christian Ekström and find your own wreck. And 78 bottles of priceless champagne!
You can do all this and even more, but not all in one week. Äland is more than a crossroads or a stop-off in the sea! It’s a place that really offers much more than you might expect.
Text & Photos ©Frederic de Poligny