[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm]
And so to Finland: the country that makes this holiday a Nordic Expedition, not a Scandi Adventure. As our copy of the Lonely Planet Scandinavia guide is at pains to point out, "technically, Scandinavia refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula (Norway plus Sweden) along with Denmark. Linguistically, Scandinavia includes Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Swedish-speaking Finns, while the term Nordic countries is a more general term for all these lands." It should be noted, of course, that this paragraph comes part way through an 81 page section in a Scandinavia guidebook on the subject of Finland.
Whatever: we're here now, just in time for Midsummer, with three full days to explore Turku. So what do they have there? Apart from the obvious, naturally.
But the Turku barstaff won't simply let you just leap on beers for their silly names (despite, y'know, working for BrewDog) - they'll listen to your requests and make useful recommendations for you. And as we're always interested in local beers that we may not necessarily see anywhere else, their tips on breweries from Turku and nearby are hugely welcome. We get to try Iso-Kalla's rather lovely chocolate and coffee stout Pimeyden Morslan (literally 'bride of the darkness'). We pop over to Estonia to try Põhjala's black IPA brewed as a tribute to the cartoon strip Pesakond (and get a 25% discount at the bar because it's a couple of weeks past its drink by date, which is service above and beyond if you ask me). Best of all, we get to learn the story of Sori Brewing, two guys from Finland who got so pissed off with their country's approach to alcohol taxation that they moved to Estonia and set up a brewery there instead. And now they're exporting splendid brews like their Coffee Gorilla Baltic Porter back home again. Result.
Turku is a big bar, as I said, which is possibly the reason why they put on several events throughout the week. On our first visit, the board outside announces that it's Doggy Monday, with free bowls of Snuffledog available for all canine visitors. In case you weren't aware of Snuffledog, it's a 0% ABV beef- or chicken-flavoured beer brewed specifically for dogs. Of course it is. Despite this attraction, the Monday crowd is rather thin, and surprisingly dog-free (to the relief of The Belated Birthday Girl). Tuesday nights, on the other hand, are a more interesting proposition, with a regular event entitled IPA-Viemäri-Klubi, which means 'IPA Sewer Club' if Bing translator is to be believed. Basically, it's a music night - a DJ set for an hour or two, followed by a live act around 10.30pm. The prospect of music gets the place pretty full as the evening goes on, including groups who look like they've just come there from work (with one table of people who, disconcertingly, spend the whole evening drinking wine). Our live act for the evening we're there is Ippe Nilsson, and his trio sounds just fine despite a frustratingly fuzzy vocal mix. And the DJ is enjoyably eclectic either side of the set, most notably dropping Miles Davis' So What as the first number after the live show. Some of the UK bars do music events like this occasionally, but we've never been to any of them - on this evidence, maybe we should.
But let's go back on ourselves a little here. Last time, we were in Stockholm, and I dropped a hint that the Stockholm to Turku leg of our journey might require something a little more complex than a train. Specifically, it requires an overnight ferry. There are a couple of operators who run regular sailings between the two cities: we weighed up Silja Line against Viking Line, and ultimately decided that Viking Line was the less silly option. We've taken the Harwich-Hook ferry a couple of times in the past few years, and the M/S Amorella appears to be kitted out to a similar standard: nice cabins, multiple food and drink outlets, and so on. The big difference - considering that both of these are simple overnight sailings - is that the Stockholm-Turku ferries are overloaded with entertainment options, featuring performances from numerous bands and solo musicians, like they were running a fortnight cruise or something.
We manage to avoid all of the entertainment on our sailing, because there's one factor that makes all possible cabaret acts totally redundant - we're sailing on the night before the longest day of the year. As I've mentioned before, it's been fascinating watching the differences in the length of the nights as we go from country to country, and being on the open water on the second shortest night is fabulous, particularly given the array of little islands we end up weaving our way through. We grab some tapas and wine from one of the bars and spend a ridiculously long time just looking out the window and marvelling at the scenery, before going back to our cabin and looking through that window as well before getting to bed far too late.
As a result, in the morning we're a bit feeble and sleep-deprived. (Nothing to do with the crossing, I think, I was barely aware of the ship moving the whole time.) Disembarkation is ridiculously fuss-free, and in no time we're on dry land trying to work out how we get into central Turku. Our original research suggested we'd need to get a bus, but the bus drivers are giving out conflicting information about how far they go. Luckily, it's at this point that I notice the BLOODY GREAT TRAIN standing next to the bus station. Somehow, we'd missed that VR do a direct rail link from Turku Harbour to Turku that's deliberately timed to coincide with the ferry arrivals. We even manage to do the journey for free, because it's so short (around seven minutes) that the conductor didn't have time to take a fare off us.
We arrive in Turku in a bit of a haze, and spend around double the time of the train journey walking to our hotel, Hotel Helmi. Turku's small enough a city that the signs on the approach to the Helmi just read 'hotel' and that's all the information you need. It's probably the most traditional of the hotels we use on this holiday, more of a family place than the product of a faceless corporation. But its art deco design, particularly in the breakfast room, makes it stand out - the name 'helmi' means 'pearl', an oblique reference to the fact that this used to be Shell's regional headquarters plus petrol station. The rooms are pleasant enough, apart from that awkward feature you sometimes get where a double bed has been crudely constructed out of two single beds pushed together, leading to slapstick fun when you find yourself slipping down the crack between them.
It's nicely located for the bus station, though we quickly realise that this is more useful for long-distance journeys than moving around Turku (the stops for the local buses are on the main roads outside the station). Buses are the only form of public transport worth mentioning in this city, and the one thing the bus station can provide us with is three-day Föli cards for unlimited access to them. You quickly get used to seeing the bright yellow buses all over the place, which makes it all the more fun when the film we catch in Turku (Onnenonkija) heavily features both the buses and the travelcards - you can tell that the heroine has sold out her principles because her Föli card now has credit on it. During our initial research it appears that all the places we want to visit are somewhere on the route for line 1, leading us to suspect that Turku only actually has one bus. But closer investigation confirms that there's a solid network of routes covering the whole city, and the well-designed Föli website will tell you everything you need to know about them.
We've hit the point in these things where The Belated Birthday Girl discusses her food and drink discoveries. As someone who's spent a few working weeks in Finland by now, I feel proud to be the man who introduced her to the concept of 'lounasbuffet'.
There’s no getting away from the fact that eating out in Finland is expensive. However, there is one really good deal to be found, and that is the lunch buffet. Generally for around 20 EUR – although sometimes less – you can eat as much as you want of a huge array of salads and the like, with unlimited coffee to accompany it. Often there is an option to pay a bit more and have a soup as well, but the salad buffet was enough for us. We had two lunch buffets in our stay in Turku – one at Tinta, a lovely little place by the river in the centre of town, for 19.90 EUR, and one in the café at Turku Castle for 19.80 EUR.
The night we arrived in town, various of the restaurants we had picked up on from our guidebook were either closed for Midsummer or a bit pricey (or we’d already had lunch in, in the case of Tinta): so, looking for other options and wandering around the centre of town, we settled on the interesting-looking Blanko. Bright and lively, Blanko serves fusion cuisine to a young crowd, for not-insane prices. Starters were particularly good. Spank’s tempura tofu was accompanied by avocado, strawberries and a ginger dressing, while my scallop ceviche taco came with shrimps and espresso mayonnaise. Both were well executed and nicely presented. For the main, Spank went for the lamb pasta Blanko, served with red pesto and rocket, while I had the red curry vege wok, with paneer and vegetables in a coconut red curry sauce. Both were tasty and satisfying, although mine wasn’t exactly spicy for a red curry. We washed them down with a Lapin Kulta beer for Spank, and a Kung-Fu Girl Riesling for me. The meal came in at 73.50 EUR for the two, which, while quite a bit more than one of those buffet lunch deals, was not bad at all for 2 courses and drinks.
One lunch we had of the non-buffet variety which deserves a mention was on our day trip to Naantali, where we had lunch in Uusi Kilta: beautifully situated by the harbour, and about the only restaurant we found in town which was not aimed at families looking for burgers to satisfy Moomin-hunting children. The menu at Uusi Kilta has rather more high-class Finnish food, which was well-executed. We sat on the terrace, with lovely views of the harbour. I went for the fish special of Baltic herring, which came with a creamy mash, while Spank had the Oscar’s Schnitzel, which consisted of a veal schnitzel with asparagus and crayfish, accompanied by country fries. Spank’s schnitzel was fine, but my herring was particularly good. At 52.60 EUR for one course each with just sparkling water, it was a little pricey, but considering the location, it wasn’t too bad, and in terms of food, it seemed far superior to the other Naantali options, if you don’t have kids in tow.
Finally, back in Turku, one other restaurant to mention is Pub Niska. It may not be very traditional to have pizza on a Scandi trip, but at Niska they claim the style of pizza they serve is particular to the Turku archipelago, and all the pizzas are made using mainly local ingredients from the archipelago. They also serve local beer. It’s a restaurant with a lot of atmosphere, supposedly having the ambience of an old cargo ship, although I’m not convinced of that myself. But it was definitely fun, and the staff were very friendly, and the pizzas are great. I chose the Sea Captain, topped with cold smoked salmon, with tomatoes, horseradish cream and rocket . Spank’s Smuggler – a calzone, as you might guess from the name – came filled with sauna smoked ham, blue cheese and rocket. Both were excellent. We accompanied our pizzas with a couple of Stallhagen beers (an IPA and a US red ale), also from the archipelago. Two pizzas and two beers came in at 42.80 EUR, which is excellent value. It’s a popular place, and booking would be recommended, although it does seem quieter later.
Though we have three full days to explore Turku, the first of those days is a bit of a write-off, mainly thanks to boat lag or something. At one point in the day, we take the unforgivable decision to visit Turku Cathedral purely because it gives us somewhere to sit down and shut our eyes for a few minutes. We eventually manage to shake off the tiredness thanks to a few brisk walks up and down the banks of the river Aura, although at one point we encounter a coffee stall with bean bags scattered on the pavement outside, and it nearly sets us off again. Thankfully, we're much more awake for the other two days, and can get some proper sightseeing done.
Probably the most traditional of Turku's tourist attractions is Turku Castle. Although once you get inside and start finding out about its history, you realise that - rather like Japan's 'traditional' castles - the second world war had quite an impact on the place, and large sections of it have only existed in their current form since the early 1960s. Still, at least they're upfront about it, and the story of the castle's restoration is part of the history covered as you move from room to room. Even without the recent rebuilds, the castle is a peculiar mixture of old and new - some rooms have been filled with modern furniture for corporate hire, while others contain an odd exhibition about man's relationship with animals, with stuffed creatures hiding in random corners of the rooms.
If you're looking for museums to visit, one peculiarity you notice in Turku is their tendency to bundle two contrasting things into a single exhibit. Take, for example, the Pharmacy Museum and Quensel House, which is simultaneously a preserved pharmacy from the 19th century and an example of the bourgeois house behind it where the pharmacist and his family would live. (On top of that there's also a rather sweet outdoor cafe, and a children's play area where they can put on white coats and pretend to be pharmacists themselves.) Even more contrasty is Turku's best museum, Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova, which has a full archeological site downstairs and a modern art museum upstairs. There's no attempt to link the two together in any way - they're just two very fine attractions that share the same building and can be accessed on a single ticket, and that's good enough for me.
With a little effort, though, you can travel out of town and explore a bit further. And for our money, the best way to do that is on the S/S Ukkopekka. Yes, it's another boat - this time, an old-fashioned steamship, which twice a day makes a return journey between Turku and the old town of Nantaali. If you don't mind spending four hours of your day on the same boat, the trick is to get the 10am sailing from Turku to Nantaali, which gets you there around noon. You can then spend four hours exploring the delights of Naantali on foot - it's relatively small, and there are a couple of decent restaurants, some fun shops, and a church to be tracked down. There's also the bridge to Moominworld, which is obviously the biggest attraction in the area, though a quick skim of the website suggests that there's not much there for anyone who's not bringing kids. Eventually, the ferry picks you up again at 4pm, and you're back in Turku for six, just in time for whatever takes your fancy. (Probably beer, knowing us.)
Turku's not the most obvious destination in Finland to be visiting - the best the Lonely Planet guide can suggest is 'some of Finland's most eccentric bars that make for an offbeat pub crawl', and we've probably done enough of those in our time. But there's a nice relaxed atmosphere to the place, and plenty of unexpected places to visit, Moomins or no. Nevertheless, if you're hungry for the more traditional Finnish fun of Helsinki, don't worry, that's on its way. Very traditional, actually.