Turku, Finland's Oldest City
- By Anna Malpas
- Nov. 02 2010 00:00
The port is looking to the arts to forge a new identity in the 21st century
On the West coast of Finland, the city of Turku is a short flight from Helsinki. Finnair flies in a small plane with propellers. Instead of an in-flight meal, a steward hands out a basket of chocolates for the quick 35-minute swoop over thousands of lakes.
Turku, Finland's oldest city and its former capital, is dominated by its winding Aura river, the reason for its existence as a port. At the mouth of the river are big ferry terminals — several ferries per day travel to Stockholm and back, a trip of about 11 hours. The port is also the entrance point for the archipelago of thousands of rocky islands, where you can go sailing, bike on flat roads and stay at small guest houses.
The castle was the home of Polish princess Catherine Jagiellon in the 16th century, who brought innovations, including the first fork in Finland.
The city's most famous attraction near the mouth of the river is its well-preserved medieval castle, dating back to the days when Sweden ruled Finland in the 13th century. The outer walls are painted white with stark, black-framed windows, while inside is an older medieval part with rough stone walls.
The castle was the home of Polish princess Catherine Jagiellon in the 16th century, who, shocked at the rough-and-ready ways of the locals, brought innovations, including the first fork in Finland. Her atmospheric vaulted Catholic chapel remains, filled with medieval wooden sculptures of the apostles.
The city has cannily converted its maritime history into contemporary use. A vast former rope factory has been converted into a glass-walled concert hall for the city's philharmonic orchestra.
Docked on the river are several historic ships, including a white steel sailing ship dating back to 1902, the Finnish Swan, which is now a museum. The most recent addition to the riverside is a former icebreaker that is going to be turned into a hotel.
- Born in Turku, Paavo Nurmi was one of the runners known as the "Flying Finns." He won nine golds in the Olympic Games in the 1920s, and the Paavo Nurmi Marathon is held annually in the city.
- Turku is bilingual, with a little more than 5 percent of the population speaking Swedish.
- The word Finland initially only referred to the area around Turku. The area is known today as Finland Proper.
- Turku was the first Western city to twin with Leningrad in the 1960s.
Other river boats are used as restaurants and become the center of the city's night life during the White Nights in summer, even though the river walk is chilly by autumn.
In a fun (and free) trip, you can take a small ferry across the river. Originally used to transport shipyard workers, it runs whenever there is even one person waiting.
Huge shipbuilding docks right in the city center were until recently used to build the world's biggest cruise ships.
The latest luxurious liner, the Allure of the Seas, was due to be launched in late October and is bound for the Caribbean. Sadly, after that, the shipyard, owned by South Korean company STX, has no further orders and several thousand workers are to be left jobless indefinitely, as well as thousands more local people working in related industries.
In a search for a new identity, Turku is promoting itself as a city of the arts, and is going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2011, along with Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Previous British culture capitals Liverpool and Glasgow, also ports with shipbuilding heritage, used the title to turn around their gritty images. Turku can also fall back on its academic prowess — with about 40,000 students out of a population of about 180,000 — and high-tech and design industries.
Bizarrely, the town hit the international headlines for its prowess in sports medicine in March when footballer David Beckham came here for ankle surgery with a renowned specialist and was visited by his glamorous wife Victoria Beckham — prompting a huge media scrum.
The prettiest part of the city is along the tree-lined riverbanks, where people jog and walk dogs. Around the city's cozy Lutheran cathedral, built in 1300, there are cobbled streets and yellow-and-white painted wooden buildings reminiscent of Russia. Only a few areas of the originally wooden city survived a devastating fire in the early 19th century.
The central market square and the surrounding streets unfortunately have a lot of charmless, concrete shopping arcades and faceless apartment blocks in some ill-advised, postwar redevelopment. But turn a corner and you find wooden houses with fairytale turrets and gracious 19th-century stone buildings.
Small cafes serve glasses of coffee and cakes, while the covered market, the Kaupahalli, is a great place to try local produce from pickled herrings to cheese.
For traditional Finnish food, try the market's Aschan cafe, which serves cakes, sandwiches and coffee and has a dining room stylized to look like old-fashioned railway carriages.
Where to stay
Scandic Plaza is a central hotel that's part of a chain big in Sweden and Finland, in a modern building just off of Yliopistonkatu, one of the main pedestrian shopping areas.
Radisson Blu Marina Palace Hotel looks over the Aura River, and its restaurant has a terrace from where you can enjoy the view.
Sokos Hotel Seurahuone is part of a chain that has several branches in the city. Located on the road leading to the castle, it has a tapas restaurant and a generous breakfast buffet.
Where to eat
Kaupahalli market (kauppahalli.fi), open 7:00 am to 5:30 pm on weekdays and 7:00 am to 2:00 pm Saturdays, has a great choice of cheese, meats, pickled herrings and pastries and plenty of sit-down cafes.
Bar Kuka is a trendy hipster cafe with live concerts in the evenings. Next door is a popular pizzeria, Ristorante Dennis.
Cafe Brahe in the main shopping area of Yliopistonkatu serves coffee and large portions of cake and sandwiches.