It feels like we can never get enough of Finnish nature – after experiencing one place we just want to contemplate it in sauna and move on, explore more! This time, while we had a small business to take care of in Turku, we thought why not to make a little detour and check out nearby Åland… just for few days! Tiia, a real Finn, somehow hasn’t yet been to those islands, but she oftentimes heard that it’s perfect for cycling. We also assumed that this place cannot never really get too much crowded making it perfect wild camping area. Bicycles + wild camping + pretty cheap ferry tickets = let’s do it!
COUPLE OF INFORMATION ABOUT ÅLAND AND WHY WE WANTED TO GO THERE
Åland is a home for thousands of islands – most of them are rocky islets but over 60 are inhabited. Usually visited by Swedish and Finnish tourists, probably mainly as a stop-over for the party-gambling-a little bit trashy ferry en route between Stockholm and Turku/Helsinki. The ferry stops in the capital city of Åland – Mariehamn, making it most visited place there and leaving a lot of more interesting corners of main island and archipelago for people that want to see more.
Interestingly enough as a result of Baltic Shield uplift the highest part of Åland started to rise from the sea around 10,000 years ago and this process is still ongoing. The first inhabitants found their way to the archipelago in stone age coming from the east over the ice. They made living from hunting seals and seabirds and slowly they spread all over the islands in search for good places for farming. During Ålands diverse and uneasy history it has been part of Sweden and after that the Russian Empire. Then the dramatic time for the area started in 1917 when after Russian revolution Finland received independence and Åland was named as part of Finland. Ålanders didn’t like it and responded with electing an illegal council that internationally called for their reunion with Sweden. Swedish government supported the idea while Finnish government rejected it. This disagreement which may have ended up in a new war was referred to the League of Nations. In 1921 LoN made a decision that Åland will remain in Finland but with a guarantee of the self-governing law.
A dust has been settled and today Åland, demilitarized and neutral, is autonomous part of Finland. Their own blue-yellow-red flag flies in the wind and people think of themselves as Ålanders. Besides flag, they have their own postamp, car register plates, the Internet country domain (ax.) and a pancake (Nam! (Marek: Nam is Finnish word for yummy I guess…). Main language due to history remained as Swedish and the attitude towards their second official language Finnish is a bit cold. Since Tiia’s poor Swedish skills weren’t useful, she changed it fast to English as the second best option to communicate with locals. After short “stiff” start we got along well with locals and people welcomed us very warmly!
OUR TRAVEL PLAN
The plan was simple – packing our backpacks, taking the ferry from Turku to Mariehamn, renting the bicycles there and exploring!
The route you see above took us 7 days in second half of May. Before our trip we were told by many people that there’s not much to see and it’s maybe worth to stay there for 2 nights. To be honest it feels like we left behind there so much more to discover!
Åland is a place of peace and calmness, riding there oftentimes in the middle of empty (main) road makes it hard to believe that during the tourist season it gets more crowded. According to few locals we had big luck with the weather – throughout all the days we encountered perfectly clear skies, high temperatures (more than 20C in day time), flowers in full bloom, almost no wind and, as mentioned earlier, no tourists.
We are by no means pros when it comes to cycling trips but on average there’s nothing to be afraid of on the road. Though not extremely flat (as we read on some blogs/pages) surely there are no elevations there that would be a challenge for a person of average fit. In rental place we decided not to take bicycle side bags – we did it in aim to save some money and also because in plan were hiking trails and wild camping. This definitely influenced our amateur looks and level of pain in our asses after first days, so we recommend considering them.
HIGHLIGHT OF EACH DAY IN ÅLAND
- Views from the ferry on the archipelago and sunny Ålands capital city – Mariehamn
- beautiful little wooded meadows with short and charming marked circle trail in Ramsholmen
- Hammarland Church with its flowery graveyard – early 14th century building located on the Historic Postal Route. It was a great rest to admire red granite walls shining in the spring sun. Interestingly enough location of church’s tower is unusual – against the south wall of the nave.
- Refreshing taste of famous local beer in a small pub in Eckerö. Drink’s brand – Stallhagen is popular also in mainland Finland but here it tasted even better 😉 Also we’re pretty sure that next to our table The Giant from Twin Peaks was sitting or actually The Giants as there were identical two of them. Holy smokes!
- Night under the starry sky on the rocks near the Degersand beach. Eating warm meal from the fire while watching the rabbit jumping here and there just a few steps from calmly breaking sea waves. We felt asleep instantly.
- Quick morning shower in freezing cold Baltic Sea and walk around rustic boathouses at Käringsund
- Small rest at Bamböle cove. Enjoying the spring smell in the air, deep blue sky and overhearing various languages of the families having picnic around.
- Not-really planned visit at Finströms church (St. Mikaels kyrka) which according to the internet is “best-preserved medieval building in Finland”. For both of us it was one of the most amazing sacral buildings we’ve ever seen. Having whole place to ourselves we explored carefully each corner of the interior. There were many whispers in amazement at “primitive-like” wall paintings, early-medieval wooden sculptures and floating votive ships (yes there’s a special name for those!).
- Riding through completely empty municipality of Geta. Hiking through bizarrely wonderful stone forest – hills after hills of naked rocks on which pine trees prevail. Camping with a view on setting sun, fight with mosquitoes and exploding rocky base under the heat of fire (heart attack inducing experience).
- Watching the horizon from the steep cliffs and cooling down in the sea breeze. Hiking through wilderness till the end of one peninsula and exploring unspoiled nature where one can feel like at the end of the world. Paradise for bouldering, hiking and just being.
- Taking a break in Stallhagen Brewery’s Pub, another empty place on our road with very kind staff and many various beer types to try. Though we just took one per head getting back on the bicycles was not easy 😉
- Yet another spot for camping with the view better than in any hotel – on the meadow hill face to face with the Kastelholm Castle. Watching its walls going from intensive pink in the setting sun to bluish gray soaked in the surrounding waters mist. Built originally in 14th century, restored for the last time only “recently” in the 80s, originally located on a small island, now on peninsula (due to the Baltic Shield uplift).
- Morning tour inside the castle, 7 EUR per ticket but it was definitely worth it! Reading all the info boards and strolling around the chambers can make you feel like you’re back in its heyday. After 3 days of lonely trip meeting there two tourist groups felt like quite a crowd!
- Small break under trees sipping local lemonade and continuation of our historical tour – walking around ruins of Bommarsund Fortress. Construction started by Russians in 1832 and never finished as it was attacked in 1854 by British and French during Crimean War. Nowadays looking at the visualization drawings one can imagine how impressive construction it would be. We loved it though as it is left – separated ruins ringed by a carpet of white flowers.
- Off the main island and to Archipelago, riding through first three islands Prästö, Mickelsö, ending up in Vårdö. Empty roads, sounds of the spinning bikes, charming bridges through the Baltic Sea – we were riding in full joy.
- Sauna in our only paid “sleeping” in Sandösunds Camping. Located on the pier it looked like it is still under construction, but we didn’t need much to enjoy. The bees coming through holes in the pier floor seemed to enjoy too, and they motivated us to jump to cold water without hesitation!
- Morning ride through Vårdö to make it for the ferry at 6:00. All in complete silence and with deer jumping around us.
Remember: though the ferry is big, once they ask you where you want to go make no mistake. We mentioned the final destination Kumlinge, thinking that the mapped stopover in Enklinge takes place anyway. Turns out that we were only people on the ferry, so we just went straight to Kumlinge… We have another place to explore once we’re back there!
- Village in Kumlinge with its rural smell mixed with scent of flowers in bloom. Lunch on one of the higher hills there and echoing sounds of the sheep around. Even if you’re not interested in any medical products, local pharmacy – Kumlinge Apotek is a must see on the island as its interior is left almost intact since the beginning of its work (year 1935). Long and fascinating discussion with a lovely pharmacist who spent there most of her working life. She made us realize a lot about Ålands recent history and probable future. This meeting we won’t forget for a long time.
- Small detour to check one of the smallest airport we’ve ever seen. Exploring the open airport building and chilling on the short runaway that ends in the sea.
- Quick ride through Snäckö island where unlike other islands whole forest was mainly deciduous. “Watch out for the moose” road signs made us think that it maybe the easiest place to trace the moose, taking into account the size of the place!
- Amazing tour through smaller islands starting at Långholm. It seems like we were accompanied only by white-tailed eagles flying high in the sky and couple of hissing swans.
- Talks with the locals while refilling our bottles in their house and then taking the most beautiful Hastersboda hiking trail. Searching camping spot from the watchtower and observing a muskrat and swan while collecting wood for the fire.
- Morning naked swimming in one of the rocky coves
- Exploring abandoned housings in few villages nearby
- Hiking to Lemböte Chapel and setting our tent with a view on the capital city on the second shore.
- After finishing the cycle tour – little reward back in Marienhamina – Åland pancake, very special local dessert. Long nap on the ferry going home!
WHY IS ÅLAND WORTH IT?
As most of the places in Scandinavia, Åland is well-prepared and organized for tourism. It’s a good place for hikers, wild campers but also for families or people wanting to have a calm holiday time. Infrastructure is of good quality, if some islands are not connected by the bridge, then the regular ferries with clear schedule can be used (many of them, for free). Locals speak English, public toilets are in many places and there is a shop in almost every village (but watch out for early closing time). Of course there are hotels, airbnbs and camping, many of them have bicycles and kayaks to offer.
In the highlights we mentioned many places, but as the saying goes – it’s the journey not the destination. The journey in Åland may not be long, but cycling and hiking around this magical place did us a lot of good. For the whole trip it felt like time has truly stopped there, sometimes we had a feeling like we could look into the lands of Nordic Europe in the far past.
Those little islands are the place to realize that nature is everywhere, not only in natural places. It can be felt there near every village, apple farm, pasture, old fishing boathouse and church. Every day, we could also smell this specific salty air mixed with flora scent which made us sleep like babies at night.
Åland is a must-see or more like must-explore hidden gem in Europe. After checking out each of its corners we can honestly say that this trip was beyond our expectations, and we definitely would want to come there back again.
P.S. We have longed for the feeling of Åland magic climate, and we were curious how it is to be there in completely non-touristy period… so we decide come back there in the winter time and explore its southernmost municipality – island Kökar. The place brought us luck yet again – as we found there just one couchsurfing host who accepted our request (thanks a lot Pekka!). According to his knowledge we were the first couchsurfing guests in Kökar. We jumped for joy and immediately booked a ferry tickets.
It was a breathtaking experience to see the island during winter time. The land was covered fully with snow and it seemed like the whole area is in deep sleep. It was so peaceful to hear the crunching under our boots and humming of wind in our ears. Wherever we would walk there the open vastness of the sea could be felt around us. We enjoyed a lot bird watching, long walks in the dense woods and on rocky hills where we could admire beautiful views over island. During our short stay we saw almost every little spot in Kökar but on the ferry back home we already dreamed about long wild camping trip there in the summer 🙂