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A Land of Islands


© St. Petersburg Times

It's hard to keep things straight in Aland, a scattering of 6,500 islands between Finland and Sweden.

Aland (pronounced OU-land) has been part of Sweden and a Russian grand duchy and is now an autonomous province of Finland. Swedish is the official language, but one must be a Finn to apply for Aland regional citizenship. Prices are posted in both Swedish kroner and Finnish marks.

I had come to Aland to stay with my friends Gun (pronounced goon) and Lars, to relax in their 19th-century farmhouse and roam around Mellangard, their farm.

But my energetic friend Gun, a licensed tour guide, was not about to let me fly off without showing me the highlights of her beautiful islands. So, each morning after a breakfast of black bread, strong cheese, sliced apples and raw honey, off we went.

The countryside was at its summertime best. Groves of birch shimmered in the long hours of sunshine, wildflowers dotted meadows and fields of yellow flowers punctuated the rolling terrain. As we drove the country roads or had our picnic on sun-warmed rocks by the sea, Gun explained how the islands gained their unique status.

From the 13th century until 1809, Finland, which included the Aland islands, was part of Sweden. After several wars against Russia, Sweden was forced to relinquish Finland, and Aland became a Russian grand duchy. The islands were demilitarized after the Crimean War.

Russia recognized the independence of Finland in 1917. After some years of dispute, during which Alanders had requested reunion with Sweden, the islands' status went before the Council of the League of Nations. The council granted Finland sovereignty over Aland, but with the provisions that the islands remain neutral, that they have a high degree of autonomy and that the people are granted their Swedish language, culture and local traditions.

Consequently, Aland's parliament determines the laws governing internal and budgetary matters. Aland has it own flags, its own postal system (the stamps are beauties) and its own maritime flag. Regional Aland citizenship, which is required to vote, purchase land or conduct business, is acquired by birth or application.

Aland's 25,000 residents live on 65 of the islands, and almost 90 percent of the population lives on Fasta Aland, the main island and site of the capital, Mariehamn.

Aland is one of Northern Europe's most prosperous rural communities. The islands' achievements and prosperity have always been based on shipping. To show me the importance of shipping, which Gun described as "the red thread running through Aland's history," we went to the Aland Maritime Museum.

This museum, in Mariehamn, is one of the world's finest regional maritime museums. It has magnificent collections of portraits of merchant ships, all of them Aland vessels, and of figureheads from the last big windjammers.

Alanders owned and manned many of the last big merchant sailing vessels that were active in worldwide cargo handling. At the end of this era, the fleet's main activity was carrying the wheat crop from southern Australia to Britain and Western Europe.

Between the two World Wars, Alander Gustaf Erickson owned the world's largest fleet of sailing ships. Erickson always kept something when he sold a ship, and these artifacts make up much of the maritime museum's collection. One memorable exhibit is the captain's paneled saloon. It was salvaged from Erickson's flagship, the Herzogin Cecilie, a four-masted barque that went aground in the English Channel in 1936.

Its profile dominating the Western Harbor, the 310-foot-long, four-masted barque Pommern is docked next to the museum. Built in 1903, the Pommern is said to be the only big, square-rigged sailing ship in the world that remains exactly as it was when it made its last passage from Australia around Cape Horn. The massive cargo hold has a capacity of 4,050 tons -- about 49,000 bags of wheat. Here, surrounded by baskets used for loading ballast and other shipping paraphernalia, I was mesmerized by the vast space, the many pictures of life aboard the ship, the Pommern at sea and, especially, those images of the battles between furious storms and the steel-hulled sailing ship.

One has only to look further down the Western Harbor, to the big ferry terminals, to see that shipping is still Aland's economic cornerstone.

Mariehamn was founded in 1861 by Czar Alexander II, who named the town after his wife, Marie Alexandrovna. The town's oldest and most distinctive wooden houses, most of them from the turn of the century, are on Sodragatan. No. 31 was designed by Lars Sonck, an Alander who became one of Finland's most distinguished architects. Two other Sonck buildings, the Town Hall and the Maritime College, anchor each end of Sodragatan. Sodragatan also has several houses by Hilda Hongell, who grew up in Mariehamn and became Finland's first female builder.

The Aland Museum received an award as Europe's best new museum when it opened in 1982. Artifacts from Viking graves, clothing and household furnishings survey Aland's history from prehistoric to modern times. The Aland Museum opens onto the Aland Art Museum.

As Gun and I drove through the countryside, I developed some favorite sights: always the birch groves, and the appealing Aland homes, painted a deep red, yellow or blue. A typical Aland home has two stories and features a closed, one-story porch jutting from the front of the house, with windows on the upper half. The more window panes, the more variety in their shapes, the finer the house, with the epitome being 365 panes, one for each day of the year. "Skirt and blouse" houses, with a yellow upper floor and red lower floor, are common around Eckero, 23 miles northwest of Mariehamn.

On Midsummer's Night, 70 poles are erected on the islands. Atop the poles is Faktargubben, a wood figure with revolving arms, who stands for hard work. Next comes the sun wheel, beneath which are four sailboats, one for each season. The more crossbars on the pole, the more prosperous the village. Crowns, symbolizing fertility, adorn the end of each crossbar. The newer-style crowns are crepe paper in Aland's colors of red, yellow and blue. The older-style crowns are made of rags or colored wool.

Because Eckero was the nearest point to the Swedish mainland, it was a key point on the postal route to Russia. For 350 years, mail delivery was Eckero's farmers' tax duty. So treacherous was the route, undertaken in boats designed to be both sailed across the sea and dragged across the ice, that Eckero became known as the "Island of the Widows."

When Czar Alexander I came to Eckero, he didn't like the postal hut. So he commissioned C.L. Engel, the architect of so many graceful buildings in Helsinki, to build the Eckero Post and Customs House in 1828. The stately, pale yellow building, rather a surprise in this quiet countryside, now houses the small postal museum that brings to life the days of the perilous mail service.

Gun's sightseeing route also included several medieval churches, known for their frescoes and wood carvings. We went to Kastelholm, Aland's only medieval castle, and to Jan Karlsgarden, an open-air museum representing a late-19th-century farmstead. We admired the view over pines, rocks and water from the cannons at Bomarsund, a fortress built by the Russians in the early 19th century and destroyed by the Anglo-French forces during the Crimean War.

Gun was my guide by day; Lars took over on the farm. Sometimes we'd roam the farm, poking into the 18th-century storage and kitchen buildings, examining ancient bottles that Gun had dug up in the gardens or the hand-forged hardware in the blacksmith shop, where the huge bellows still presides. Tables that Lars made from stones from the farm's old windmill stood on the flower-dotted grass. Then we'd take a ride in Lars' restored 1928 Ford Model A or in his 1933 Austin 7. If you go

The telephone country code for Finland is 358. The area code for Aland is 18. Mail addressed to Mariehamn should include "FIN-22100" on a line after the street address, then, on the next line, "Mariehamn, Aland."

Prices noted here have been calculated at the exchange rate of five Finn marks per U.S. dollar.

Getting there: Birka Cruises, Eckero Linjen, Silja Line and Viking Line are the ferry lines to Aland. The ferry lines offer packages such as golf, fishing and biking trips. Ferry trips from Stockholm, Sweden, and Turku, Finland, take about five hours; fares start at $15.

Finnair and Skargardsflyg serve the Mariehamn Airport. Finnair's six-day Coastal Cities independent travel package includes two nights in Mariehamn. Where to Stay:

Hotell Arkipelag, Strandgatan 31, Mariehamn. Tel. 24020; fax 24384. Rates: $106 to $132, including breakfast.

Park Alandia Hotell, N Esplanadgatan 3, Mariehamn. Tel. 14130; fax 17130. Rates: $80 to $96, including breakfast.

There are several holiday villages and cottage rentals in Aland. For more information, contact the tourist office.

Dano Trivelstugor in Geta has eight cottages. Norro Trivelstugor in Finnstrom has six cottages. Cottages in these five-star rated groups accommodate six to eight people. Weekly rental is $1,100, including round-trip boat fare from Sweden or Finland. Bookings and information: Trivselhotell Adlon, Hamngatan 7, Mariehamn. Tel. 15300; fax 15077. Sightseeing

Guide services are available from the Aland Tourist Office (Aland Turistinformations) in Mariehamn. The fees vary with the length of the tour. A four-hour tour is about $90.

Aland Museum and Aland Art Museum: May through August, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Tuesday, when it closes at 8 p.m.; call 25400. Admission $3.

Aland Maritime Museum: In May, June and August, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In July, open until 7 p.m.; call 19930. Admission $4.

Bomarsund Fortress, Sund: May be visited at any time, free entrance.

Jan Karlsgarden, Sund: Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May through September; call 43812. Admission $2. Linden: This three-masted, Mariehamn-built, wooden schooner offers four-hour cruises from the Eastern Harbor; call 12055. $26.

Mail Boat Museum, Eckero: Open daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June through August; call 39000. Admission $1.40.

Pommern: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May to August; until 7 p.m. in July; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in September and October; call 531420. $3.

Boats, mopeds and bikes may be rented from Ro-No-Rent, which also offers boat tours through the archipelago around Mariehamn. Offices at the Western Harbor and the Eastern Harbor; call 12820, fax 12817.

Aland's crafts are high-quality. Look for pottery, glass, wool, handmade rugs, wood carvings and containers. There are a number of good stores in Mariehamn, as well as intriguing shops in the countryside. One is Garn & Hantverk, Morby, in Hammarland, tel. 37810. The owners spin their own yarn and sell it in balls and kits. Finished sweaters are also available.

There are open-air markets throughout the islands. Mariehamn's market opens at 6 p.m. on Monday and Thursday evenings at the Eastern Harbor. The tourist office has information on other markets. You'll find crafts, fish, fruits, vegetables and the delicious Aland black bread. Information:

Aland's Turistinformation, Storagatan 8, FIN-22100, Mariehamn, Aland; call 24000, fax 24265.

Web site: http://www.turist.aland.fi.

Finnish Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017; call (800) FIN-INFO or (212) 885-9700; fax (212) 885-9710. Request the publication Aland Islands '97. Mary Ann Hemphill is a freelance writer who lives in Newport Beach, Calif.

Originally published November 16, 1997

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