Midsummer is a magical time in the Nordic countries. Finns head outdoors to revel in the water and forests and worship a sun that never seems to drop below the horizon. The Åland Islands are an autonomous territory of Finland located between Sweden and Finland. Slightly remote, accessible only by ferry, small boat, or airplane, and dotted with churches and castles dating back 700 years, this is indeed a magical place to celebrate Midsummer. I had spent four months living in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. Before returning to the United States, my must-do-in-my-lifetime list included Midsummer in the Åland Islands.
My great friend and fellow intrepid traveler, Becky Stranges, would join me in Helsinki on May 31. A bittersweet day. It was gloriously sunny on that morning as I boarded a bus and left Jyväskylä, ending my Fulbright experience (at least for now). I hid my tears by turning to the window as I struggled to say goodbye to a place that had become my “home.” The bus rolled on toward Helsinki, past lakes and small villages, as I reeled in my emotions. I would see Finland once again when I arrived in the Åland Islands. On to the next adventure!
Becky and I spent three weeks traversing Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Germany. Becky is personable, outgoing, a connoisseur of Venetian prosecco and does a mean imitation of Mario Andretti while driving in the Istrian hill towns of Croatia! Our final destination was the Åland Islands in celebration of Midsummer and my birthday!
We arrived in Mariehamn via Viking ferry from Stockholm on Midsummer Eve, June 19. Mariehamn boasts the largest population in the Åland Islands (11,000) and is the capital. Midsummer Eve is one of the most celebrated holidays in this part of the world, and shops and public transportation shut down early to allow everyone to join in the revelry. I had reserved a cottage at Djurviks Gästgård in Gottby, http:// http://www.djurvik.ax/index.php/en/ and owner Harry Jansson kindly met us at the ferry and gave us a lift the 12 kilometers to Djurviks’. En route, we stopped at the local K market to purchase provisions for the next several days. At the supermarket, Harry and I compared notes on our favorite Finnish cheeses.
Thirty years have passed since my last camping trip in Europe. Long gone are the days of my youth when a tent and sleeping bag sufficed for sleep and shelter. At the gastgard, I was delighted to discover that our cottage boasted two sets of bunk beds, electric heat, a small refrigerator, and a porch with a view of the sea. The main building contained a communal kitchen, bathrooms and showers, common areas, and a long porch for whiling away the summer afternoons.
After settling in, Harry offered us a ride to Gottby proper where the raising of the Maypole would take place in late afternoon. His daughter rode along, her spirits dampened by the rain. The inclement weather had quashed her participation in the ceremony. A violinist, she had looked forward to performing traditional folk tunes to accompany the festivities. I had traveled to the Åland Islands to participate in this ancient ritual, and I shared her disappointment.
Young and old gathered at the village crossroads to watch as the pole, decorated with green birch leaves, garlands, wreaths and flowers, was lifted using only long sticks, ropes, manpower, and sisu!
A light rain fell during the ceremony, but the small crowd of locals was not deterred. After all, this is Finland! Humbly, I stood among the Ålanders. I was deeply moved to be participating in this ancient rite celebrating fortune, happiness, love and marriage. Following the raising of the pole, and in typical Finnish fashion, coffee and cake were offered to all.
The Åland islands are bicycle friendly, and all the inhabited islands are connected by the Ålandstafiken’s archipelago ferries. People ride for free, but tickets must be purchased for bikes or vehicles. Midsummer Day was a quiet time with everyone sleeping off the excesses of the previous evening. It was a perfect day for a bicycle ride through the countryside and an easy 12 kilometers from Djurviks Gästgård to Mariehamn. Harry and Birgitta supplied us with two Finnish bikes complete with fenders, basket, and three gears. Bicycle and walking paths parallel the main roads and then stagger off into a countryside dotted with wind mills and placid horses grazing in lush meadows.
Mariehamn is a charming harbor village with a number of boutiques, coffee shops, and museums, including the museum ship, Pommern. The staff at The Tourist Information Office is welcoming, and they will allow you to stow your luggage while you explore the town on foot or by bike. We found an outdoor cafe where we could enjoy some toothsome Finnish sweets and terrible coffee. Why is the coffee in Finland often terrible? A day removed from contact with the outside world, we were quick to fire up our phones and access the free wifi. Later we discovered that wifi was available at Djurviks. Costumed villagers may still practice ancient pagan rituals, but 21st century technology has arrived in Gottby.
The following day, Becky and I underlook a longer ride and cycled from Gottby to Kastelholm in the municipality of Sund. Kastelholm is a well-preserved castle ruin dating back to the 1300’s. On the way, we stopped off for a look around the Church of St. Olaf located in Jomala (10.4 km from Kastelholm). The beautiful stone church was founded between 1260-1290 and is the oldest remaining church in Finland. Further on, we pedaled past Kvarnbo Gasthem in Saltvik. http://www.kvarnbogasthem.com. This is a lovely bed and breakfast, and Ella, the owner, is a gem. A few challenging hills rise just before Kastelholm, but for most of the ride we coasted easily through idyllic farmland and sleepy villages. An Impressionist landscape of wild lupines in shades of blue, purple, pink and white unfolded before us. Panoramic views of islands and water completed the picture.
When our energy began to flag, it was easy to locate a small cafe for a coffee or ice cream. The Jan Karlsgårdens open air museum is also located at Kastelholm. Buildings from throughout the Åland Islands have been relocated to this site to form a typical Åland farm from the late 1800’s. Thousands of visitors participate in the Midsummer celebration here, but I preferred the small village celebration in Gottby.
After pedaling along for two hours, Becky and I wisely made the decision to turn around and find our way back to our cottage. Our bodies were beginning to grumble about the amount of energy needed to propel these sturdy Finnish bikes. No lightweight titanium here! These bikes were made for careening down snow-covered streets and bumping over dusty country roads. Although most of the ride had been through flat countryside, we did have one long hill to summit before reaching our cottage. Muscles screaming, we pushed through the last kilometer, and then collapsed on the porch of our cottage, fists pumping the air. Tour de Åland complete.
Before heading off on our cycling adventure, we had wisely reserved an evening time for the sauna. The sauna was located in a small wooden building on the grounds of the gästgåard and in demand. Early sign-up guaranteed a chance to indulge in this finest of Finnish customs. Such pleasure, sinking into the steam of the sauna, a space in which to soothe punished muscles and permit the mind to wander. Later in the evening, we shared the kitchen with our fellow campers, singles and families, and cobbled together a simple dinner. Lively conversation ensued with many questions for the two Americans. Here in a communal kitchen, on an island six hours from Stockholm, Sweden, and another six hours from Turku, Finland, was a global classroom. Here was an opportunity to swap travel stories, dismantle stereotypes, share food and drink, and cross cultural boundaries.
Back on the porch of our cottage, we sipped a glass of wine (a duty-free purchase on the ferry), and watched the swans gliding on the calm sea.
Small boats drifted by, and the cool breeze carried strains of music from adjoining cottages. Midnight arrived and the sky remained filled with light. Midsummer magic in the Åland Islands