The Turku archipelago preserves Nordic traditions, astonishing natural beauty and some disquieting memories.
Out in the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea lies the tiny island of Stenskär – Stone Island – named for the granite boulder on its summit, left behind by a departing glacier in the last ice age. The island is kidney-shaped and it’s a 10-minute walk from tip to tail. One sunny evening in early August, Stig Jansson is rinsing fishing nets at his boathouse on the island, while his son-in-law Jarmo Ylitelo cuts perch fillets to be smoked and sold. The pink granite of Stenskär, its pine forest and encompassing sea have been Stig’s home for 81 years. Just beyond the boathouse, his garden is radiant in the summer sunshine. Flowers are blooming in a German naval mine that Stig’s father hauled from the sea, made safe and recycled as a planter. ‘It’s being used for a more peaceful purpose than it was intended for,’ says Stig.
Stig and Jarmo fish most mornings when the weather is compliant. ‘I was supposed to retire 20 years ago, but somehow it never happened,’ Stig says as he pilots the boat out to the nets and watches Jarmo reel them in. ‘The younger generation needs a hand.’ Together, Stig and Jarmo represent the twin identities of this region. Both are Finns, but they have different mother tongues: Stig’s is Swedish, Jarmo’s Finnish.
Stenskär is part of the island chain that fans out from Finland’s southern city Turku like a handful of gravel thrown into the Baltic. Its 20,000 or so islands make it one of the largest archipelagos in the world, encompassing every size and shape, from grynnor – tiny bald outcrops – to öar – islands with woods and lakes that are big enough to support agricultural communities and small towns.
Geographically and politically, the archipelago is part of Finland, but the most widely spoken language is Swedish – a legacy of the region’s many centuries under Swedish rule. The archipelago is a place of deep silences and enchantment; even in summer, when its population is swollen by visitors who have come to unwind in their summer houses and stock up on sunlight for the winter ahead.
It’s a 90-minute drive from the airport at Turku to the island of Nagu, one of the gateways to the archipelago. From here, free public ferries head out to the surrounding islands.
On a sunny morning, Nagu’s harbour is as close as it ever gets to bustling. A few dozen shoppers are browsing in the boutiques along the wharf. A two-masted yacht cuts across the bay under full sail. The mouth-watering smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns rises from a bakery. Five minutes outside town, I find myself cycling a rented bike along a deserted road. Wind rustles the rye fields. There are a few feathers of high white cloud in an otherwise blue sky. I’m overwhelmed by the silence and space. The roadside is carpeted with bilberries, lingonberries, wild strawberries and, if you look carefully, caches of chanterelles.
Margot Wikström farms four hectares of berries at Tackork Farm in the island’s backcountry. She offers me a gooseberry. ‘You don’t have these in England. You can never have these in England!’ She laughs, aware how boastful she sounds. ‘It’s the light! The sweet taste comes from the the light. It gives them what we call Arctic aromas.’ The round-the-clock light of the northern summer has charged up the fruit with an unfamiliar sweetness and intensity.