By Paula Hotti
Finland has 187, 888 lakes and almost as many islands, but I am here for one of its oldest valleys, Naantali, where I am going to spend the winter months. Nowadays, Naantali is known for its connection with the Moomin Valley, but of old, the connection with valley was somewhat more graceful: here, in the Valley of Grace, the Brigittine Order was established in the late Middle Ages, and the story of Naantali began.
Although everything is remote in Finland (the country of some five million inhabitants is Europe’s seventh largest) Naantali is very conveniently located: only 14 kilometers from Turku, Finland’s medieval capital, and you are whizzed away from modern life of traffic lights and shopping centers to a cosy little Naantali, famous for its wooden house area, harbor and spa. Turku, a fine destination in itself, can be reached from Helsinki by a car or train in about two hours, and on weekdays busses run from Turku to Naantali every ten minutes for a few euro fare.
Naantali Old Town
Opposite to many other European old towns, in Finland the term ‘Old Town’ doesn’t mean winding and narrow cobblestone streets, ruinous castles with turrets, centuries old shop fronts and a lingering atmosphere of a ghostly past. No, in Finland the old towns are quaint, century or so old wooden house areas with corky corner shops and old-fashioned cafés. There are many such areas in Finnish cities and towns and normally they are located conveniently close to the city centre.
Naantali’s old town is one of the most famous ones in Finland, and it includes a tiny park, guesthouses, coffee shops, boutiques, and even a museum. But as it is autumn already, the doors to the tourist shop stay firmly closed, and you can only peek inside through an old fashioned, wooden framed window to the shelves full of Moomin related souvenirs.
A few Finnish tourists pull a gallery door in vain – unluckily, it stays closed on Tuesdays. Time doesn’t matter here: it seems to stay still, enjoying of an eternal Tuesday.
The old town’s wooden structures have bent with decades, and possibly due to the windy coastal weather. Narrow streets in between tiny red and yellow houses lead from the leafy Puistotie (that is ‘Park Road’) to high cliffs by the sea: as you proceed from central Naantali towards the sea, the houses around get older and older.
And when you reach the seashore, a pathway, locally known as the Love’s Trail, leads to a view point up to the cliffs, where you can spot speedboats gliding slowly back to Naantali harbor.
In fact, Naantali consists of both islands and mainland: the archipelago is renown for its remoteness, harsh beauty and peculiar lifestyle. Bridges connect many of the islands together and touring them by bicycle is a popular activity during summer months.
But if a life on an island, where you might be the only inhabitant, and trip to a shop requires some heavy rowing, seems like from a children’s story, living in Naantali is not much different. Dogs and their owners greet each other’s on the streets and regulars gather for breakfast in the harbor’s restaurant, Merisali.
Little kiosks sell ice cream, and banana splits are advertised on banners. People have miniature boats, Lego castles and kitchy British paraphilia on their windowsills – and there’s even a bus stop for the Moomin World!
The harbor is Naantali’s social hub and, for a city of 15 000 inhabitants, you have plenty restaurants to choose from during summer months.
On top of the typical Finnish cuisine, the pizza and kebab houses, you find posh restaurants with white tablecloths, popular and tasty buffets by the seashore, and family friendly taverns tucked away in an old courtyard in between the harbor and the old town.
Big and shiny speedboats, old wooden yachts, and in a little area of their own little fishing boats wait for their owners patiently. Seagulls keep their distance and a family of ducks has their daily stroll on the long and straight platforms.
The Origins of Naantali
Next to the harbor, you find even more serene Naantali: the old church which marked the beginning for the whole town. Tall trees, a leafy cemetery and a park surround the church, but when it was built, in 1443, there were no trees: one of the perquisites for establishing a Brigittine nunnery was to have an open view towards the sea. This was told to Bridget of Sweden in one of her visions.
Bridget of Sweden was a theologian and a visionary, but also a widow and a mother of eight. She was close to the Swedish monarchs and an apt politician of her own accord – in fact, Bridget was one or the most influential women in Northern Europe in her time. During Bridget’s lifetime, Mangus IV of Sweden asked her what were the king’s duties: Bridget gave him a ten point list, which was given to her in a vision.
First of all, and quite reasonably, Christ had advised through Bridget that the king should get rid of all his bad advisors. Secondly, and maybe a bit more cunningly, the king should support Bridget’s plan for a nunnery. The king obeyed, and eventually Bridget’s followers got their own nunnery in Finland, from a valley called Vallis Gratiae, Valley of Grace. In Swedish, Nådendal.
Not much is known of this nunnery – apart from one monk’s nighttime activities with some more adventurous Brigittine nuns. The old buildings are long gone, and the church itself burned in the 17 th century and is vastly reconstructed. But inside, a special atmosphere of medieval Scandinavian piety still prevails. And further away, I hear the regularly ringing church bells giving a steady pace to the slowly strolling people around.
A Swedish-Slavic Mix
Close to the church you find a tall tree and underneath it a memorial for Jøns Budde. Budde translated Latin texts into Swedish in the Brigittine monastery and he is the earliest writer known by name in Finland. In Budde’s time literate Finland was largely Swedish-speaking and the country had to wait a good few hundred years for the first Finnish-speaking writer to put his pen on paper.
Nowadays, Finland is a bi-lingual country and the coastal region is the centre of the Swedish speaking minority: even if you hear Finnish all around, the vowels have more singsong quality in them, consonants end quicker – and the smiles and pleasantries are more easily abstracted than in the central parts of Finland.
In general, a unique mix of Slavic and Scandinavian atmosphere is typical in Finland, but in Naantali, the Scandinavian prevails. Naantali was a prosperous, pious and bourgeoning Swedish village till the 16 th century, when Protestantism came to Finland and the convent was closed: Naantali’s economy took a plunge till mid-18 th century. But in the 1860s Naantali’s first spa was established in a craze of health springs and miraculous mud baths, and the town’s reputation as a holiday destination started to spread.
The spa drew a lot of gentle folk to Naantali, as it does till today, being the biggest spa in the Nordic countries. The best way to get to the spa from the old town or harbor of Naantali is to follow a coastal trail for about fifteen minutes: you will pass little bays and residential areas with a magnificent yet subdued view to the sea.
Although Naantali is not the most obvious place to visit in Finland, even in September, when the tourist season is already long gone, you spot tourists strolling around on daily basis. This morning, when walking my dog by the seashore, a Korean family got a surprise of their lifetime, as an elderly Naantali resident was having her morning plunge in the sea – stark naked. She extracted some giggles from the faraway visitors as she strolled nonchalantly on the platform.
This tiny beach with a small sandy bay surrounded by trees and sea cliffs must be one of nature’s calmest spas on earth. Naantali truly is graced.
Paula Hotti is a Finnish travel writing enthusiast: apart from writing travel guides and articles for Finnish and foreign publications, she translates travel literature classics and did her Masters Thesis on travel literature. You can follow Paula’s trails and travails at www.sateenmuruja.com or tweets at https://twitter.com/Sateenmuruja