Turku — European Capital of Culture 2011

Turku — European Capital of Culture 2011

Award-winning St. Petersburg photographer Alexander Belenky travels to the Finnish city of Turku and gives an insight into traveling to Russia’s northern neighbor.

Published: June 29, 2011 (Issue # 1663)

ALEXANDER BELENKY / The St. Petersburg Times

Award-winning St. Petersburg photographer Alexander Belenky travels to the Finnish city of Turku and gives an insight into traveling to Russia’s northern neighbor.

Summer has arrived, the traditional time of extended vacations in these parts, but to which destinations should travelers be heading? Our nearest neighbor, Finland, perhaps, so popular with Petersburgers looking to indulge themselves in a frenzy of shopping? Some locals might think that they’ve already been there so often that there’s nothing of interest left. That is far from being the case, however, and Turku, Finland’s oldest city, is well worth visiting this summer, especially as it has been named Europe’s official capital of culture.

Getting There

Many Russians living in the northwest of Russia love visiting Finland, but detest the road journey as far as Vyborg, the Russian town that lies just before the Finnish border. And the border itself isn’t much better — for some reason it appears to be perpetually raining there, it’s often foggy, there are great convoys of trucks, queues and forms to fill in, and no end of bureaucratic hassles. On this trip, however, I traveled for the first time on the new high-speed train, the Allegro, and discovered that getting to Helsinki has just become immeasurably easier and more comfortable. Hop on, and three-and-a-half hours later you’re in the Finnish capital. Passport and customs checks and procedures are carried out onboard, the stops are brief, and you can work on your computer with ease. You can travel on from Helsinki to Turku by train or by bus. Alternatively, you could spend a very long, debilitating day and a tank of gas driving from Petersburg to Turku. The choice is yours.

A Little History

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, and the country’s first capital. Turku locals regard the inhabitants of Helsinki in much the same way as Petersburgers regard Muscovites: “You may be the official capital, but we’ve got the history and the culture.”

ALEXANDER BELENKY / The St. Petersburg Times

Students wearing yellow overalls on their graduation day. The outfits are a traditional informal outfit for students in Finland.

The city was founded on the shores of the Aurajoki river in the 13th century, and it quickly became an industrial and trade center. At the time, Finland was part of Sweden, and Turku, or Abo in Swedish, was the largest and most important Finnish city. Turku’s castle and cathedral recall this era, and visitors will find themselves transported into the Middle Ages, as if they’ve passed through a time portal.

The Finns have a great reverence for their history, and carefully preserve all remaining evidence of previous eras, even if the events marked are negative. Turku burned down on several occasions, and a vast fire in 1827 almost entirely destroyed the city. On that occasion, huge numbers of citizens had traveled to a fair in Tampere, so there was no one to put the fire out. The strong wind quickly caused the fire to spread through the neighboring wooden houses and the entire city was burnt down, although hardly anyone was harmed.

The city was rebuilt anew, however, to a new plan, with straight, broad streets and houses constructed in stone. The cleansing fire cleared the way for the new city, and the fire is not just seen as a page in the history of the city, it’s also a vogue theme for an exhibition entitled “Fire, Fire” in the Logomo cultural center, and the subject of a rock musical entitled “Infernal Music.”

This fantastical spectacle of light, sound and special effects to energetic rock tracks, on the night that we attended, inspired waves of stormy applause.

Turku: Cultural Capital

The Finns consider that the awarding of the status of European Capital of Culture for the year to the city is an enormous achievement for Finnish culture. Tourists traveling to Turku this summer are promised an abundance of both the historic and the ultra-modern every day of their visit.

ALEXANDER BELENKY / The St. Petersburg Times

Herring, a popular local staple.

The year’s program includes about 150 incredibly varied projects: “Poetry portraits,” the weaving of carpets depicting tales, wrestling to accordion accompaniment and, of course, “Finnish sauna as a work of art,” including a transparent sauna right in the middle of the city.

An old steam engine depot has been turned into the ultra-modern Logomo exhibition and theater center, becoming the main cultural arena in the life of Turku, featuring a series of exhibitions and other projects: A UEFA soccer exhibition, a chance to put out a fire using equipment from bygone eras, a rock musical and an art cafe.

From June 30 to July 3, the city will play host to a medieval market, and a variety show by Cirque Dracula can be seen through August 14. From August 26 to 28, the Tall Ship’s Regatta will sail into town, mooring up on the shores of the Aurajoki River.

What to See

Turku Cathedral holds a central position in the Lutheran Church of Finland, being the country’s official national shrine. It not only features a wealth of medieval detailing, but also hosts modern exhibitions.

Turku Castle protected the mouth of the Aura river from 1280, and it has had a dramatic, action-packed history. The excursions, offered in various languages, are well worth taking round the castle, and they give you a chance to meet a “living” king, who will knight men and enroll women as frauleins, all free of charge.

ALEXANDER BELENKY / The St. Petersburg Times

A narrow cobbled street in the historic center of Turku.

An even more fascinating place in Turku is the Luostarinmaki craft museum. It’s the only district in Turku that survived the destructive fire. Later, the historic buildings were turned into craft workshops and now you can visit the old post office and send a letter or observe bootmakers or clock makers at work.

The Islands and Naantali

The Turku Archipelago comprises about 20,000 islands: Take the old Ukkopekka ferry to one of them, and dine out in the open air to a live music accompaniment and dancing.

In the summer, the islands are popular fishing destinations, and you can also rent bikes on them. There are nine ferry routes between the islands, as well as 12 bridges, so touring by car is also an option.

From Turku, you can also take a 20-minute ferry to Naantali, the fairytale land of the Moomin Trolls, the creations of the writer Tove Jansson – a perfect day out for the kids. On the pirate pier, they can capture a ship, and there’s also a castle to explore. In the Fisherman’s Village, you can meet the local inhabitants’ pets and try panning for gold.

The Finns are expecting two million tourists in Turku for the cultural capital events. A full schedule and program are available at: www.turku2011.fi (go to www.turkutouring.com for a Russian-language schedule).

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