Baltic Madness Finland MicroAdventures

Stumbleupon – Exploring Turku

Written by Stuart Wickes
Contemplating the sights of Turku, European Capital of Culture 2011

“OK. How does nude karaoke, Hvitflet horse sausage and a visit to the donut and pea soup oasis sound?” As Captain it was my turn to brief my four burger munching companions on the day’s activities.  Matthew eventually broke the chewy silence, “I don’t really like the sound of that.”

Luckily the Turku tourist office had catalogued 208 other cultural attractions, part of an effort to promote the town’s status as 2011 European Capital of Culture in waiting.  I tested out a few alternatives, “How about the first ever fork in Finland, the invisible elf of Turku castle and Xylitol?” More silence.  Boy was this a hard to please family. We had a day and a night in Turku before an onward ferry to Mariehamn and I was determined not to spend it sitting in a burger bar. But Turku’s bizarre offerings didn’t seem to be hitting the mark and planning was becoming the main activity of the day. So I gave up on democracy, wiped the ketchup off the map and unilaterally informed everyone we were going on a cultural stumbleupon, heading around town on our bikes visiting whichever of the 211 defining features of Turku we stumbled upon. Which was about all we could do since the listing gave no information about the location of many of the ‘attractions.’

Turku Cathedral

Riding down near the river Cameron was quick to spot the unusual red brick cathedral, led there by a sporty white VW polo wrapped up in pretty pink ribbons. Groups of well dressed Finns stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the church, waiting for a 2 o’clock wedding, while a bride, groom, bridesmaids and guests from the 1.30 affair swept out of small wooden doors at the top. We crept up behind the crowd to get a look inside this Finnish national shrine, trying not to gate crash the photos, only to be turned away by a curt cathedral attendant, “No tourists please. Wedding only.”

We must have looked unlikely guests.

“Just five minutes.. to say a prayer?” I begged, desperate for a quick look-see.

She paused momentarily to look at her watch, long enough to give me hope, “No prayers. Wedding starts in one minute. You must leave now.”

The usher herded us back out into the photo-call while efficiently filtering anyone more smartly dressed around us and inside for the 2 o’clock event.

It’s not hard to stumbleupon Turku castle

Smarting with rejection we stumbled out down the steps and over to the Sibelius Museum across the cobbled square.  I felt sure we’d get in here, for a fee; in fact the kids got in free.  Not that they were very into Sibelius until I offered them a sweet for every interesting fact they could find out about him.

“Sibelius looked just like you,” said Hannah dragging me over to see pictures of an archetypically scruffy haired composer. True. But not really very interesting.

“Listen to this Dad,” said Matthew thrusting a pair of headphones at me, “It sounds like eyes focusing on a bouncing ball.” Interesting but probably not what Sibelius had in mind when he composed Finlandia.

And finally Cameron, “Did you know Sibelius built a sauna and liked cigars and drinking so much he had more debts than assets even though he was famous.” Surely a fact worth a sweety? And as if to press the point, “And look I’ve found a picture of his sauna.” He pulled me towards the display he’d been memorizing until the headphone lead wouldn’t let me go any further. “And Dad, what is a debt?”

After fifteen minutes of badgering I paid my debts and gave them all the sweets to go away, begging them to leave me in peace to listen to Sibelius for myself.  I remembered Finlandia from my childhood; as part of my youth orchestra’s repertoire. But it sounded different now, with our ride across Ǻland and Western Finland playing in my mind and informed by a few choice facts about the man, his finances and his contribution to the Finnish sense of identity.

“Did you like the music?” I asked Matthew as we cycled off to stumble upon something else. 

“I liked the bit that really sounded just like swans swimming and then taking off from water,” he said.  I was glad he’d taken in more than just sweets.

Down on the docks – stumbling around

Stumbling around is an interesting way to see a city.  With no real plan there’s no guarantee you’ll see or do any of the things a guidebook will tell you a good tourist should. And you may actually miss some things of significance.  But biking around randomly, with a map to hand, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon some of the main sights. And stopping and looking at things that grab your attention, speculating upon what they are (then looking up the answers) gives the alternative satisfaction of feeling like you’ve discovered something of the city for yourself. 

Riding up and down Turku‘s hilly grid of streets felt like biking around the streets of San Francisco until we stumbled upon defining feature number 137.
“Stop! Look there. A statue.” Matthew called the tour to a stop, drawing our attention to a bronze bust tucked away on the pavement.  “He’s got a moustache. I think it’s…. “

A rare statue of....

Cameron was off the bike and studying the inscription before the bikes had stopped. “LENIN!” he shouted, “We’ve found the almost only statue of Lenin in the world.”

“I saw it first,” cried Matthew, sensing his brother clamouring for spotting honours and initiating five minutes of sibling claim and counterclaim that was never really resolved.
Kirstie was definitely the first to spot feature 139, just off the riverside cycle path that heads down to the harbour.  While I rode past cafes and restaurants surveying brightly lit wooden museum ships, Kirstie gazed skywards and experienced a moment of intense joy. None of us could ever have imagined she would know the Fibonnaci sequence yet alone discover it but when she saw red neon numbers rising up an old industrial chimney she somehow knew she was onto a mathematical certainty.
LOOK! It’s the Fibonnaci sequence,” she squealed with delight reading the glowing digits off the smokestack “1 and 1 is 2. And 1 is 3. And 2 is 5. And 3 is 8. And 5 is 13. And 8 is 21. And 13 is 34. And 21 is 35.”  But this was more than reading numbers; it showed an understanding of the algorithm that impressed even maths whizz Matthew.  Perhaps putting her in charge of the budget this year hadn’t been such a bad call.

What is this sequence I see before me?

We left Turku on the Mariehamn ferry the next morning without finding the first fork in Finland or the invisible elf. We left without eating horse sausage (unless it was that burger) and uninitiated in the art of naked karaoke but satisfied we’d discovered something of the city for ourselves.

Stumbleupon touring doesn’t always pay off.  It’s a game of chance; some you win, some you lose. And our stop-over in Mariehamn looked a dead cert lose.  We’d been there before, at sunrise a week earlier and this time had ten hours to kill before a late night ferry to Helsinki. Kirstie had picked up the captaincy and floated a plan to pass the time. “We’ll visit the supermarket, then the maritime museum, have a swim then dinner at the kebab shop?”  But there was little enthusiasm for anything, until on the way into town we stumbled upon something down near the beach.

What’s this we’ve stumbled upon now?

We’d cycled past empty sand courts, sponsors tents and a grandstand a week earlier but now the whole beach front was buzzing with flags flying, with competitors and fans milling around and some kind of action just about to start.  Loud catchy dance music had a crowd in the grandstand singing and clapping. “We’ve got a great afternoon of world class volleyball,” boomed the PA, “First China and Spain in the men’s play off, then the main event, Olympic giants from the USA and Brazil head to head for the final.”


We stumbled up to the ticket office expecting it to be a sell out but instead got two adult tickets with kids welcome free.  By the time we reached the grandstand, the players were warming up on court in front of a surround sound crowd rippling with the ‘whooooooooo’ of fast, slow and super slow Mexican waves.  “Let’s make some noise, take your seats, get out of your seats and show these players your appreciation….” This wasn’t exactly staid and sophisticated Wimbledon; this was the Swatch World Tour 2010 Aland Open Beach Volleyball Tournament

The full international sporting event experience, dancing girls and all

A supercool beach volley ball gig with spectator participation as much a part of the sport as the sport itself. None of us had ever seen a volley ball match before nor ever shown any interest in it, but it took only moments to draw us into the spirit of the action on and off the court.  With funky music stings underscoring points, we were soon part of the a crowd that needed little encouragement to clap, hoot, wave or dance along to the music, the action on the court, or the beach babe dancing girls who entertained during time-outs. And before we knew it, it was seven o’clock, and time for that kebab. Hvitfelt horsemeat style perhaps.

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This post is also part of the BootsnAll 30 Days of Indie Travel Project on the theme of Cities. You can find all our contributions to this intriguing project on our Facebook Page

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About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!

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