The sun sets on the Baltics and rises in Aland
The knock on our cabin door came at half past four in the morning. By twenty to five we had woken the children from a deep sleep and stumbled with them downstairs. On deck 6 the disco was still going and the smell of beer wafted out with the thud of Europop, as revellers from the night before drained their glasses and took their turn on the dance floor. We were silently guided around the drunks by sober crew members, down into the depths of the ship where two cars and a lorry started their engines. It was all efficiently managed and in a matter of minutes as we crossed the departures yard the ferry was casting off its ropes and moving away towards Stockholm.
Alone in Mariehahm
It was dark. The air was cool, a relief after the heat of Tallin. We were alone, in Mariehamn, ready to start our journey across the Ǻland islands. We pedalled slowly into the town, along the long narrow peninsula.
Mariehamn, ‘the town of a thousand linden trees’ slumbered in the early morning as we rode up its broad and pleasant tree lined streets. Elegant wooden houses were shrouded in darkness, apart from one lone man reaching into his fridge and illuminating his kitchen. Was he a night owl grabbing refreshment, or an early shift worker just waking up? In the centre of town the only sound was the clink, clink of a cyclist pushing bottles into a recycling skip. Everything was motionless as we meandered through the streets, rubbing our eyes and wondering if we were really here. In the corner of a deserted taxi rank, Matthew spotted a woman on a treadmill, pounding a lonely and silent beat as we rhythmically pedalled by.
On the corner of the pedestrian area the kebab shop was showing signs of life, serving pizza, kebab meat and burgers to those making their way home, and the local police. But the main thoroughfare connecting Mariehamn’s two harbours was deserted as we headed for the sea front and the dim outlines of expensive sailing boats. It was no longer completely dark; now the sea was gently washed with a dusky blue light, and as still as a sheet of solid platinum. Near the wooden mariner’s museum, complete with four masted merchant museum ships, we rested the bikes and walked down a rickety pier. I lay down on the pier with my face on the wood, enjoying the stillness after the madness of the Baltics. Drops of rain fell on me, and made tiny imprints in the water below. It was the first time I could remember wearing a sweater in weeks. I looked around me at the pier and all the children were lying face down too.
What about breakfast?
“It’s raining, I’m tired and thirsty. And I’m hungry. Now.” Cameron externalised his feelings as usual.
We ate yesterday’s bread as the dawn broke, a slither of pink on the horizon that quickly expanded to produce a hillside from the dark night, like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. I tried to open my eyes, brooding on whether I could get away with a snooze as mosquitoes dive bombed the patches of leg above my socks. Instead, Stuart rallied us all and we biked down the road, to a beach and children’s playground. Three backpackers had gone to sleep on the pirate ship play equipment, hanging their shirts over the skull and crossbones, and even the noise of the children squabbling didn’t wake them. I followed some hens whose feathers made them look like they had socks on and wondered what time backpackers got up.
It was finally breakfast time. We biked to the only open café in town and ordered coffee for us, a drink each for the kids and pastries all round. Clearly, in our heads and hearts we were still in the Baltics, and Finland came as a shock.
“Twenty six euros,”said the woman who spoke perfect English.
Nearly half the day’s budget on a vanilla slice. The backpackers from the pirate ship stumbled in. I recognised their shirts. We watched them making the same mistake and somehow this cheered me up.
“That’s the last time you have a drink each until we get home. You’re not in the Baltics now. From now on it’s one drink between you all,” I told the children.
I didn’t lecture the backpackers; they could spend their whole budget on pastries if they wished. Hannah promptly spilt her orange juice all over the table; a habit that didn’t matter in Latvia but now earned her a telling off. The waitress came with a cloth as a group of elderly local men dropped in to order an early morning beer. One each!
Do we have to hop?
I opened my eyes. It was morning. Sunday morning. We had 6000 islands to choose from in this curious sweeping archipelago that belongs to Finland, speaks Swedish, and flies its own flag proudly from every pole. Island hopping, with tandem and triplet.
“Do we have to hop? Can’t we cycle instead,” asked Hannah, taking a surreptitious sip of Cameron’s drink.
“Can we go? I want to go,” said Cameron. So we did.