The Åland Islands: A Place Worlds Apart (Unpublished ’04)

 If you thought obscure principalities and autonomous regions were more of a French, Spanish, and Italian oddity, Finland can be added to the mix. Lying in the Gulf of Bothnia, Åland is an autonomous unilingual demilitarized (Swedish-speaking) demilitarized province of Finland, famous for its tax-free status in the middle of two of the world’s most heavily-taxed nations.

–Financial Times, August 15, 2004

Heinrich Heine, the great 19th-century German poet and author, once wrote that if he ever knew that there world was coming to an end, he would promptly remove himself to then peaceful and bucolic Holland “because everything happens fifty years later there.”

That may well have been true during Heine’s day, however as a place to truly get away from it all without leaving Europe, this writer would instead recommend a sortie to the thoroughly peaceful, blissfully uncrowded, and absolutely otherworldly Åland archipelago at the mouth of the Bothnian Sea, equidistant between Finland and Sweden. Once part of Sweden, which was forced to cede Åland in 1809, following Stockholm’s defeat in the last of the great Swedo-Russian wars, these verdant, topographically diverse islands and skerries — all 6500 of them (give or take one or two) — comprise a self-governing province of Finland, as well as one of Europe’s true geopolitical anomalies. Only Swedish is spoken (at least officially) by the twenty six thousand Ålanders, of whom twenty four thousand reside on the sprawling, thousand square kilometer main island, where the capital, Mariehamn, is located, while the rest are scattered over the archipelago’s principal inhabited “outer” islands of Eckero, Lemland, Lumparland, Foglo, Sottunga, Kumlinge, Brando, and faraway Kokar. The current total represents an increase of four thousand, or less than 20%, since the census of 1905, making these rich, fertile islands one of Scandinavia’s — and Europe’s — slowest growing areas, at least in terms of population, a situation that the island fathers are pleased to maintain (while of course doing everything they can to promote tourism to the islands).

Seekers of peace and quiet will also be pleased to know that Åland — Ahvenanmaa to Finns — constitute Europe’s only officially demilitarized zone, thanks to an 1856 treaty, still in force, known as Aland’s Servitude. The treaty was signed by the major powers following the Crimean War, when Åland’s strategic position in the center of the Baltic led to one of the major naval actions of that now forgotten war, after an Anglo-French naval expedition consisting of two dozen ships of the line surrounded the massive, if not yet complete fortress Moscow had built at Bormasund, overlooking the eastern approaches to the archipelago, and blasted the great redoubt to smithereens before storming it. About one hundred men, mostly Russians, died during the four day long battle, casualties of the many wars and conflicts that have ranged over the islands since the Viking days. Visitors to Bormasund, whose vast grounds covered an area of several square miles, can still see the marks left by the original cannonade on Branklint Tower, the fort’s highest point — along with one of Åland’s best views. Gazing through the embrasures at the jigsaw puzzle of lakes and bays arrayed below, one can almost see the masts of Admiral Napier’s frigates, steaming into view.

Today Finland is legally responsible for the defense of these once strategically vital islands. Åland was awarded to Helsinki by a decision of the League of Nations in 1922, one of the few wise rulings that much-lampooned body ever made, not to mention one of the few still in force, following an acrimonious dispute between Stockholm — which wished to see the Swedish-speaking islands reunited with the Swedish motherland, as did the majority of the islanders themselves at the time — and Finland, which claimed that it needed the islands, which actually lie closer to its mainland — Brando, the easternmost of the Ålandic Outer Islands actually abuts the Turku archipelago — for its defense.

So, to the dismay of the Swedophile islanders, the contentious isles reverted to Finnish control, on condition that Helsinki respect the archipelago’s indigenous, Swedish culture, and that it not erect fortifications in its new territory or militarize it in any way, even though (somewhat paradoxically) Helsinki remained, and remains, responsible for their defense. Additionally, by dint of the same ruling, all Ålanders who have the “right of domicile” — as citizenship in this autonomous Finnish province is known — and who moved to Åland before the age of 12, were and are officially exempt from service in the Finnish armed forces, a perquisite which has led over the intervening decades to a feeling amongst some Finns that Ålanders are somehow “spoiled.”

Perhaps they are. In any event, peace is truly the law, and the credo, in this, Europe’s only official “peace zone.” War and its accoutrements are strictly verboten. Finnish military personnel are welcome to visit, but not in uniform please, as a group of visiting Finnish sailors who recently came ashore in uniform and found themselves decidedly unwelcome putatively discovered to their dismay. Ålanders take their special dispensation from the ways of the barbarous Outer World (as it were) quite seriously. Same goes for Swedish military personnel, for that matter (if perhaps a bit less so).

Åland is demilitarized. This means that there may be no military presence here and that the islands may not be fortified. Åland is also neutralized, and must therefore be kept outside the theater of war in case of conflict. Politicians, academics and journalists around the world study Aland as an example of a successful solution to a minority conflict–

–From “Åland In Brief,” an official publication of the Åland Government and Parliament (2004)

Visitors to Åland, for their part, are also spoiled. Indeed, one could say that they are doubly spoiled. On the one hand, the provincial capital of Mariehamn, port of call for the mammoth two thousand passenger cross-Baltic ferries that glide in and of the archipelago offer many if not quite all of the amenities one would expect in a modern coastal, Nordic mini-metropolis, and then some. Such bedizenments include a selection of first class hotels, an array of excellent restaurants — including several delightful boat restaurants docked in the scenic, fir-rimmed harbor whence one can dine on fresh Baltic herring and other fresh local fare — two department stores, an ultra-modern library with free Net access, and several eye-opening museums, including the surprisingly large, award-winning Åland Museum, where one can lose oneself in some of the examples of the naive l9th century Åland School of Art that are on display, and relive the siege of Bormasund.

Somnolent during the off season, this charming archipelagic city of 10,000 bursts into life during the summer when the islands become a mecca for migrating Swedes and Swedish-speaking Finns, along with a small, but steadily increasing number of tourists from further afield. The highly literate islands boast no less than two daily newspapers, Nya Åland and Åland, which feature dueling descriptions of all the Ålandic news that’s fit to print. “We like to read about ourselves,” the editor of one of the papers told me. Of course, the papers are in Swedish.

Time permitting, the enlightened visitor to Åland is also advised to devote an afternoon to touring the city block long government complex in the heart of Mariehamn. Here, in the sleek, curiously named Autonomy Building — actually two buildings — Åland’s status and self-image as “a practically independent country,” as the sleek 20 page guide to the island puts it, is given proud (if somewhat outsized) form. On one side of the oblong complex, erected in 1978, is the plush home of the Lagtinget, Åland’s 30 seat legislature, replete with rows of cushy leather chairs, a large visitors’ gallery and gorgeous wraparound dark brown birch walls. Facing it is the clean-lined, very Nordic-looking multi-story administration building, a veritable chip off the old Scandic block, where busy Ålandic bureaucrats administer the lump sum from the total state revenues that Helsinki awards it every year — exactly 0.45 of the total tax revenues, as per the most recent Autonomy Act. The amount came to 160 million euros in 2003.

Strolling around the impressive compound, which faces the city harbor, there’s a good chance that you will run into a delegation of official foreign visitors who have come to Åland to see how the so-called “Åland model,” as the islets’ unique form of virtual independence is called, works in practice. The government is pleased to accommodate them, plying the visitors with coffee and cake in the spotless cafeteria of the Autonomy Building while they listen to the likes of Susanne Eriksson, the vivacious and energetic deputy head of administration extol the virtues of autonomy, Åland-style.

Proud though she and her colleagues are of their model government, Eriksson and other Alandic officials are always careful to underline the special attributes of Åland that make the Åland model work well — for Åland. “It is important to remember that the relationship with Helsinki is based on three unique, or fairly unique characteristics,” Eriksson reminded me on my most recent, beguiling visit to the cushy heart of this Nordic Never-Never-Land. “First, Åland is nearly homogenous, with 95% of the population consisting of Swedish speakers. Second, it is wealthy. Third, and perhaps most importantly, both Ålandic and Finnish societies are based on the rule of law.”

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to purchase a block of Åland stamps. Yes, Åland has its own postal system. Unemployment? Never heard of it. (The official employment rate in the islands, as of 2004, was an enviable 2%). And, of course, Aland has its own flag, a cruciform of red superimposed on the Swedish yellow cross.

All very Nordic, very rational, very civilized. The only thing that Ålanders can’t do under the current form of self-government is collect taxes and administer their own foreign affairs, tasks performed by the federal government in Helsinki. Åland also is assigned one seat in the eduskunta, the Finnish parliament. When in 1994 Finland held a referendum about whether to join the European Union, Åland held its own referendum on the subject. In the event, Ålanders voted to second the Finnish “yes” to join EU, but only after Brussels agreed to extend the tax-free shopping on the Aland-owned cruise ships from which much of the islands’ wealth derives.

Very civilized indeed. And yet, too, here in modern, ultra-sophisticated, happy Åland, one can just as readily feel removed from civilization, as it were, as I did late last summer, when I spent two memorably blissful days as the sole guest of Gasthaus Foglo, on Foglo, just a half an hour’s drive and a short ferry boat ride away from bustling Mariehamn. “Heaven on earth” is the way the owner of the inn described this little island world within a world.

He wasn’t far off. Covering an area of approximately 800 square miles, and home to a year-round population of 600, Foglo is both the largest and most populous of the magical Outer Islands. It’s also large and capacious enough for one to be able to find the purest form of solitude, as I did one August afternoon, when I pedaled out on my rented bicycle to the great, towering, 14th century cruciform Foglo church, several kilometers outside of Degerby, the main port and “capital” of Foglo, and had a private chat with The Great Ferry Captain up above; or on my last day, when I drove even further out, to the deserted beach at Hasterboda, whence I could see the coast of Kokar, the most distant of the Outer Islands, and the highlight of one of my previous Ålandic adventures: in all I have visited Åland half a dozen times since 1991. That alone should tell you something And I wager you don’t even know anyone who has been there once!

Soon enough, as I lay there on the beach at Hasterboda, scenes from that visit came into focus, a dream within a dream, as it were.

After all, it’s hard to forget being serenaded by the Mariehamn Men’s Chorus! (Fortunately, too, I also have my notes from that sortie.)

In the event, on that memorable March morning, the chorus, led by a strong-lunged music teacher by the name of Knut Grussner, was enroute to Kokar to perform at the island church. A song, “Springtime for Åland,” had been composed for the special occasion. Soon its words of praise to “the miracle of spring” were imprinted on my brain.

Three hours and many stanzas later I debarked at Karlsby, capital of Kokar, population 300. There, as previously arranged, as I was taken under tow by Tomas Dahlgren, the tall strapping fellow who runs the successful island hotel, Brudhall.

I had only intended to spend a few hours on the island before returning to Mariehamn; my habit (which I recommend), is to combine several days amongst the fleshpots of the capital [delete 'and combine'] with a sortie to one of the Outer Islands. How much, after all, could there be to see on Kokar insert question mark, I wondered, as I set out. “You’ll see a lot of birds,” a slightly jaded hotel clerk in Mariehamn advised me.

But Dahlgren, an intense former Hell’s Angel, insisted that I stay overnight so I could imbibe of of the full “Kokar experience,” as he put it.

And quite an experience within an experience it indeed turned out to be.

First, Dahlgren took me on a whirlwind car tour of the main island of Kokar itself, including a stop at the island church, built in 1784, and a walk through the tiny cemetery, supposedly populated with pirates. Inside the venerable church, I again ran into the Mariehamn choir, in full-throated practice. There was no getting away from those merry, ruddy-faced guys.

Next, after a delicious lunch of pike perch and potatoes at the hotel restaurant, my host personally rowed me to the adjoining satellite island and ultimate hideaway of Kallspar, 20 kilometers, and a topographical world away from Kokar or anyplace else on Åland. No verdant pastures or tall forests, as one finds on the other islands, just plain, windswept feldspar, piles and piles and piles of it. Here, on this uninhabited, breath taking spit of land, Dahlgren explained, the King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf, found the privacy he needed to romance his future queen. There are also numerous elegant vacation homes set into the Baltic side of the island, which we duly gawked at.

Tove Jansson, the late, beloved Swedo-Finnish children’s author also worked on one of her books here in delightful, wave-lapping isolation, Dahlgren explained…

All the while, the super-patriotic Ålander regaled me with his distinctive opinions on such things as the need for total independence from Finland — a view held by a vociferous, if declining minority of Ålanders (roughly 7%, if the last poll is to be believed), as well as Dahlren’s peculiar philosophy of life, which, he claimed, made it easy for him to graduate from being a Hell’s Angel to living on windy, isolated Kokar.

“When I was a Hell’s Angel, I was out there,” my idiosyncratic guide declared on the boat back to Kokar proper, and before I began my return trip to the Real World. “Now I’m still out there,” he said, as he extended his arm towards the mist-enshrouded sea, as the ever present, inquisitive Ålandic gulls contentedly circled overhead.

Somehow, in a weird Ålandish way, it made sense.

Such is the stuff of which Åland memories are made: a place truly worlds apart.

And you wonder why I keep on going back?