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The Ålands, off the west coast of Finland between Turku and Stockholm, form an archipelago of 6,500 islands, islets, and skerries. The total land mass is about 1,320 sq. km (510 sq. miles), with 805km (500 miles) of roads, yet it's the water that you remember (the sea stretches in all directions). Most of the islands are not inhabited (there are only some 27,000 residents scattered throughout the archipelago), but an estimated one million tourists visit the Ålands each year.

The islands form on odd geopolitical entity, with its heart belonging to Sweden (locals speak Swedish) but its land mass under the control of the Finns, who have granted islanders many semi-autonomous privileges. Ålanders fly their own flag over their own parliament and issue their own national stamps.

Åland comes from a word in the Old Norse language that meant "water island," and the English word "island" is also derived from the same word. The archipelago was settled some 6,000 years ago by seal hunters; large burial cairns can still be seen. During the Viking Age, the islands were the most densely populated part of Scandinavia.

From medieval times until the early 19th century, Åland was part of Sweden; in 1809, however, Sweden lost both Åland and Finland to Russia. After the fall of the czar in 1917, Åland petitioned the king of Sweden to be allowed to rejoin Sweden, but Finland objected. In 1921, the matter was settled by the League of Nations, which gave Finland sovereignty over the chain but protected Swedish culture and left Swedish as the official language. Today the residents of Åland are still more Swedish than Finnish, and the young men of the islands are exempt from serving in the Finnish armed forces.