If you have only one Finnish town to visit outside Helsinki, make it Turku. Finland's former capital is its oldest town (founded about 1229), with close ties to Sweden. Swedes affectionately call it Åbo, and perhaps regret its loss. A town with proud traditions, Turku was the former center of Finland's spiritual, secular, and commercial life until Russia made Helsinki the capital.
In the Middle Ages, trade and seafaring were the main occupations of the people of Turku. A university was founded in 1640, adding to the town's prestige. Tragedy struck on September 4, 1827, when Turku suffered the biggest fire ever to ravage a Scandinavian town. Following the fire, the Academy of Turku, the first university in Finland, was moved to Helsinki. But after Finland became independent, a Swedish-language university, Åbo Akademi, was founded in Turku, which thereby regained some of its lost prestige.
Turku makes an ideal gateway for visiting the Åland Islands, an archipelago in the Baltic, midway between Sweden and Finland. Many Swedes come to the Ålands for their summer vacations.
The islands are relatively autonomous; the inhabitants have their own parliament and government, their own flag and culture, and even their own postage stamps.
During the era of its world-famous shipowner Gustaf Erikson, Åland (pronounced Oh-lant) boasted the largest fleet of sailing ships in the world. Its traditions as a maritime "nation" are ancient.
134km (83 miles) E of Helsinki
The Langinkoski Imperial Fishing Lodge, Langinkoski (tel. 05/228-1050; www.langinkoskimuseo.com), about 5km (3 miles) north of Kotka, was the imperial fishing lodge of the Russian tsar's family, the summer retreat for Alexander III from 1889 to 1894. This log house on the River Kymi offers an insight into how the last of the Romanovs spent their summers before they met violent deaths during the Russian Revolution. Near the Langinkoski Rapids (for which it was named), the lodge is open from May to August daily from 10am to 4pm; during September and October, it's open Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Admission is 5€ ($8) for adults, 2€ ($3.20) for ages 12 and under.
The tsar chose a spot in Finland's premier salmon-fishing area to build the lodge on property consisting of half a dozen small islands connected by bridges. Its deliberately unpretentious architecture was in the Finnish style of hand-hewn pine logs, far removed from the grandeur of the family's 900-room palace outside St. Petersburg. On the grounds of the fishing lodge is a small Russian Orthodox chapel built during the early 1800s by monks from the Valamo monastery, and within the lodge are photographs of the imperial family.
Information is available from the Kotka Tourist Office, Keskuskatu 6 (tel. 05/234-44-24; www.kotka.fi/matkailu), open from June to August Tuesday to Friday 9am to 7pm and Saturday 10am to 7pm; from September to May Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. If you drive, Kotka is a 2-hour trip from Helsinki. Five buses leave Helsinki daily, traveling to Kotka in 2 hours. Once at the bus station at Kotka, you can take bus no. 12, 13, or 14 to the lodge at Langinkoski.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.