East of Helsinki

An en­joy­able day cruise to a port of po­ets and artists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JEN­NIFER EN­NION

I AM hud­dled in a fleece blan­ket, with a cup of hot tea clutched be­tween my hands, aboard the cen­tury-old mo­tor steamer JL Runeberg, named for Jo­han Lud­vig Runeberg (1804-1877), the na­tional poet of Fin­land, who wrote in Swedish, his mother tongue. Lo­cals and tourists crowd the old ves­sel’s tim­ber top deck, vy­ing for the best views and sun­ni­est seats.

We slowly move away from Helsinki’s busy Mar­ket Square and head east to the coastal ham­let of Por­voo, Fin­land’s sec­ond old­est town (af­ter Turku). A cool sum­mer wind whips off the wa­ter as we travel through an ar­chi­pel­ago of small, mostly un­in­hab­ited is­lands in the Uusi­maa re­gion. It’s a peace­ful jour­ney and, at 3½ hours each way, one best shared with friends, a good book or a pack of cards. The wa­ters of the Gulf of Fin­land glim­mer around sail­ing boats, and an oc­ca­sional tim­ber house can be spied on rocky is­lands and grassy shores.

The is­lands dis­ap­pear as JL Runeberg, which car­ries 220 pas­sen­gers, makes its way down the Por­voo River to Por­voo Har­bour, a route it’s been trav­el­ling since the 1930s. Por­voo Tours guide Sade Ka­josvuo-Ha­malainen is wait­ing to meet me and she sets a crack­ing pace. I fol­low her down nar­row al­ley­ways and into a public gar­den to see a statue of Runeberg.

I am in­stantly charmed by Por­voo, which ap­peals to artists and those trav­ellers who ap­pre­ci­ate cob­ble­stoned paths and pok­ing around bou­tiques. “We have more artists than any other town (in Fin­land), com­pared to the num­ber of res­i­dents,” says Sade. It’s no sur­prise, given the res­i­dents of the town, which has a pop­u­la­tion just shy of 50,000, have in­cluded Runeberg, as well as prom­i­nent pain­ters, sculp­tors and de­sign­ers. Book print­ing has also been an im­por­tant in­dus­try, while a school houses Fin­land’s old­est public li­brary.

There’s more to Por­voo, how­ever, than its cre­ative heart. Due to its lo­ca­tion, where sea meets river, it has long been a trad­ing port con­nect­ing Fin­land to cen­tral Europe. Salt was a ma­jor im­port, heav­ily used to pre­serve fish and meat be­fore the ad­vent of re­frig­er­a­tion, and kept in store­houses, many of which still line the river.

Th­ese store­houses, with their strik­ing red tim­ber fa­cades, are now pri­vately owned and highly soughtafter, many con­verted into clubs, ate­liers, apart­ments and trendy pubs and restau­rants. We stop for lunch at Jo­han’s, a con­tem­po­rary diner over­look­ing Por­voo River, which spe­cialises in lo­cal, sea­sonal pro­duce and or­ganic wine. I dine on a hearty trio-of-pork — belly, sausage and ribs, with cab­bage and red wine sauce — as Sade tells me that Por­voo, founded un­der Swedish rule in 1346, is a bilin­gual town. Af­ter the Swedes, came the Rus­sians, un­til the Finns gained in­de­pen­dence in 1917. Still, fight­ing con­tin­ued with World War II, dur­ing which Por­voo was bombed 13 times. “We lost some of the ter­ri­tory but we saved our in­de­pen­dence,” says Sade proudly.

Af­ter lunch we head into Old Por­voo, the town’s his­toric heart, where we ex­plore jew­ellery and pot­tery stores, cafes and the 13th-cen­tury cathe­dral. As I ad­mire its shin­gled roof and wish I were spend­ing longer, Sade glances at her watch and has­tens me to­ward the har­bour, just in time to re­board JL Runeberg. We move away but, as the low­er­ing sun warms the aft deck, I vow to re­turn.

Jen­nifer En­nion was a guest of Fin­nair and Visit Helsinki.

JL Runeberg, named af­ter the na­tional poet of Fin­land

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