East of Helsinki
An enjoyable day cruise to a port of poets and artists
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