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The Åland Islands


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Sparkling in the azure waters of the Gulf of Bothnia like sea-polished grains of fallen moon dust, the 6,500 sun-splashed islands of Åland (pronounced Oalahnd) hae been a treasured summer playground for generations of Finns and Swedes. Nestled between Finland and Sweden, just 65 of the islands are inhabited, home to a mere 26,000 people, mostly farmers, artisans and service workers.

The capital city of Mariehamn, where about half of the Ålanders live, is a relatively quiet place where crime is rare. The first bank robbery in its history was in 2001 and the culprit used a toy gun. He was caught three minutes later still clutching the cash.

Russian empress Maria, the wife of Czar Alexander II, founded Mariehamn (Maria Port in Swedish) in 1861 after Sweden ceded the islands to Moscow in an 1809 truce. Today, Swedish remains the predominant language. Painters' galleries and workshops for potters, silversmiths, glassblowers and woodworkers dot Mariehamn's tree-lined streets. Each July, the Alandia Jazz Festival brings marquis names from Europe and America to dazzle crowds. About a half-hour drive east through pastoral fields threaded by sleepy aquamarine inlets stand the red-brick ruins of Bomarsund, a Russian fortress bombarded by England and France in 1854 to punctuate their victory in the Crimean War.

In August Åland celebrated the 150-year anniversary of the attack, a seminal event that led to its decision to demilitarize. The medieval Kastelholm castle on the way to Bomarsund is a favorite stop for school trips and history buffs. Built successively from the 1300s to the 1600s, it was Åland's capital during Sweden's reign as a regional superpower. Kastleholm also draws golfers to its two tournament-class courses. The lush Slottsbana (Castle course), meandering through picturesque waterways amid a backdrop of Middle Ages architecture, ranks among Europe's top 100.

But it's not historical relics or manmade attractions that move thousands of Scandinavians to pack their cars, boats and bikes to make their annual summer pilgrimages to Åland. It's the meditative, sun-drenched serenity of Åland's ruggedly elegant, unspoiled nature set in midnight-blue waters that has cultivated almost religious reverence among Swedes and Finns.

A statue of Hermes is perches along the cliffs of Kokar in Åland. Boasting more hours of summer sunshine than many southern European countries, Åland offers a bounty of summer solstice celebrations. After enduring months of wintry darkness, scores of mainland Finns and Swedes cross the sound in late June to celebrate summer's longest day. All over Åland, folks don traditional garb and get together on Midsummer Eve to sing and dance around Midsommarstaengar - towering crosses festooned with local flora and flags. Afterward, everyone feasts on marinated sill (herring) meatballs and boiled potatoes, washed down with snaps (herb-flavored vodka) until the year's shortest night is over.

Kokar, the southernmost string of islands and home to some 300 year-round residents, showcases Åland's top-of-the-world splendor like no place else. A two-hour journey from Langnas port near Mariehamn, ferryboats glide under bright, cornflower skies filled with playing seagulls and cotton-ball clouds past dozens of sea-swept wind-smoothed rapakivi - gray and pink granite outcroppings in the water.

Seal hunters were Kolar's first inhabitants, around 100 B.C. Remains of their Bronze Age settlement are on display at Otterbote, a 10-minute drive or easy bicycle ride from the village "capital," Karlby.

As an autonomous province of Finland, Åland is part of the European Union. Exempt from EU tax regulations, the island's economy thrives on duty-free trade from numerous ferryboat lines required to call at Mariehamn when plying the waters between Finland, Sweden and the Baltics. Tourism provides the bulk of jobs and some 40 % of revenues. Åland has consciously retained its homespun culture amid bustling commerce and its neighbors' high-tech prominence. Microchips may have helped other popular island nations rake in cash to complement seasonal tourism, but here potato chips are among the biggest exports.

Unlike other island oases regularly battered by hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, here the only acts of God occur in the dusky hours around midnight when the burnt-orange summer sun slinks gracefully under the horizon - only to illuminate the skies with warmth again some four hours later.

Jeane Widman-Eriksson, Norden Newspaper, July 29, 2004.

Excerpted by June Pelo


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