Turku: a beacon in the Baltic

The Finnish city of Turku is expecting more than two million visitors during its time as European Capital of Culture for 2011. And now's the perfect time to visit this enlightened wonderland, says Jo Caird

Turku's 13th-century cathedral is an impressive sight, standing dark and tall against the gleam of the surrounding snow-covered ground. In its shadow, shining like a beacon in the gathering gloom of the winter afternoon, is a small, paper-walled shed, its door open to welcome passers-by in from the cold.

Stepping inside this "Cot of Darkness" offers not just shelter from the bitter chill, but also a glimpse into the psyche of this port city. This artist-designed structure, along with the other "cots" dotted around the place, is part of "876 Shades of Darkness", a project celebrating Finland's long, bleak winters. It treats them as a positive resource: a time for quiet contemplation and a period in which to appreciate the power of light. Rather than bemoaning their country's seasonal shortcomings, the people of Turku view their situation with optimism and humour. It's an attitude that shines through a lot of other aspects of life here.

For centuries under Swedish rule, Turku was Finland's most important city – a centre for culture, trade and political power. Then, in the 1800s, following a power grab by Russia and the transfer of government to Helsinki, Turku's star faded. Its decline was exacerbated by a fire in 1827 that destroyed much of the city.

Turku's time in the artistic sun will begin when it becomes – along with Tallinn, across the Baltic in Estonia – European Capital of Culture for 2011. The cultural programme for the coming year is impressive. Thousands of visual arts, theatre, dance and musical events will take place under the umbrella of 150 large projects, beginning with an opening burst of events from 14-16 January. The city is expecting two million visitors during 2011.

Much of the cityscape is dominated by low-level 1970s monstrosities. But there are pockets of picturesque 19th-century architecture that provide a backdrop for some lovely city strolls. The areas around the cathedral and across the River Aura towards the Central Library are a case in point, home to both imposing terraces and the beautifully conserved, painted clapboard houses that were built for city workers after the great fire in 1827.

Leaving my cot, I set off on foot, following the course of the Aura in search of the Rittig Palace, a grand building from the 1920s that overlooks the river. It houses Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova (Old Turku & New Art), a modern art gallery with an archaeological museum underneath it. It was established when the building's foundations were excavated and the contractors discovered a warren of medieval streets. The two museums complement each other, encapsulating Turku's pride in its heritage and the city's ambition as a centre for creativity.

Heading north towards the train station, I found the building at the heart of Turku's creative ambitions. A converted 19th-century railway yard and workshop, Logomo is home to a 1,200-seat theatre and five enormous exhibition spaces, as well as a 3,500-seat

auditorium that will open towards the end of the 2011. They were still putting the finishing touches to the building when I visited, but I was awed by the extraordinary scale of the place. Think of several Tate Moderns laid next to each other and you'll get a rough idea.

The complex will host shows, concerts and exhibitions during the course of Turku 2011, including "Fire! Fire!", a year-long, interactive exhibit about the conflagration that destroyed 19th-century Turku, and The Dancing Tower, a performance featuring the Turku AB Dance Company (Aurinkobaletti). I saw the ensemble perform the witty and irreverent Catwalk and have great expectations for the new piece, which sees the dancers perform 10 metres up, atop a specially designed iron tower.

Turku is not just a good bet for urban culture opportunities: the archipelago that bears the city's name and stretches 100km into the Baltic Sea is made up of over 20,000 islands. Some of these are accessible by public transport all year round. I visited Utö, the furthermost inhabited island in the archipelago. This summer, it will host events as part of the Contemporary Arts Archipelago project.

An idyllic holiday island in summer, this tiny rock in the sea (population: 40) remains extraordinary in winter. Battered by 45km/h sleet-bearing wind, I toured its ruggedly beautiful shores. My guide was Hanna Kovanen, who also runs the bed and breakfast and keeps a small shop. Shouting to be heard over the weather, Hanna told me about the island's history. Inhabited since the 17th century, it has been at various points a customs station and naval base; its most important role, however, has been as home to the pilot-boat captains who have led countless ships safely through the treacherous, rock-filled waters that surround it. Hanna's father is a retired pilot.

In the shelter of Utö's modest chapel, Hanna pointed out the memorial to 10 American sailors who drowned when their ship, the SS Park Victory, was wrecked off the island on Christmas Eve 1947. The whole island came together to rescue the survivors from the freezing waves and shelter them in their homes. Her account occupied my thoughts long after the spectacular boat journey back to the mainland. As our craft navigated the narrow channel through the icy archipelago, hundreds of tiny, snow-covered islands rushed by, some so close together that it felt like a judicious jump would carry you from one to its neighbour.

Before leaving Turku I stopped into the Cot of Darkness one last time and was reminded of something Hanna had said during my tour of Utö. Speaking of the islanders' openness and willingness to receive new people and ideas, she'd explained: "We are not a very dark place in Finland. We are enlightened." Standing within the light-filled walls of that piece of living urban art, an example of the treats to come as part of the European Capital of Culture project next year, I saw what she meant.

Travel essentials



Getting there

Turku is served via Helsinki from Heathrow or Manchester by Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Alternatively you can fly via Copenhagen or Stockholm from Heathrow with SAS (0871 226 7760; flysas.com); or via Riga from Gatwick with Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com).



Getting around

From June to August, the M/S Aspö goes direct from Turku to Utö twice a week. From September to May, take a bus from Turku to Nauvo, then the M/S Eivor to Utö.



Staying there

Sokos Hotel Seurahuone, Turku (00 358 2 337 301; sokoshotels.fi). Doubles start at €75 including breakfast.

Utö Havshotel (00 358 2 240 5330; utohotel.fi). Doubles start at €160, including breakfast, sauna and swim.



More information

Turku Tourist Board: 00 358 2 262 7444; turku.fi

Information on Turku 2011 events: 00 358 2 262 2022; turku2011.fi

Utö information: uto.fi

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
newsTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone