The small islands, previously owned by none other than the British, offer an alternative to Finnish life in Finland.
I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course. The Åland Islands are actually Swedish speaking and if you compare their culture and history between Sweden and Finland, there are far more similarities to Sweden than there are to Finland, apparently.
The reason why The Åland Islands are still owned by the Finns however is down to a simple conversation which took place in the 1800s.
A war/battle had just been won by the British on the territory. There were still concerns about the placement of the islands (pretty much equidistant between Finland and Sweden). The Brits saw it as a strategic area for the Russians to want to take, they were concerned about losing it.
So, the British leader of the battle sent a letter to the King of Sweden, which basically went something like this:
“We’ve got a load of islands in the middle of the Baltic sea which we don’t really have any need for, do you want them?”
“Oh well thank you very much for the offer but no thanks as we’ve still got the whole of Norway right now so we’ve got more than enough land for just a few million people, thanks but bye.”
My history isn’t that great, as you probably realise, but anyway, to the meat of the piece.
We had an opportunity to travel to The Åland Islands as part of the programme organised by the Foreign Ministry in Finland, so as a group we went. We spent a fantastic 24 hours there.
The islands consist of 29 000 people, most of them living on Fasta Åland island, classified as the mainland. The largest employer has just over 100 employees, they make plastic tubing. The capital, Mariehamn, has three traffic lights. To say the place is small is an understatement.
Last year the government collected too much tax, something most countries could only dream of. It’s operated as an autonomous region within the Finnish government, receiving grants from the mainland but also collecting it’s own taxes and spending its own money.
After a brief talk from the Parliament communications officers, we dashed off to the Åland countryside to hear a little more about the history and to drink in the beautiful surroundings.
Much like the rest of Scandinavia, the islands are beautiful and are mostly rolling countryside with dramatic seascapes.
Åland has been demilitarised now since the 1800s, they still keep forts as a reminder to the residents of the conflict-ridden past of the Islands.
The Islands are also home to the Åland Peace Institute, a charity dedicated to showing other small territories how beneficial it can be to seek peace through diplomacy, rather than warfare. They refer to this as the Åland Example, or Ålex for short.
We had dinner at Smakbyn, maybe the Islands most famous restaurant. Secluded and located in the middle of nowhere, it’s almost the kind of place you’d need to know where it was to get there. It was so good that the French member of our group felt the need to leave a review on Tripadvisor about it, then and there. That’s how good it was. They also have a shop selling their phenomenal ingredients and wines. Just expect to fork out for another mortgage if you actually want to buy any of the stuff.
We spent the evening in a private sauna and section of the Baltic sea. The Finnish tradition of staying in a sauna for as long as you can stand it before plunging into freezing cold water sounds like the worst thing for you, but I’ve never felt more energised and refreshed after. It’s just perfect to do and I’m someone who struggles to get into the sea in Spain because I usually find it too cold. Your body temperature reaches such a peak you don’t even realise how cold you’re really getting.
The following day was spent visiting the Parliament and meeting the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. The islands may be small, but they play such an important part in uniting both the Finns and Swedes, it seems.
Sadly, shortly after this, we were due to leave. We did, however, just get a chance to visit a historic ship, which is important to the island as so much of their history is embedded in shipping, understandably.
Anyway, so goodbye Åland. It was time to take the 5 hour ferry back to Finland.