Åland Islands

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    • Day 28

      Mariehamn—Queen of the Sea

      July 21, 2022 in Åland Islands ⋅ ⛅ 64 °F

      There are 6,000 islands in the Åland archipelago. (The A with an o over it is pronounced like a long O—-“Oh-land”). Many are smaller than a basketball court. Thirty of them are inhabited. We are on the largest, the port of Mariehamn.

      Åland is different. For a couple of centuries it was tossed back and forth among Sweden, Finland and Russia. Now it is its own independent, self-governing autonomous area. It has its own flag and its own parliament consisting of 30 members. Even so, the citizens pay taxes to Finland. Swedish is the official language, and one must prove that one can speak that tongue up to their standards before one can be given a certificate of residency. Such a certificate is not citizenship, however. The Åland Islands are members of the European Union and the United Nations. They have their own parliament that governs local matters, but their decisions can be overruled by the Parliament of Finland in Helsinki. The governor is nominated by the Åland Parliament here in Mariehamn, but he/she must be approved by the Finnish Parliament. The Åland Islands have been an international demilitarized zone since the close of World War I, so the autonomous region (it is not technically a state) can have no armed forces. The local parliament cannot levy taxes, but 0.45 percent of the total tax revenue of Finland is given to the Åland Islands to be used however their Parliament chooses. The area is granted one member in the Finnish Parliament in Helsinki (which has 200 members). It really gets complicated.

      Before I arrived here I was expecting the same sort of bucolic environment we found in Bornholm. That expectation changed quickly as we passed a brand new, fully equipped hospital, a small university, and what we would call a community college. There is a large shopping center with many upscale stores.

      Historically, Mariehamn derived its existence from the sea. Some of the earliest clipper ships were built here, major shipping companies were headquartered here, and a large portion of the European sailing fleet called this port home. The golden age of Mariehamn occurred in the last half of the nineteenth century when several Åland shipping companies regularly sent windjammers carrying goods all around the world. Some of these square rigged barks were in service up until the 1930’s. There is a maritime museum here that beats any other in the world with its static display of the ship Pommern. She was constructed as a cargo ship in Scotland in 1903 and carried timber from Scandinavia, saltpeter from Chile, and grain from Australia. She was bought by the Åland shipowner Gustaf Erikson in 1923 and made her last commercial voyage in 1939. Tourists wander around the ship admiring the complicated rigging, the harsh conditions and the incalculable risks of sailing in the days of the tall ships. Computerized headsets give explanations at the appropriate places onboard—the galley, the forecastle, the captain’s quarters and the crew’s mess, etc.

      The population in the islands is about 30,000 with 13,000 living in Mariehamn, but the size of this archipelago is larger than that of Greece. I think I saw at least 13,000 private boats in the two deep-water harbors here, and two-thirds of them were sailboats. From the looks of them, these boats were not cheap. Nor are the cars. In addition to the Toyotas and Saabs, there are quite a few Mercedes-Benz, Teslas, Jaguars, Audis, and BMW’s. There is an antique car club here that specializes in restoring American cars from the 1950’s. On our drive through the city today I saw a 1956 Buick and a 1958 Oldsmobile that looked as though they had just been driven off the showroom floor. Though there are no skyscrapers here, quite a few of the buildings are modern, recent and quite upscale. Mariehamn was definitely a surprise to us. This advanced, trendy urban area may be the biggest little city you never heard of. Her glory days may be past, but Mariehamn is still a very interesting place to visit.
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