Take it easy in Porvoo

Talk of town: A row of red houses along the Porvoo River   -  ISTOCK.COM

A day trip from Helsinki, this Finnish town is not a place to visit with a checklist

In a country where over 75 per cent of the land is forest area, there is nothing greatly surprising about houses or even entire towns built of wood. Until the last century, this was true of most of Finland, but now the few remaining wooden towns serve as living showcases. Porvoo (pronounced Por-voh) is one such example. About 800 years old, it is the second oldest town in Finland after the erstwhile capital of Turku.

Walking on the undulating cobblestone lanes of the old town is an exercise in history, even though modernity in the form of steel and concrete has taken over the satellite neighbourhoods. The residential area of old Porvoo sprawls down a hill right by the river Porvoo (Porvoonjoki in Finnish). “Yes, we are very creative that way,” my guide says dryly about how everything of significance in the town is named Porvoo.

While most of Finland has shrugged off its Swedish heritage (the country was part of the Swedish kingdom for 700 years until 1809) , Porvoo has managed to retain the legacy. Signboards across the old town are in both Finnish and Swedish, and most of the 800 residents speak both languages. In fact, the old Swedish name for Porvoo still remains (signs on the highway mention both Porvoo and Borga).

Not everyone who comes to Porvoo — or even lives there — is in awe of this history, though. As we walk into the town cathedral, I hear a bit of trivia that illustrates this point beyond doubt. In 2006, a very inebriated young man wondered if the shrine’s wooden roof would burn when lit with a matchstick. It did, and the 15th-century cathedral went up in flames. When it was initially built, not just the roof, but the entire building was made of wood. But because it often caught fire— and it was not always arson — the cathedral was given a new design. After the 2006 incident, the roof was rebuilt at great expense. The cathedral once again welcomes Lutheran worshippers and others, as it always has.

Stray arsonists aside, Porvoo has always attracted artists of all varieties — from Tove Jansson, the creator of the bestselling Moomin comics, who spent childhood summers in the town and came back regularly as an adult, to 19th century painter Albert Edelfelt, who was born in Porvoo and spent much of his life there. Through my walking tour, I have half an eye and the entire mind tuned towards the free retreat that the town hosts in the summer months, especially embracing creative writers and poets.

It is early summer, but the steamboats from Helsinki are already full of people coming in for the day, tourists for the sights and others for the food. Dozens of craftspeople have set up stalls at the small market square in front of the town hall, and art galleries wink at visitors with their charming window displays. I remember reading that even way back in the late 19th century, Porvoo’s dining scene was a draw for Helsinki residents. Sure enough, the al fresco cafés and bakeries are buzzing at midday with people pulled in by the lure of fresh salmon.

And the delicious Runeberg cakes! Soft almond pastries topped with frosted icing and a dollop of raspberry jam, these were created by a local baker and dedicated to the 18th century poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who was believed to have enjoyed these confectioneries for breakfast every morning. How can one not love a town that named a beloved cake after a poet, and a country that ritually eats this cake every year on his birthday (February 5)? As if to reinforce Porvoo’s status as a haven for creators, both the national poet’s manor house and Edelfelt’s art studio are still well preserved and open to visitors.

Porvoo special: Runeberg cakes, made with almonds and raspberry jam   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Cathedrals and cakes are all fine, but I am impatient to see Porvoo’s most recognised landmark — the row of red houses along the river. Given Porvoo’s significance as a trading post, these were meant to be warehouses to store food and wine coming in from and going out to other parts of Europe. They were painted a rusty red in honour of Sweden’s King Gustav III, when he visited Porvoo in the late 1700s. Now, these restored red buildings with sloping roofs serve as bars and restaurants, boutiques and private homes.

Porvoo is not a place to visit with a checklist in mind; it is where you go to slow down, breathe deep and eat well. And on that warm summer day, I manage that spectacularly.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

Travel log

 

> Getting there

 Fly Finn Air nonstop from New Delhi to Helsinki, from where Porvoo is just 50 km by road.

> Stay

The Haikko Manor and Spa is perfect for a quiet luxury stay and sauna experience; haikko.fi/en

> BLink Tip

Shop for artisanal chocolates at the Brunberg chocolate factory in the old town.

Published on June 28, 2019

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