Finland has 187 888 lakes and almost as many islands, but I am here for one of its oldest valleys, Naantali, where I am going to hibernate this winter. Nowadays, Naantali is known for its connection with the Moomin Valley, but of old, the connection with valley was somewhat more graceful: here, in the Valley of Grace, the Brigittine Order was established in the late Middle Ages, and the story of Naantali began.
Opposite to many other European old towns, in Finland the term ‘Old Town’ doesn’t mean winding and narrow cobblestone streets, ruinous castles with turrets, centuries old shop fronts and a lingering atmosphere of a ghostly past. No, in Finland the old towns are quaint, century or so old wooden house areas with corky corner shops and old-fashioned cafés. Naantali’s old town is one of the most famous ones in Finland, and it includes a tiny park, guesthouses, coffee shops, boutiques, and even a museum. But as it is autumn already, the doors to the tourist shops stay firmly closed, and you can only peek inside through an old fashioned, wooden framed window to the shelves full of Moomin related souvenirs. A few Finnish tourists pull a gallery door in vain – unluckily, it stays closed on Tuesdays. Not that time seems to matter much in Naantali; no, it seems to stay still, enjoying of an eternal Tuesday.
The old town’s wooden structures have bent with decades, and perhaps due to the windy coastal weather. Narrow streets in between tiny red and yellow houses lead from the leafy Puistotie (that is ‘Park Road’) to high cliffs by the sea: as you proceed from central Naantali towards the sea, the houses around get older and older. And when you reach the seashore, a pathway, locally known as the Love’s Trail, leads to a view point up to the cliffs, where you can spot speedboats gliding slowly back to Naantali harbour.
In fact, Naantali consists of both islands and mainland: the archipelago is renown for its remoteness, harsh beauty and peculiar lifestyle. Bridges connect many of the islands together and touring them by bicycle is a popular activity during summer months.
But if a lifestyle of a lonely islander, when a trip to a shop might require some heavy rowing, seems like from a children’s story, living in Naantali is not much different. Dogs and their owners greet each other’s on the streets and regulars gather for breakfast in the harbour’s restaurant, Merisali. Little kiosks sell ice cream, and banana splits are advertised on faded, neon-tinted banners. People have miniature boats, Lego castles and kitchy British paraphilia on their windowsills. And then there’s the Moomins: shops, signs and even bus stops dedicated to the Moomin World.
The harbour is Naantali’s social hub and you have plenty restaurants to choose from during the summer months – especially when you realise that only 3200 people live in Naantali proper. On top of the typical Finnish cuisine, the pizza and kebab houses, you find posh restaurants with white tablecloths, popular and tasty buffets by the seashore, and family friendly taverns tucked away in an old courtyard. Big and shiny speedboats, old wooden yachts, and, in a little area of their own, little fishing boats wait for their owners patiently. Seagulls keep their distance and a family of ducks has their daily stroll on the long platforms.
Next to the harbour, you find even more serene Naantali: the old church which marked the beginning for the town. Nowadays tall and leafy trees, a shady cemetery and an attractive park surround the church, but when it was built in 1443, there were no trees: one of the perquisites for establishing this Brigittine nunnery was to have an open view towards the sea. This, along with a few other convenient commands, was told to Bridget of Sweden in one of her visions.
Bridget of Sweden was a theologian and a visionary, but also a widow and a mother of eight. She was close to Swedish monarchs and an apt politician of her own accord – in fact, Bridget was one or the most influential women in Northern Europe in her time. During Bridget’s lifetime, Mangus IV of Sweden asked her what were the king’s duties: in a vision, Bridget got a ten point list of the duties, and duly forwarded the message to the king. First of all, and quite reasonably, Christ had advised through Bridget that the king should get rid of all his bad advisors. Secondly, and a bit more cunningly, Christ had told that the king should support Bridget’s plan for a nunnery. The king obeyed, and eventually Bridget’s followers got their own nunnery in Finland, in a valley called Vallis Gratiae, Valley of Grace. This in Swedish is ‘Nådendal, and in Finnish Naantali.
Not much is known of this nunnery – apart from one monk’s nighttime activities with some of the more adventurous Brigittine nuns. The old buildings are long gone: the church itself burned in the 17th century and is now vastly reconstructed. But inside, a special atmosphere of medieval Scandinavian piety and purity still prevails. Each day, I hear the regularly ringing church bells giving a steady pace to the slowly strolling people around.
Close to the church, you find a tall tree and underneath it a memorial for Jøns Budde. Budde translated Latin texts into Swedish in the Brigittine monastery and he is the earliest writer known by name in Finland. In Budde’s time literate Finland was largely Swedish-speaking and the country had to wait a good few hundred years for the first Finnish-speaking writer to put his pen on paper. Nowadays, Finland is a bilingual country and the coastal region is the centre of the Swedish-speaking minority: even if you hear Finnish all around, the vowels have more singsong quality in them, consonants end quicker – and the smiles and pleasantries are more easily abstracted than in the central, more Slavic parts of Finland.
In general, a unique mix of Slavic and Scandinavian atmosphere is typical in Finland, but in Naantali, the Scandinavian prevails. Naantali was a prosperous, pious and burgeoning Swedish village till the 16th century, when Protestantism came to Finland and the convent was closed: Naantali’s economy took a plunge till mid-18th century. But in the 1860s, Naantali’s first spa was established in a craze of health springs and miraculous mud baths, and the town’s reputation as a holiday destination started to spread. The spa drew a lot of gentle folk to Naantali, as it does till today, being the biggest spa in the Nordic countries.
Although Naantali is not the most obvious place to visit in Finland, even in October, when the tourist season is already long gone, you spot tourists strolling around almost on a daily basis. This morning, when walking my dog by the seashore, a Korean family got a surprise of their lifetime, as an elderly Naantali resident was having her morning plunge in the sea – stark naked. She extracted some giggles from the faraway visitors as she strolled nonchalantly on the platform towards the chilling sea.
This tiny beach with a small sandy bay surrounded by trees and sea cliffs must be one of Nature’s calmest spas on earth, open seven days a week.
Naantali truly is graced.