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Åland Unto Itself

If a group of islands ever had an identity crisis it'd have to be Åland, the autonomous region so far to the west of Finland that it's closer to Sweden. Just as I'm getting people to understand my accent in Finnish, I have to start all over again in Swedish. There's a mix of Finnish and Swedish magazines in the newsagent and schools all teach Svenska but Finnish is optional.

More than 90% of Ålanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran church, but they still practice the vaguely pagan festival of dancing around midsummer poles. Okay, so the pole could also be based on the ship's mast rather than a fertilty totem, but the day before midsummer even the smallest towns decorate a pole. At the top is the Faktargubbe, who represents work and sacrifice of winter, and under this are garlands of flowers and leaves. Every village has its own particular symbols so there are sailboats and hammers depending on local industry or culture. Most of the midsummer poles are starting to whither now as they're decorated with garlands of leaves and paper flowers but you can't help but think of Wicker Man when you see these giant monments.

There's a lot of island hopping to be done in Åland because the area includes more than 6,000 skerries and and islets. You can skip right across to Turku but the ferries charge you an extra 50 euros to do it directly, so it's cheaper to stay overnight in one of the islands. Tonight I'm staying in a ecological guesthouse with a biological toilet, homemade soaps and enviro everything. It feels a little cultish but so far I haven't been asked to dance around any poles.


Sauna-o-meter: 11 managed to have one on the ferry over to Mariehamn which was accompanied by the boat's lurching.
False Swedish Friends: tryck looks tricky but after you see a few buttons you realise it just means press.
Best local dish: black bread bought at one of the summer markets - it's soaked in syrup and baked for over four hours so the nanna who sold it to me deserves all four euros she asked for it.

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