16 October 2012

Porvoo

Katarina at Staghallen Brewery in Åland told us that Porvoo was her favorite place in Finland. Natalia at our homestay in Sevettijärvi told us she got married in Porvoo.  It's easy to see why this place stirs up such emotion in people.  Porvoo is the second oldest city in Finland and it's this perfect combination of elements.  There's the Porvoo river, the parkland around, old wooden storehouses and a copper-topped historic cathedral.  It's all centered upon the Old Town square, relatively 'new' in terms of this nearly thousand year old town.  Built all a'scramble in that winding, clumped medieval style, the Old Town was nearly re-gridded for ease and logic in the late 1800s.  The people of Porvoo protested and straight lines and streets were set up elsewhere.  Even then, the Finns new that this place feels special, you they fought to preserve it.
Porvoo is only an hour by bus from Helsinki. Since the capital itself doesn't really have an "Old Town" per se, it's a little like the city's European Medieval Charm - cobbled streets, labyrinthine lanes -  has been outsourced to Porvoo.  A bit of tweeness has understandably sprung up around the main knobby square, at the foot of the old Porvoo Cathedral.  The church is one of Finland's oldest and largest, mainly built in the 15th century with some parts dating back to the original 13th century.  The centuries that followed brought fires, bombs, arsonist attacks.  It also brought the first Diet of Finland in 1809, which declared the country's autonomy from Russia. If buildings were quilts, there'd be a square commemorating each milestone in the life of the Porvoo Cathedral.  Wooden beams here, stone there, patches of repairs that span 700 years.
The stores and restaurants around the cathedral follow along those lines, a 'times gone by' aesthetic, offering the best little nuggets from the past.  There are antique shops, second hand clothing stores, vintage prints and toy boutiques, candy wrapped in retro packaging, tin crowns and wooden swords.  Anything that makes you think "pleasant, pretty Porvoo" and "the past."
There's also a country chic feel of wicker and floral decor. Leather jacket and denim are ditched for knits and tweeds.  Daytrippers eat it up, quenching their thirst for old world European charm before heading back to the big city to soak up stylish modernity.
Though, honestly, if they just spent the night they'd feel the full thrust of youthful energy right here.  With so many options in such a small place, it was actually easier to swing and not miss here in Porvoo than it had been in Helsinki.  We chose casual pub food at an old chemists-turned-bar with live acoustic music, but were very tempted by the fancier restaurant Timbaali which has a whole menu of locally farmed escargot.  There may or may not have been sirens in the night and some vomit around the ATM machine on Sunday morning to signal how hard some in Porvoo actually party.  Bottom line is that this isn't just a museum town, but a vibrant mini city that's worth more than just a few hours during the day.
When we went into the brand new Art Factory culture center to visit the tourist office and stumbled upon an Eko Fair of green businesses, a dance troupe of young women practicing in the hallway and a restaurant called Bistro Sinne a'bustle with brunchers.  Sinne calls itself a 'bistro,' but the presentation and taste were fine dining all the way.   Everything was locally sourced and treated like rare jewels.  No wrinkled mushrooms or over dressed greens here.  A blazer wearing family of twelve sang Happy Birthday in three part harmony at a long table in the center of the dining room.  It rendition was so classy that no one even applauded after (our own few claps went, mostly, unnoticed). 
The Art Factory is on the western shore of the Porvoo river, which fills with kayakers in the summer months.  This side of the river is the newer New Town, residences built at the very end of the 20th century.  There was concern about new housing so close to the historic center, as well as the new bridge it would necessitate.  The answer was simple and actually quite beautiful.  The new houses are red and rust orange, a modernized mirror image of the historic wooden red storehouses across the water.  There's some green and yellow evoking the trees and painted houses of the Old Town, which peak up above the line of red buildings on the other side.  A dappled reflection.  (Above, the eastern shore). 
Though there are sights to see, the thing to really do in Porvoo is stroll.  Our ramble brought us to the Old Railway Station.  On six Saturdays per year, a 'museum rail car' brings tourists from Porvoo to Helsinki.  There is an ironmongers workshop in one old station building and a souvenir shop in another, both closed when we visited in October.  What we were struck by was the collection of decaying trains.  In use from the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1990s, the trains now just sit around - their wood warping, paint chipping and metal rusting.  These relics are mementos, artifacts.  But they are also just leftovers, scraps.  They were really beautiful on an autumn afternoon, that time of year when even bright sunshine somehow seems somber.
The train graveyard, as it really felt, gave a feeling of age that no old cobbled square could.  You could really sense the passage of time, the years coating windows with film, yellowing curtains and separating wooden boards.  Gaps here, scrunching there, the wood resembled an aging set of teeth.  Porvoo is a place that city dwellers come to have country elegance and a slower, refined pace. Fresh air and room to breathe.  It's a place where people from the islands of Åland want to come ashore.  It's a place where young women from above the Arctic Circle want to get married.  It is storybook in a very Finnish way.  What I mean is, it doesn't need to scream 'happy ending,' but rather 'we've had some pretty good times, haven't we?'

No comments:

Post a Comment