Exploring picture perfect Porvoo


Exploring picture perfect Porvoo

Go back in time with this medieval Finnish town with Quaint pastel-hued houses and a rich history

By Kalpana Sunder

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Published: Fri 18 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 18 Oct 2019, 2:00 AM

Winding cobblestone lanes, rows of picturesque wooden clapboard houses in pastel shades, and red ochre painted warehouses lining the riverbank - it could very well be an enchanting scene out of a fairy tale. I am in Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town after Turku, dating back to the 14th century, a convenient day trip from the Finnish capital, Helsinki. At first glance, Porvoo appears to be in a time warp. Wooden buildings with shutters and flower boxes line the street, many of them charming souvenir shops, other cafés and restaurants.

My home away from home is the Haiko Manor and Spa, a historic hotel set in extensive grounds with trees, and bordering the Baltic Sea a few kilometres from Porvoo centre. With period furnishing and décor, and its wellness pools and sauna, I can see why it was so popular with Russian nobility and the Tsars years ago!

Old town Porvoo is a medieval place with signature rust-red warehouses teetering on the riverside. These warehouses tell stories of sea faring and trading that the town used to be known for - they were used to store exotic goods from tobacco to coffee to spices from across the world that arrived in ships, which travelled upriver to unload their cargo here. Today, boats ferry tourists for tours down the river crisscrossed with bridges, and cafés dot brisk business.

The story goes that the warehouses were painted this particular shade of red to honour the Swedish King Gustav III of Sweden who visited the city in the late 18th century. The red ochre also protected the logs from wind and damage by the sun. Today these rustic buildings, with flowers spilling over their wooden shutters, are used as antique and book stores and souvenir shops, that entice tourists to browse, as well as cafés, restaurants and even private homes.

History echoes down every street of the town. Porvoo is believed to have been inhabited since the Stone Age, but it was colonised by the Swedes in the 13th and 14th century and later taken over by Russia. the Gothic Porvoo Cathedral, with its wooden clock tower, is originally from the 13th Century. It plays an important part in history, because Tsar Alexander I held the Diet meeting in 1809 here after taking over from the Swedes, and confirmed the new Finnish constitution, making it an autonomous Grand Duchy. This in turn, gave Finland more autonomy and religious freedom. Our guide, Minna Frondelius, explains that the historic cathedral has been burnt down or destroyed at least seven times and rebuilt - the most recent case being that of arson by an intoxicated person in 2006!

The roof shingles were recently reconstructed at a whopping cost of 5 million Euro with 37,000 pieces made by hand. Inside the church are vaulted ceilings, glittering icons, an ornate blue pulpit and even an hourglass (so that the preacher knows how long to speak). Minna tells us stories of how bodies were buried inside the church those days under the ground and sometimes the smell would be so bad that women carried mint to hold under their noses. Today it's a popular venue for weddings and christenings.

We walk uphill and downhill, through one of the oldest streets of the town called King's Street that once ran all the way up to Norway, lined with wooden houses in ochre and pista. Some houses have peculiar mirrors attached to their windows with metal legs; what Minna explains are 'gossip mirrors' and help residents know what's going on in the streets or with their neighbours without having to appearing nosy and peeking through the curtains!
Minna points to a small hill in the distance where once a mighty fortress stood, dominating the valley, which was the scene of fierce battles in the 1700s. Today this land, called Castle Hill, is full of dried moats and meandering paths with huge pine trees offering panoramic views of old Porvoo.

I wander past wooden houses with fences, and peek into little nooks and crannies, with communal courtyards, small gardens and flowers beds. Back in the day, only the wealthy could build stone houses; one such merchant home, that still stands, is the Hold House from 1763. Most wooden buildings from the time were destroyed in the fire of 1760, when half the town was burnt down 'because a housewife forgot to turn off the fish soup on the stove'.
The town has also been home to some famous Finnish people who have spent summers here - national poet Runeberg's home, built in Russian empire style, is today a museum with floral wallpaper, porcelain in glass cabinets and wooden floors. The town's bakeries sell a popular cake in his name called Runeberg's torte made from almonds, flour and rum topped with raspberry jam. The story goes that the cakes were invented by the poet's wife Fredrika, to cater to the poet's sweet tooth, with only ingredients she had in the kitchen - flour, breadcrumbs, biscuit crumbs and almonds, decorated with jam and icing. Another person who lived here and was inspired by its landscapes was famous Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt. Today his studio, which sits along the Porvoo archipelago, has been converted into a museum with some of his drawings and paintings.

Two of Finland's oldest streets, River Street and Between Street, run past the Town Hall Square with an open-air craft market. I browse small antique stores with old mirrors, tin toys, dolls houses and crockery. Many shop windows have popular Moomin characters from a series of children's books by Tove Jansson, a Swedish-Finnish author. My nose leads me to Brunberg Candy Factory Shop, one of the town's oldest chocolate shops founded in 1871 and taste its delectable truffles and chocolate kisses.

On the other side of town is the Russian-built town with buildings in the Empire style. In the 1800s, the Russian Czar took over the town and wanted to raze the inflammable buildings built by the Swedes; luckily the old town of Porvoo was not destroyed and he built his buildings on the other side of town instead. We're glad because it only adds to this with its eclectic town's multi-cultural vibe.

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