As we headed along the river and out into the islands, I remember thinking of what military life must have been like for soldiers and sailors in the archipelago. The weight of history and the significance of this region militarily literally loomed large as we past the grand naval vessels moored by the famous Forum Marinum. Of course the reason my focus of thought paid close attention to these ships was because our destination for the next two days was the former military base on the island of Örö.
Our journey began from Turku’s guest marina aboard Roger Granlund’s taxi boat. There are many ways to get out to Örö but as a boat is required at some point it made sense to enjoy the last rays of summer as we gently cruised through the beautiful inter-island channels. It is a two and half hour journey that I highly recommend, as you pass by the secluded summer cottages around Pargas before getting out to some more rugged and rocky scenery closer to Örö.
No longer a base for the armed forces but now part of the national park, Örö is one of the most recent military islands to be turned into a tourist attraction and opened up to the public. You can go to my previous blog to read about another on the island of Katanpää. Like Katanpää in the north, Örö was selected for its strategic position, and formed part of a strong chain of fortresses built during Tsarist Russia in the lead up to the First World War. It provided a close guard for any military vessels moving up the Gulf of Finland towards St Petersburg.
Whilst on the island we were given a tour and shown some of the enormous artillery weapons. Only when stepping inside the battery position for one of the 12-inch Obuhov guns do you properly realise the size and power of these machines. Both my children could have squeezed inside the shell cavity (don’t worry, I didn’t let them try!), and the impressive machinery hidden below was a poignant reminder of the dangers Northern Europe once had to live with. At the top of the battery we had a great view of the archipelago to the south as the last few islets dotted the horizon before the proud sight of Bentskär lighthouse pierced the vista. Bentskär is the site of a famous battle of WW2 during which the guns on Örö were busy pounding Russian forces. I have visited Bentskär in the past and now that Örö is accessible it is a must for anyone new to the area that you visit both destinations in the same trip.
Accommodation for the night was in one of the apartment buildings that once served as the officer’s quarters. A five-minute walk from the restaurant and the harbour, these apartments weren’t luxurious but were extremely well renovated and very spacious, comfortably sleeping 6 adults.
Our view from the window was a purple blanket of wild thyme and our neighbours were a few sheep who were of intense fascination to my 3-year-old. There is also a hotel on the island as well as hostel so the options are extremely varied. Even late in the summer and out of school holidays the island was busy with visitors, but fortunately the peaceful atmosphere wasn’t broken.
For dinner we ate at the 12” Restaurant run by the owner and host Carl de la Chapelle. The food was excellent and my steak was perfectly cooked but rather than go on about what we had to eat what I was really impressed with was the service. From a customer service perspective, Finland doesn’t have the best reputation, but our waiter, Jesper, blew all the stereotypes out the water (pun intended)! Sensing that the patience of my children was wearing thin, he jumped to the rescue by showing them some magic tricks. Not only this but he also had a good sense of humour and really added to our experience with his friendly and relaxed manner. I discovered from Carl that he wasn’t the only member of the staff with an engaging personality as it is something they look for from the students they hire during the summer season.
Alongside the military history (of which we only saw a small part) the island offers plenty of nature trails and swimming beaches. I look forward to visiting again, perhaps as part of a kayaking trip, but particularly as they haven’t yet finished with their plans for the island. Either way it is fantastic that Örö is now available for people to experience – or rather at least now you don’t have to join the Finnish army to do so!