IT LOOKS quiet in Porvoo Old Town. Too quiet. I’m looking at the cathedral that dominates the skyline of this lovely old village of red-ochred wooden houses sprawling down a hillside to the river. Sadly, it was the target of an arson attack in May 2006, which destroyed its roof and damaged its priceless medieval interior.
A local 18-year-old, Kalle Holm, a drummer in various heavy metal bands, was found guilty and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. He said he was influenced by Norwegian black metal musician Varg Vikernes, who is now on day release while serving a 21-year sentence for murdering fellow musician and satanist Øystein Aarseth and burning three of Norway’s majestic stave churches. Vikernes ‘the most notorious metal musician of all time’, is big on Norse mythology and paganism.
Holm sent a text message to a friend on the night of the blaze: ‘Oops, it looks like I set a church on fire.’ A typical drummer, you might say, although it still took the local police about 24 hours to track him down. At his trial, he mentioned how he had torn up some advertising leaflets he found lying around and set fire to them, not imagining the effect it would have. The judge, Lars Karlsson, wasn’t convinced. ‘Advertising leaflets are truly dangerous. They should simply not exist,’ he said, sarcastically, I imagine.
Under that quiet small-town exterior, it seems Porvoo holds a few surprises.
The cathedral re-opened in July, putting Porvoo back firmly on the tourism map of Finland, as a pleasant day trip from Helsinki. Set on a river bend near the sea, you can see the colourful warehouses, now shops and trendy apartments but still a proposed Unesco world heritage site, where boats were tied up and their cargo was stored.
The town’s shops now trade more in the fripperies of life, rather than the furs, timber, dried fish and tar of the interior that filled the stores in centuries past to be exchanged for exotic fruits, wines, spices, coffee and tobacco.
Given that Porvoo is something of a living museum, it’s no surprise to see plenty of twee antique shops, full of the normal mix of old household utensils, tinplate signs, beaten-up furniture and memories of lives long gone.
But you’ll also find much excellent modern Finnish design, highlighting that wonderful stripped-down Nordic eye for simplicity. The Design Deli on Porvoo’s main street, for example, features a top-class selection of designers and you’ll find it hard to leave without buying something.
There are also a few excellent tea shops and restaurants, including the ‘snail restaurant’ Timbaali. No, I didn’t expect snails here either but it also features the local fish if you’re not in an escargot kind of mood. Either way, booking in advance seems wise, given the queue for seats.
Porvoo was once the second biggest town in Finland and the locals are justly proud of its history – stretching back to the 13th century. A guide will take you around the maze of cobbled backstreets, still sitting on their medieval layout, to explore the traditional timber houses, built in a time when you only had to stretch out your axe arm to get as much building material as you wanted.
Following the Finnish War of 1808-1809, Finland was annexed to Russia after 700 years under Swedish rule. Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, convened a Diet (a legislative assembly, not a slimming fad) in Porvoo in 1809, which led ultimately to Finnish independence. Seeing the buildings linked to these and other events of great significance to Finns (the first public library in Finland; the home of Finnish national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg) may leave a visitor a bit cold but the beauty of the architecture will repay your effort.
After that, you can reward yourself with a visit to The Little Chocolate Factory where, happily, ‘factory’ is a bit of an over-statement. In the tiny kitchen of a house opposite the cathedral, chef de cuisine Peter Westerlund makes exquisite chocolates. You can eat them on the spot or buy to take away. Or, if you’re as naughty as I am, both. I’m mad, I am. I guess I got carried away with being in the land of air guitar, wife-carrying, sauna and snow tango world championships… and ‘dangerous’ advertising leaflets.
I stayed at the Scandic Hotel – www.scandichotels.com