Mika Remes - Rodolphe Ragu - 2011-05-16
Chosen as European Capital of Culture 2011 along with Tallinn, Estonia, Finland’s fifth largest city has far more to offer than just its historic cathedral and medieval castle. Dynamic and inventive, Turku invites visitors to discover the heart of Jean Sibelius’s homeland with a programme of the arts featuring an exceptionally eclectic selection of artists.
Those from Helsinki, the capital of Finland, are always making fun of Turku and its inhabitants. The people there speak with weird accents, they say, and they don’t really know which side of the river to call home. Even the city’s artists are targeted in the endless jokes about Turku - but then, they are actually rather fanciful.
In fact, the good people of Helsinki are probably just a wee bit jealous. Turku was the capital of Finland from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century, and it wasn’t until the Russian army invaded the city in 1808 that its fortunes changed. Located too close to Sweden in the eyes of the tsar, Turku had to relinquish its role as capital to a small, obscure village by name of Helsinki. But even if today’s Turku is only the fifth largest city in Finland, it will always be the historic cradle of the nation.
Finland’s oldest city
Archeologists may have found vestiges dating from the Stone Age here, but history generally looks at 1229, the year the city was founded. Very soon after it was established, it was invaded - as was the rest of the country - by the kings of Sweden. Colonisation began, and with it came evangelisation. In 1300, Turku’s stone church became the cathedral of Finland’s first archbishop. Erected on the south bank of the Aura River, it sits nearly opposite the other emblematic edifice which bears witness to Swedish dominion of the city: the castle, one of Scandinavia’s oldest constructions. The burgeoning town developed around these two structures.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Turku, by far Finland’s largest city, had a population of over 3,000 inhabitants. First a religious and strategic military centre, it soon developed strong trade relations with Tallinn, the capital of what is now Estonia, Gdansk (then Danzig) and, naturally, Stockholm. Political connections were established between the kingdom’s capital and Turku, and the King of Sweden usually entrusted the Grand Duchy of Finland to a member of his family, most often one of his sons.
The age of power
The halcyon days of the castle of Turku began in 1560 with the arrival of new sovereigns: Duke John, the son of King Gustav I of Sweden, and John’s wife, the Polish princess Catherine Jagellon. Together they established a Renaissance-style court where Plato’s The Banquet was read and forks were used for the first time.
Even more than the castle, the entire city was entering its golden age in parallel with that of Sweden. Third largest city of the kingdom after Stockholm and Gothenburg, it was also the third to have a university. The Åbo Akademi
was founded by order of Queen Kristina in 1640.
Turku enjoyed strong political and cultural ties to the capital of a powerful kingdom and a privileged geographic position with regard to the nearby Scandinavian penninsula. These were very useful assets as long as the master of the country and even of the penninsula could hold his own against the tsar. But King Gustav IV, who was in power in 1808, did not have his ancestors’ authority. Sweden lost Finland to Imperial Russia, and Turku went with it. And the tsar, as already mentioned, moved the capital to Helsinki, which was closer to St. Petersburg.
1827: the Great Fire of Turku
The history of Turku was forever altered on 4 September 1827, when a fire began late at night in the stables of a merchant named Hellmann. In no time, the flames spread to the city’s wooden houses; two-thirds of the city were destroyed and the cathedral was severely damaged. The German architect CarlLudwig Engel was commissioned to rebuild the city, and it soon began to take on the form which is more or less the same today. Resembling many other Finnish towns, it was planned with wide, straight avenues laid out in a rather strict grid pattern in homage to the superiority of geometry.
Paavo Nurmi’s town
After being dominated by Sweden and ruled by Russia, Finland finally acquired its freedom when the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917. The 1920s were a period of great industrialization in Turku; its shipyards played a major role in this expansion. It is the same decade that saw the rise of Paavo Nurmi, the city’s legendary runner and most illustrious of the ‘Flying Finns’, with a total of nine gold medals at the Olympic Games of his decade.
A Finnish historian has defined Turku as the ‘Gateway to the West’, and it is true that the city seems to have looked westward during the whole of the 20th century. It created strong cultural and economic links with many other large European cities, beginning with dear old Stockholm.
In the 1960s, the city was again ravaged, this time by an illness called ‘Turku Fever’ - a real estate fever, that is. But even if the epidemic managed to engulf part of the old city and its architectural heritage, Turku still clearly expresses its identity and origins. Most of the inhabitants speak Finnish, of course, but a small percentage of the population continues to speak Swedish.
The city has never given up its cultural vocation, as seen by the Sibelius Museum, the only museum in Finland entirely devoted to music, and the celebrated Animation Department of the university’s Arts Academy. And with the renovation of Logomo, the urban cultural centre, Turku has everything it needs to joyfully play the role it was awarded in 2006 by the European Parliament in Brussels.
Turku’s Year of Culture: culture, health and well-being
Turku 2011 features 150 cultural events and offers 5,000 different activities, including concerts, a heavy metal music festival and artistic exhibits and manifestations.
The hub of activity is the Logomo Centre of Culture. Below are just a few of this year’s myriad cultural rendez-vous.
The Tero Saarinen Company is one of the foremost names in European contemporary dance. At the Logomo on 6 and 7 May, this group of eight dancers performed their dance and music production Borrowed Light, inspired by the Shaker religious movement. The Boston Camerata, one of the world’s leading early music ensembles under the direction of Anne Azéma, performed the music.
On 18, 22 and 25 August,the renowned Finnish soprano Karita Mattila will perform Viva La Diva! in the park of the city’s castle in the company of renowned bass and Turku native Matti Salminen and tenor Jorma Silvasti. A theatre that can accommodate 5,000 spectators will be set up in the park.
Turku revives the Middle Ages by organising tournaments and artisanal workshops during the Medieval Market, held 30 June to 3 July on the great market square.
Ruisrock, the oldest rock festival of the Nordic countries, is held in the magnificent environment of the island of Ruissalo. This year, the festival by the sea will take place 8 to 10 August. Top billing goes to groups such as The Prodigy, Bullet For My Valentine, Hurts and The National along with the popular Finnish groups Apulanta, PMMP, Von Hertzen Brothers and Amorphis.
Finns can hardly survive without saunas. Five native artists have created new designer saunas for the summer festivities, giving this age-old custom a decidedly modern twist.