THERE’S a lot you can learn from hailing a taxi and Minna, the cabbie who picks me up outside Turku’s station, doesn’t disappoint. I quickly learn that Turku was Finland’s first city and original capital, that a long-mooted high-speed rail link will halve the journey time between Helsinki to an hour and that, while Helsinki gets all the glory, Turku boasts myriad attractions, not least of which are a small 13th-century castle and the country’s oldest cathedral.
Now it’s easier than ever for us Brits to discover the delights of Helsinki’s underdog. Wizzair is to commence the UK’s first direct flight to Finland’s south-western gateway from Luton tomorrow (returns from £46, wizzair.com). It’ll run on Thursdays, Saturdays and Tuesdays, enabling long weekends, and appears a canny move: nothing girds the modern traveller’s authenticity-seeking loins than an off-the-radar destination.
I also learn from Minna that Turku has suffered some 30 fires. After the latest, in 1827, town planners belatedly widened grand streets and introduced lots of greenery, creating the attractive facade and calm demeanour it enjoys today.
Such adjectives also apply to the indoor, food-focused Turku Market Hall, a century old and full of charm (kauppahalli.fi). There’s a bar in the style of a vintage train and locals buying radishes and reindeer meat. I gobble cold-smoked pike roe at Herkkunuotta, served with sour cream on malty ‘archipelago bread’, then Finnish Emmental at Juustopuoti. A few stalls along, MBakery has won national awards for its cakes, with the ‘Kiss my Turku’ variety seeing dark chocolate coat a passionfruit and strawberry sponge. Ah yes, ‘Kiss My Turku’. Historically, Turku has been referred to as the arse end of Finland for its geographical position — hence this cheeky slogan.
Having awakened my stomach, I sate it fully at 36-seat Kaskis, Turku’s highest-profile restaurant thanks to a new Michelin Guide inclusion. The tasting menu peaks with some preposterously tender baby lamb. The salmon roe-topped rainbow trout is also the tastiest I’ve ever had. Beware: you need to book weekend visits months in advance and it doesn’t open for lunch (€65 for five courses, kaskis.fi).
If you’ve left it too late, there’s a savvy alternative. Atop a brand-new funicular is Kaskis’s sister restaurant, Kakolanruusu, a low-ceilinged, low-lit affair where I devour exactly the same trout dish with exactly the same relish (three courses from €31, kakolanruusu.fi).
No reservations are needed here, perhaps because this area, Kakola, is so new — there is still building work going on. I buy ethically sourced coffee at Frukt and try raspberry sour ale next door on the Kakola Brewing Company’s terrace.
Below flows the Aura, Turku’s river and the focal point of a walkable city. On warm weekends, students — who comprise a fifth of the 190,000 population — sun themselves on its banks before restaurant and bar barges heave at night. I rent an electric boat from Låna (€59 per hour, lanaturku.fi) and sail upriver to the start of Turku’s archipelago, past mighty warships and signs in Finnish and Swedish (most locals speak both). If you stay longer, it’s easy to spend nights further out: the Archipelago Trail (visitturku.fi/en/archipelago-trail_en) can be followed by car, bike or on foot in a day, or small, family-run hotels await on lush isles.
I return to the stylish Turun Seurahuone, a just-opened hotel with art-filled rooms and, near-compulsory for Finnish accommodation, a sauna. Later, airport-bound, I think again of Minna’s pride in the city I have discovered, an unshowy, spunky place of fabulous food about which few know. Kiss your Turku? I just did.