Visited on: Sunday 16 September 2017
I have visited Porvoo three times, in summer, winter and autumn. The first two visits were only brief stops, so I decided to spend a full day there as it was a fine, sunny autumn day. The Porvoo area is also one of the best places on the south coast of Finland to watch the autumn bird migration, although it was perhaps a bit too early for the peak of the migration, and as it happened, the unusually warm weather in September 2017 had delayed the birds’ departure.
Leaving the hotel on a crisp, sunny Sunday morning, I walked to the underground bus station at Kamppi and caught an 848 bus. The bus set off along Mannerheimintie, skirted the northern edge of the city, and joined the motorway heading towards Porvoo, about 30 miles east of Helsinki. Turning off the motorway near Söderkulla, the bus cruised along a straight road through an idyllic landscape of fields, pine forests, rivers and pastel-coloured wooden houses. Most of the settlements in this area had names in Swedish only. Arriving in Porvoo, the bus set down its few passengers in a large square a couple of blocks south of the main road. It was still only 9 am and there were few people or cars about as I set off along one of the cobbled streets into the old town. After exploring the massive earthworks, which are the last remnants of Porvoo Castle, in the woodland at the northern end of town, I walked down to the riverside and back into the old town.
With a whole day to spare, I had planned to explore the island of Sikosaari to the south of town, but without a map, I set off along the wrong side of the river down a narrow road through woodland which eventually emerged into a semi-rural suburb of red-painted wooden houses. Spotting Sikosaari across the reedbed-fringed river, I realised that there was no way of getting to the island from this side and of the river and turned back towards Porvoo town centre. Crossing the footbridge near the yacht marina, I walked beside the road along the eastern side of the river towards Sikosaari. A quiet road lined with yellow-leaved birch trees crossed two wooden bridges over reedbeds to reach the island, from where a narrow path through woodlands led to a bird observation tower. A party of noisy kids emerged from the base of the tower, but they soon disappeared into the forest, and I climbed to the top of the three-storey tower, from where there were views across an expanse of reedbed to the distant forest-edged shore of the wide river. The town of Porvoo, with its tall-masted yachts and hilltop cathedral, could just be made out in the distance. After spending a while watching a marsh harrier quartering over the reedbeds, I decided to go and investigate a large flock of wildfowl on the far side of the river. Small groups of geese were flying in formation over the town and descending into a marshy area by the river.
Returning to the main road, I set off along a meandering boardwalk along the eastern shore of the river which led to another birdwatching tower. The geese were too far away to see, and there weren’t many other birds to see apart from a couple of lapwings, but I took some photos of the dragonflies which were sunning themselves on the wooden ledges around the observation deck. By now the weather was very warm, and as I walked back towards the town, I spotted three common lizards basking on the warm wooden boards.
When I arrived back in the town centre, large clouds had gathered, and it became rather overcast for a while. I bought some food and drink in a supermarket, before setting off to explore the town. I stopped on the main road bridge over the Porvoonjoki river to take photos of the famous wooden storehouses along the water’s edge, before climbing the steep path to the viewpoint on the opposite side of the river from the town, hoping for a good view of the town, but unfortunately, the view was hidden by trees. A path through the woods overlooking the west bank of the river gave glimpses of the quaint wooden storehouses on the opposite bank, before descending to the old town bridge, beside the railway tracks which featured as “Riga” in the Michael Caine film Billion Dollar Brain.
Crossing the low bridge, I climbed the steep, winding hill of Sillanmäki up to Porvoo Cathedral, which had been beautifully restored after an arson attack in 2006, which had caused the outer roof to collapse. The cathedral has late 13th century origins, although the present stone building largely dates from 1414-18. It suffered devastating fires in 1508, 1571, 1590 and 1708, resulting from attacks by Danish and Russian forces. It later played an important role in Finnish history as the location of the First Diet of Finland in 1809, when Finland was declared a Grand Duchy of Russia. It is a simple building comprising a nave with a steep gabled roof, whitewashed outer walls and decorative red brickwork. Inside, there is a particularly ornate pulpit and a beautiful wooden votive ship hanging from the ceiling. An 18th-century belfry stands across the courtyard.
Bright sunshine had returned as I came out of the cathedral, so I spent some more time wandering the cobbled lanes of the old town with their wood-panelled houses painted in pastel shades of yellow, pink, blue, green and grey. Down by the river, many of the houses had narrow yards leading down to the wooden storehouses backing on to the river. One of these housed an antique dealer’s shop and it was possible to wander inside the various wooden buildings on either side of the yard. The town was now bustling with visitors to the upmarket shops and restaurants lining the narrow streets around the old town hall. Crossing the old town bridge and walking along the west bank of the river, I took some photos of the wooden storehouses on the opposite bank, before catching an express bus back to Helsinki.