We all know Europe. Many of us head there for a few weeks each year to bask in the sun.
Whether it’s Spain, France, Greece, Italy or Portugal — or elsewhere on the continent — Britons know the place well.
There are few places that Brits haven’t been, and even fewer that we haven’t heard of.
But there is one place, an autonomous region that is essentially a country of its own that hardly anyone has heard of.
The Åland Islands, or Åland, is technically a region of Finland that mostly speaks Swedish, yet operates as its own country, with its own parliament, its own legislation, and even its own flag.
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Åland has had its autonomy since 1920, a decision taken by the League of Nations, and something that grants it a special place in Europe.
It is a member of the EU and uses the euro as its currency, though its relationship with Brussels is regulated in an extremely unique way.
To maintain the vital sale of duty-free goods on ferries operating between Sweden and Finland, Åland is exempt from the EU’s VAT areas, meaning goods can be sold tax-free.
Its political and economic set-up isn’t the one unique thing about Åland: the island is a truly beautiful destination, especially in the summer, where Finns, Swedes, and Estonians flock to bask in the sunshine.
With a population of just 30,000, it is the smallest of the three autonomous territories in the Nordic region, and of these people, one-third live in the capital Mariehamn.
In all, the Åland archipelago consists of 6,700 breathtaking islands, where nature and maritime history collide to create a distinctive landscape.
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The island’s history spans about 7,500 years when the first seal hunters of the region discovered the landmass and began to use its vast natural resources.
Stone Age and Bronze Age people also used it, as did those from the Iron Age and later the Viking period.
As such, Åland is filled with ancient monuments and even a castle — Kastelholm Castle — hailing from the 14th century.
The Kastelholm area in general is one of the island’s ‘must-see’ places, complete with the castle, an open-air museum, the old Vita Björn Prison which is today a Museum, as well as the Smakbyn restaurant and distillery.
Further afield is the decaying Bomarsund fortress area where, between 1809 and 1917, Finland and Åland were a part of the Russian empire. Establishing their rule, the Russians built a magnificent fortress in the 1830s that still stands today, though partially damaged due to bombing during the Crimean War.
For culture vultures there’s the Cultural History Museum of Åland and Åland Islands Art Museum, not to mention the Maritime Museum which charts thousands of years of sailing the north’s rough seas.
Mariehamn is pedestrianised and dotted with scraps of history and an array of independent shops and restaurants.
And, if getting into nature is your thing, Åland is quite literally a wilderness playground, with the Grottstigen nature trail in Geta almost untouched by humans.
The island is one of Europe’s hidden gems little known outside the Nordic world, but with a curious melting pot of cultures and a wide historical footprint, it’s not one to miss.
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