Turku is the access point for a significant volume of travellers into and through Finland, with the cheap flights from Poland and with the affordable (yet insight-offering) ferry connection to and from Sweden; accompanied by drunken karaoke groups, luxury tax-free shopping families, snus smugglers and weary backpackers trying their hardest to find anything resembling a surface to sleep on. Culture immersion.
Many travellers on more constricted budgets- like cash-strapped students- or people just choosing not to stay at fancy carpeted and sanitised hotel rooms, find the hostel culture in Turku lacking in comparison to other European towns of the same size. Consequently, more and more people looking for a more social stay turn to sharing economy in the form of AirBnB, while others choose to rely on and relate to the kindness of strangers.
Couchsurfing used to be a thing you’d see in the notices section in a newspaper, or was simply done by crashing with friends you already knew. Word spread around, and lining up hosts has become much easier, originally thanks to a homebrew community-driven website. More recently, the Couchsurfing website has been embracingly guided towards profit for the shareholders through a snazzy tech startup, fuelled by venture capital. Regardless, in pretty much any corner of the world, you can stay with old and new locals of the area.
The system is based on mutual trust and references from other members. Obviously you won’t be strangers for long, and most of the time you couldn’t ask for a better way to spend your time- whether you’re the host or the traveller.
There’s always interesting stuff going on in Turku, and plenty to see- especially during the summer months. As Couchsurfers and hosts ourselves, we wanted to know what other Couchsurfing hosts in Turku, as sort of unofficial travel guides and- most importantly- people just living, working and studying here, most often share with their guests.
We talk with Tatu Aalto, the organiser of the monthly Couchsurfing community meetings in Turku, and León van de Pavert, an active hoster of surfers.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Tatu: “I’m originally from Naantali, but now I’ve been living in Turku for almost eight years already. Most of my youth I lived in Uusikaupunki, a small town along the coast. But yeah, I’ve been living all my life in the area, except for a small half a year stint in Ghent, Belgium, where I did my Erasmus. But this was actually in 2007, before I joined Couchsurfing, so I have no contact with the locals there. Which is kinda sad, but I had plenty of student parties – I drank 76 different beers. I was gonna go for one hundred, but I had to study, so it took a little time away from drinking.”
León: “I’m just somebody Tatu picked up from the market square. (laughs) No, we just knew of each other from Ingress, and the first time we met in person was at a Couchsurfing meeting. I was just interested in it, and it was in Turku. I lived in Turku for about five years, and then eleven years ago my wife and I bought a house in the countryside, twenty kilometers north of Turku. My reason for joining Couchsurfing was to host, because I have plenty of space, I have an old ‘punainen tupa’ (‘red cottage’) and ‘perunamaa’ (potato patch).”
The Finnish dream!
León: “Yup! I have a wife and three children, two cats and and a station wagon- no dogs though- so it’s kind of like pretty standard.”
Sounds pretty good to me, especially the part about the cats!
León: “Yeah, we don’t have mice in the house. But I just joined Couchsurfing because I wanted to meet people. At the time that I joined,I didn’t have the opportunity or financial means to travel a lot. I’m originally from Delft, in the Netherlands, which is close to many borders. Delft is between Rotterdam and The Hague, to Paris it’s about 500km and to the German border it’s only about 240km. So I was used to travel. Also, because I’m Dutch, I’ve been exposed to different languages and learned to speak them. Of course English, and I can understand and speak German and French, so it was normal actually to join Couchsurfing. Mostly I’ve been hosting people. Interestingly, I’ve been hosting exchange students from the Netherlands, that have finished their studies here in Finland and need a place to stay before they leave, or are just traveling through Turku. So I just look for specifically Dutch-speaking people, because I know about the area and I can accommodate them in Dutch. I do speak Finnish, so I can interpret for them also. It’s interesting for my children, because they don’t meet many Dutch people, and it’s always nice for them just to hear different Dutch dialects, and to meet people from the Netherlands who are different from them. So it’s cultural exposure for my children also, and they’re catching a different audience with that.”
Your kids were born here in Finland?
León: “Yes, they were. Now they’re thirteen, ten and seven. My daughter, the eldest, is trilingual; because I speak Dutch to her, my wife speaks Finnish to her, and we both speak English so she also picks that up. And I’ve always been working in an international environment, so English has always been at the forefront. Consequently, having lived over thirty years in the Netherlands, it’s a very multicultural environment, and I can see that on Couchsurfing. I also see that in Turku in the universities which are also very multicultural- it’s just a place that I feel comfortable in.”
Obviously you’ve both hosted a lot of people in Turku, and have been a first contact from Turku for many people. What kind of things in town do you point out to them?
Tatu: “Well, normally what I do is that if I pick them up by car, I might do a little round trip of Turku. There’s a few things: there’s the castle, the riverside, the boats and whatnot, there’s the Cathedral obviously, and I tend to go on through Hämeentie. There’s one special spot in Kuuvuori – you can drive right next to it and you can see sort of a vista of the city, so you can see most of it. If it’s safe enough to go on the tallest rocks there – in the winter it’s a bit iffy – we go there. Then maybe through the Halinen dam site, might go down there to see that, and from there on to my apartment, which is pretty close.”
León: “It’s good that you said Kuuvuori, I should put that on my list also. I used to live on one side of it and work on the other, so we’d just walk over it frequently. But like Tatu said: along the river, the Market square, castle, just the basic spots in Turku. Also if you go past the Market Square around to the Art Museum, there’s one of the few places in the world that still has a statue of Lenin.”
Tatu: “Apart from that, I try to communicate with the guests beforehand if there’s any special things that they’re interested in. Like if someone is interested in Turku before it burned down, there is the Käsityöläismuseo (Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum) which we might go to. What’s more, the volunteers that work there, they wear costumes and whatnot. It’s really nice.”
León: “Not only that, they make them on the spot. They’re sort of like the Amish of Turku: they just really preserve everything, some of them live there year-round, and they just make everything there. I think that everything that’s there, from the curtains to tablecloths and dresses, they make them on the spot with the old trades and the old skills. That’s really nice.”
And every August they have the event (Käsityötaidon Päivät, 17th-20th August this year) when every post is manned so to speak, so you can see all kinds of things being crafted- from tobacco to pottery. (The crafts-men and -women are also free to practice or not practice any religion, even Amish.)
León: “There’s also the Åboa Vetus, Ars Nova. That’s also a very nice place to take Couchsurfers to see, if they’re interested in the historic background of Turku and Finland.”
Any other tidbits you like to share with the guests?
Tatu: “Well, I tell the basics about Turku. It’s the old capital city of Finland, and so on. Not like any boring specifics, but for example that it burned down once completely, and that’s one reason why there’s not as much old architecture.”
Yeah, and also in the past decades they just tore up all the old shit because it was unfashionable.
León: “Oh yeah, that’s known as ‘Turun tauti’ (‘Turku Disease’).”
Tatu: “Still happening. And then, I mention that Turku is nowadays- and historically as well- a big student city, because we have a handful of universities here. Apart from that, there’s a lot of very different things in Turku, and usually since the surfer/s only stays for a few nights you need to maximise the effort.”
Has anything come up as a recurring favourite thing about Turku for your surfers?
León: “I can answer that immediately. The thing is that Turku is so close to nature, there’s a lot of nature around it. Not necessarily in the town, but around Turku there’s quite a lot to find. As I said before, I live in a small village north of Turku, and I live a couple of hundred metres from a small forest and close to a bigger forest area that goes all the way to the nature park of Kurjenrahkan Kansallispuisto. In fact, last Saturday I took some people there for a forest walk. They weren’t Couchsurfers, but I just kind of approached it as a Couchsurfing event, although they weren’t staying over. But I just drove them there, walked around with them for half a day and then drove them back. So if you’re not only into going out clubbing and partying and stuff, you can just stay in nature. Especially with people that I’ve hosted from the Netherlands, because they’re from a country that’s very crowded, a country where a ‘forest’ means that all the trees are nicely planted in rows. There’s not much in the way of very old forest that’s been maintained- proper forests- in the Netherlands. It’s such a contrast with city life, and it’s so nearby [here in Turku].”
You can see from Kuuvuori and other high spots that the forests are just a couple kilometres away in every direction of Turku.
Tatu: “That’s something that I point out as well. Some surfers express their interest in nature, and we might go to Ruissalo.”
Do you take them with you to gigs and stuff?
Tatu: “Some people come here for the music as well. I hosted a couple from Ukraine that came to see a doom metal / electro gig. Not really my thing, although I do like metal. But yeah, they wanted to see this tour and this was one of the closest places to see them from Ukraine, and they also wanted to see the Turku Castle so they combined it. I actually went with them. But anyway, I love live music and it’s on my Couchsurfing profile, so if anyone is looking to go to a gig, maybe they’ll see that on my profile.”
León: “You’re a member of TYRMY (Turun Yliopiston Raskaan Musiikin Ystävät/Turku Uni. Friends of Heavy Music), aren’t you?”
Tatu: “Yeah. They host a lot of gig nights in Streetbar 95, which is very close to where I live, so I often go to their events. And should I have any surfers staying at the same time, of course I’ll invite them to join. I haven’t had that many surfers recently, since I’ve mostly been focusing on hosting the monthly Turku Couchsurfing meetings.”
A lot of travellers come to those too?
Tatu: “Yeah, should anyone be in the area, it’s quite common. And now that the summer is hopefully coming, there’ll be even more people. I won’t be around for July’s meeting though, because I’m going to Tuska Open Air festival in Helsinki.”
Do you guys have any favourite spots in Turku that stand out?
Tatu: “Cosmic (Comic Cafe) is a good place to be, I come here quite often. Apart from that, the riverside. With or without being on a riverboat. And Whisky Bar, because metal.”
León: “For me, it’s more like around Turku. It’s Vahto- the village where I live- and the forests around there. I moved to Finland for the space, and nature. Two things you don’t have a lot of in the Netherlands.”