Turku, Finland, is a quiet place. Until the Russians moved the capital to Helsinki in 1812, Turku enjoyed a good six centuries as Finland's most important city. But these days, it's a town of shipbuilders and university students, known for its medieval castle and especially for its proximity to the vast Baltic archipelago, where many Finns summer.
I am in Turku for reasons of geography. Abutting the ocean on Finland's southwest coast, the town is about as far west in the country as you can go without hopping a boat. And with my friend Jason riding shotgun, I plan to drive east across Finland—following a route known as the King's Road—over the border into Russia, and continue on to St. Petersburg and Moscow, Mother Russia's capitals old and new. I love Scandinavia, with its liberal tendencies, rule-abiding civility, and excellent furniture design, and to combine that experience with its complete opposite—a trip by car into Russia, a burgeoning Wild West of a country that I was raised to fear—well, that is a study in contrasts too wonderful to pass up. The King's Road will provide the perfect narrative link.
This route, generally speaking, is the one by which Swedish kings plundered eastward into Russia, and by which Russian czars plundered back after the balance of imperial power shifted. Now heavily promoted by Finland's tourist board, the King's Road stretches from the country's western coast to its Russian border. There are plans to have the Russians extend the road as an official tourist route all the way to St. Petersburg, but Russia has a million things on its post-Soviet to-do list (crush corruption, build decent highways, secure their nuclear weapons caches) and making brochures for a road-trip route probably isn't near the top of it.
We have been staying in Turku to absorb the mood of the ancients—and to eat some moose casserole at Angels restaurant, where our waitress handed us glasses of glogg, the traditional mulled wine of winter, before we'd even unfolded our napkins. Turku is home to Finland's National Cathedral and to its oldest medieval castle, both of which date to the 13th century. The castle (damaged numerous times, most recently by Russian bombers during World War II) is sprawling and well preserved—and, as a former favorite of Swedish kings, it forms a good western bookend to the trip.
In reality, the King's "Road" is really a route, cobbled together from history, hearsay, and some highways, but more often from byways, which wind through pine and white-birch for-ests and border mud-dy fields dotted with Nordic A-frames, country manors, and stone churches. Most likely it follows the old royal postal route: that would explain why it veers so often through quaint country villages. For a handful of miles outside of Turku, it joins with Finland's main highway, a pristine four-lane called the E18 that is heavily festooned with air- and road-temperature displays and yellow moose-crossing signs.
Tommi Karjalainen, the Turku resident who took us to Angels the previous night, had warned us about the moose: this being hunting season, the animals are agitated and often on the move. Because I ate moose for dinner and therefore fear karmic retribution, and because every few miles there is a white silhouette of a moose stenciled on the road, I drive carefully—very carefully—and we make it to Helsinki without a single sighting.
It is said that up to 80 percent of Finns have saunas in their homes, which makes sense: they invented the things, and their country is so profoundly cold. Seppo Pukkila, a Helsinki photographer and a board member of the Finland Sauna Society, which meets in a clubhouse perched on a peninsula in Helsinki's western suburbs, greets Jason and me in the locker room wearing only a towel. We had debated whether or not to bring bathing suits, and this seems to confirm that our decision—not to—was the right one.
"There are two types of towels at the sauna," Seppo proceeds to tell us. "This large one, which you wear in the common areas, and a smaller one you sit on in the saunas to prevent your ass from getting burned." I look around for a bath towel. "In Finland, we have no issues with nudity," he says, and hands us two towels about the size of dishrags. "Get undressed." Soon enough, we're sitting inside a dark room that's lit by a tiny window and is redolent of burnt wood. This is a smoke sauna, the most traditional type, and it's far more authentic than those Ikea-style pine jobs you find at the health club. The Sauna Society is a sort of country club where you go to sweat for sport.
Sitting around us on two levels of benches is a naked slice of Finland's upper crust. On his way out of the room, one member dips a ladle into a bucket of water and drops it on the stove, producing a blast of fresh steam. There is a hiss and almost immediately my skin feels seared, my throat goes dry and my eyes begin to water. The temperature soars and the Finns love it. Seppo says that he and some other diehards had a competition to see who could sit in the sauna through the most ladlings of water. He threw in his tiny towel at 13; the winner outlasted 15.
After one, Jason and I begin to wilt.
When chatting with most any Finn about what you have done while visiting the country, he or she will surely ask if you have enjoyed a sauna. And it is not until I have that I notice something: along the King's Road, every farmhouse, country house, and manor house has a small wooden building out back with a chimney spewing steam.
Outside Helsinki, things get rural again quickly. The King's Road more or less hugs the coast, making tiny loops off of the main road that send us through villages and farm towns. The poster child for quaintness is unquestionably Porvoo, the best-preserved medieval town in Finland. Red storehouses line the Porvoo River, awaiting boats with supplies from the Baltic Sea, and cobblestoned streets pitch steeply up the hill into town.
We overnight in the sleepy port city of Kotka, then cover a particularly beautiful stretch, which includes 20 miles on dirt roads through a wet pine forest, to the Russian border, our trip only half over. Huge guard towers loom, remnants of a time when this was a very tense crossing point, the exact spot where West became East. I don't expect our transit to be seamless, and it isn't. Everyone had assured me that Russian border guards speak English. They do not, nor do they always provide customs forms in English. I spend at least 15 minutes futilely gesticulating at a booth full of implacable guards before a translator is located and we are unleashed upon Russia.