Sombre, drab and little buzz in Turku

Arriving in Turku on a late Monday afternoon and being enveloped by its sombre drabness - it's hard to imagine that this used to be Finland's most important city.

Turku was the first capital of Finland from 1809 to 1812. And until the end of the 1840s it remained the largest city by population.

I'm here for the unveiling of the mega ship, the Allure, built by STX Europe so I'll admit I don't have time to visit the more popular tourist sites - Turku's 1280s castle and its cathedral.

Neither do I walk along the corridors of a museum.

With limited time in the city, I do what any savvy traveller would do, and head to the centre to get a feel for the place.

The problem is nobody else is there.

It's hard to miss Market Square smack in the city, namely because it's a massive square and it is ... empty.

I had envisaged it thronged with stallholders, Finns doing after-work shopping, engaging in lively banter, perhaps a "live" band - the sort of thing we come to expect in the market squares that are central to local life across Europe.

Instead, there are a straggle of perhaps three stands - one of them selling ice-cream, a hamburger joint and an al fresco cafe. None of them have any customers.

As I walk along one of the town's main downtown streets, Linnankatu, towards Market Square, I am struck by how grey and utilitarian many of the buildings are.

Very little appears to have been done to make the store fronts look appealing. Displays are functional and the predominant colours are brown and grey.

If I didn't know better, I would have thought the communists had come through and set up camp in the city's planning department.

Functional is a word that could describe Turku. The architecture is more practical than aesthetically pleasing.

The service in the restaurants isn't especially bad but it's not good either. But I couldn't feel any kind of "buzz" in the city.

Later on, I meet a journalist from the former Czechoslovakia, who tells me that Turku reminds her of Slovakia "before the revolution".

Defeated, I wander into a nondescript building in search of a supermarket, and find myself in Hansa Emporium.

All the bustle and colour lacking in Turku seems to flourish in this mall with its glass-covered ceiling allowing plenty of natural light into the building.

Turku has H&M and Zara and clothes in both are pretty cheap by Australian standards.

Before my trip, I'd read about how prohibitively expensive Finland is and that I would need a bank loan even to buy food from the supermarket, let alone shop.

The former is true - in one restaurant I went to which was more like a Starbucks with food spaghetti costs about 14 euros ($A19) and a 200g steak will set you back 30 Euros ($A42.20).

However, it is possible to go cheap as the city is dotted with plenty of pizzerias and burger joints, presumably because of the student population at the University of Turku.

And supermarket prices are reasonable. For 11 euros ($A15.50) , I buy cleanser, two small cartons of juice, a chocolate milkshake, a large box of grapes (1.5 euros or $A2.10) and a medium-size bag of chips.

As I stroll back to my hotel, I walk past Hesburger, the Finnish equivalent of McDonald's. A cheeseburger meal there is 5 Euros ($A7). They are heavily promoting a curry burger and I make a mental note to try it before I leave.

Apparently, some years back there was a minor scandal of some kind involving this fast food restaurant. Hesburger had bought out burger rival Carrols, causing outrage among Helsinki residents who bristled at the idea of their burger chain being eaten up by a Turku-based burger chain.

The next day I bump into the same journo from Slovakia. She spent the whole night walking around the city centre desperate to find some nightlife and ended up in a "strange karaoke bar with old people ... no decor, just chairs, tables and a karaoke machine".

Unless you are in Turku on business, such as STX Europe's shipyard, I can't think of any reason why anyone would visit.

The city has been designated the European Capital of Culture in 2011 and for the year it will organise a series of cultural events aimed at celebrating European culture and diversity.

At first Turku would seem like an odd choice, out of place with the previous city designates such as Paris, Athens, Florence, and Madrid.

However, the European Commission points out "a city is not chosen ... solely for what it is, but mainly for what it plans to do for a year that has to be exceptional".

While others may disagree, to me Turku lacks what is essential for any city or town centre. Atmosphere.

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