Where: Murmansk, Arctic Circle, North Russia
When: End of March
What Happens: Celebrating the coming of Spring with a ‘mini winter Olympics’ of winter sports & Saami culture
Remember to Bring: Plenty of warm clothes and your own skiis
Where’s the Party?
The Festival of the North is an annual regional celebration that takes place in the towns and villages of the Kola Peninsula, a region of Russia about 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The largest celebrations take place in the city of Murmansk, the capital of the beautiful but isolated Murmansk region with it’s thousands of lakes and vast Nature Reserve.
Dates for the Diary
The Festival of the North takes place every year at the end of March or beginning of April, and lasts for ten days.
What’s It All About?
During December and January Murmansk experiences a phenomenon known as a ‘Polar night‘, 2 months of perpetual darkness when the sun don’t shine at all. It’s no surprise, then, that Spring is welcomed with a festival that lasts throughout the last week of March that is both an expression of the region’s culture and an appreciation of its climate.
The first Festival of the North took place in March 1934. A whole host of sporting events take place during the week, including an ice hockey tournament, reindeer racing, cross country and down hill skiing events and underwater swimming in the icy waters of Lake Semyonovskaya.Over the years the event has attracted athletes from all around the world, and the Russian cross-country skiing team is always in attendance. It’s also the only time when many of the traditional Saami peoples come to the city to show off their reindeer and celebrate with singing, dancing, feasting and drinking a culture which has survived in the harshest conditions for thousands of years.
Everyone wishing to enter Russia as a tourist or on holiday must obtain a visa before they go. Independent travellers should contact the Russian Consulate in their home country, however if you are going on package tour through a tour operator such as Gulliver Rus, the operator will co-ordinate visa applications for the entire group.
Because the festival is well attended by sportsmen, not only from Russia but also from Europe and Scandinavia, it is advisable to book a hotel two months in advance.
Even though it’s supposed to be the beginning of Spring, Murmansk is still extremely cold in March. Bring plenty of warm garments with you, as local shops don’t have as much good winter clothing as you might expect. Nonetheless, rabbit fur insoles for your boots are a good local product, as are massive mittens which you wear over your gloves.
It is possible to hire skiing equipment quite cheaply in Murmansk, but make sure you’re fit for the slopes. If you are considering taking part in the cross-country skiing event beware that it requires more stamina than the down-hill version of the sport.
There are direct flights to Murmansk from Moscow and St Petersburg. Alternatively you can travel there by train, but they are very slow – it takes 27 hours from St Petersburg. It is also possible to travel via Norway and Finland, as Murmansk is close to the border.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels in Murmansk. Amongst the best is the Poliarnie Zori, located at Knipovicha 17, Murmansk 183039 Tel: + 7 8152 28 95 00. It is quite expensive but it offers good food, internet access, money changing facilities and cheap car rental. The only tourist office in Murmansk is located here and many of the hotel staff speak English.
Spectators don’t have to pay to watch the outdoor events, but participation in the skiing race costs about $10. Russia can be a surprisingly expensive country but Murmansk is not too bad. Alcohol and food are very cheap and so is public transport.
Once You’re There
If you are not competing in the cross country marathon the best place to view it is from the top of the hill after the first bend. It is an amazing sight as 1200 people ski uphill towards you.
The Museum of Regional Studies in Murmansk documents the city’s part in the second world war and also houses artefacts relating to the history and culture of the native Saami people. There is also a Fine Arts Museum and a Naval Museum in town.
At the harbour, you may see one of the Murmansk Shipping Company’s formidable atomic ice-breakers, as well as the numerous container ships that dock here.
The Lapland Nature Reserve is not far from Murmansk, and it is possible to arrange excursions to this vast wilderness, inhabited by wolves, reindeer and around 180 different species of birds.
The Festival of the North is like a mini Winter Olympics, the international winter sports event that takes place in a different location every two years.
Another interesting festival which welcomes the coming of Spring is the Caribou Carnival in Yellowknife, Canada. This isn’t a sporting event, but annual affair where participants can number of whacky competitions, including computer bashing, tea-boiling, igloo-building and the world’s one and only Ugly Dog And Truck Contest.
Intourist, the only tourist office in Murmansk, in located at the Poliarnie Zori Hotel, Knipovicha 17, Murmansk 183039 Tel: +7 8152 45 43 86.
Murmansk-based travel company Gulliver Rus organises tours to the Festival of the North for groups or individuals. They can also assist with visas, hotel reservations, travel and excurstions to Kola and the surrounding area.
S. Perovskoy Str. – 17
Tel/Fax: +7 8152 45 90 00 or:
+7 8152 45 63 86 / 47 64 57
By Andy Humphries