With strong showings over the last few winters, seeing the Northern Lights has been a feature of many bucket lists. Watching a curtain of green and purple light dance across the dark night sky is a sight that will remain in your memory for ever. Travelling to Scandinavia to witness this astonishing natural phenomenon is well publicised, but have you considered travelling to Russia instead? Karelia and the Kola Peninsula are an easy train journey or short flight from St Petersburg, making this the perfect winter break destination.
To see the Aurora Borealis requires luck – not only do you need clear skies, you also need to time your trip to coincide with high geomagnetic activity, when particles of gas from the Earth’s atmosphere collide with particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Sightings are not guaranteed, therefore, and so it is vital that you base yourself in a place where there are plenty of other things to do. Karelia and the Kola Peninsula fit the bill perfectly, with lots to see and unique traditions to experience.
In winter, Karelia’s myriad lakes are frozen, the branches of its huge swathes of pine and spruce forest bedecked with a thick coat of snow. Steeped in folklore, locals work hard to preserve centuries-old traditions and skills. Listen to the music from the kantele and or the jangling of necklaces worn to ward off evil spirits.
Along the shoreline of Lake Onega you’ll find scores of quaint wooden churches and cottages, hardly surprising given there are so many trees nearby. The craftsmen responsible used no nails in their construction, making them even more impressive. Base yourself in Petrozavodsk, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, and take a snowmobile ride across the ice to Kizhi, where you’ll encounter the Museum of Wooden Architecture. Further north, you could try your luck spotting the Lights at pretty Rabocheostrovsk or stop at the picturesque village of Kovda, founded in the 15th century by the Pomor, or coast dwellers. It too offers a photogenic landscape of waterside wooden structures, this time on the White Sea coast.
At a higher latitude still, you’ll encounter the nomadic Sami people in the Lovozero region. Indigenous to the far north of Scandinavia and Russia, you’ll still find Sami herding reindeer, just as their ancestors did. Take a sledge ride, pulled by reindeer or dogs, before warming up in a chum, a large tipi-like structure made of wooden poles and covered with reindeer hides. It’s an excellent opportunity to try some local food, perhaps lim, a fish soup, or vjar, meat and potatoes.
This part of Russia is a real gem and you’ll spend a good part of your trip wondering why more people don’t visit. The Northern Lights will be a bonus.