Umeå 2014: a year of highlights for the European Capital of Culture

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Looking at Umeå, it’s easy to see why this likeable town, the capital of Västerbotten County and part of NorrlandSweden’s northernmost province – has been granted the title of European Capital of Culture for 2014. Its attractive riverside setting, year-round outdoor activities, abundance of cultural events and vibrant student population all work in its favour.

As do its roots: Umeå’s beginnings stem back to the 14th century, though the land on which the town is built had been used by the nomadic Sámi as grazing land for their reindeer for millennia prior to that. Sámi culture plays an important part in this year’s celebrations. And if that weren’t enough, Umeå has also produced a disproportionately high number of famous sons and daughters, including novelist Stieg Larsson, bands, fashion designers and numerous athletes, including two Olympic gold medallists.

Winter trees laden with snow in Ume. Image by Victoria Sjöström Photography / Flickr / Getty Images.

Winter trees laden with snow in Umeå. Image by Victoria Sjöström Photography / Flickr / Getty Images.

Throughout 2014 Umeå is hosting a non-stop programme of cultural events (www.umea2014.se/en) as a joint venture with Sápmi (www.visitsapmi.com) – the land of the Sámi. Umbeje, as Umeå is known to the Sámi, is part of the cultural region traditionally inhabited by the reindeer herders that encompasses the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The events of this year are divided into the eight seasons of the traditional Sámi calendar that’s tied to the different periods of reindeer herding; Bildmuseet (www.bildmuseet.umu.se/­eng) is showcasing Eight Sámi Artists (one for each season), while Västerbottens Museum (www.vbm.se) focuses on different aspects of Sámi life and culture.

Here's how to experience the best of Umeå's highlights across all eight Sámi seasons this year.

Deep winter, the perfect time to hit the snow in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Deep winter, the perfect time to hit the snow in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Deep winter (Dálvvie), 30 January–27 February 

The opening weekend events (31 Jan–2 Feb) drew heavily on the Sámi theme, with the Burning Snow sound and light show creating a ghostly teepee on the frozen river and Rådhustorget (the main square) filling with Sámi lavvu (temporary teepee-like dwellings), reindeer, and smells of cooking, courtesy of Slow Food Sápmi (www.slowfood.sapmi.com; Swedish only). This is the darkest and coldest time of the year, the perfect backdrop for ice sculptures and fires and laser shows by Lit City. It’s also prime time for viewing the Arctic’s most spectacular show, the Aurora Borealis, in the skies around Umeå and for taking to the snow in husky-drawn sleds, horse-and-sleigh combos and snowmobiles, or else under your own steam – on cross-country skis and snowshoes.

Witness the mesmerising dance of the Northern Lights in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Witness the mesmerising dance of the Northern Lights in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Early spring (Gijrradálvvie), 28 February–29 April

This is an even better time for winter activities around Umeå, as the weather gets milder and daylight hours start to increase. The city will see an exuberant celebration of Sámi Week with art shows, handicrafts exhibitions, lectures, films, theatre and dance at the Västerbottens Museum and elsewhere. In the last week of March, Umeå hosts Open Grand Slam 2014, one of Sweden’s largest indoor rock music festivals, while the annual Spring Forward Festival, dedicated to modern dance, takes up residence in Umeå’s NorrlandsOperan (www.norrlandsoperan.se) during the last weekend in April.  Meanwhile, international and Swedish authors descend on the city as part of Littfest (www.littfest.se).

True spring (Gijrra), 30 April–19 June

As the river and lakes become free of ice, Umeå residents exchange snow-related activities for water-based ones: fishing, canoeing and boating. Västerbottens Museum focuses on the revival of traditional Sámi crafts (www.samiduodji.com) – textiles, leatherwork, silversmith creations, bone carving – in Made in Sápmi (2 Mar–28 May). Audio entertainment is courtesy of NorrlandsOperan – an orchestral interpretation of homegrown hardcore band Refused in The Shape of Punk To Come (8–9 May), while Stadionmusik (18–19 Jun) presents ‘a collision of sport and music’ involving athletic routines.

Early summer (Gijrragiessie), 20 June–10 July

Days are longest as Arctic Sweden is lit by the midnight sun and it’s prime time for dining al fresco on boat-restaurants moored on the river; grilled fresh herring is a favourite. Umeå (and the rest of Sweden) shows its pagan roots with an exuberant celebration of Midsummer involving maypoles, dancing, traditional song, food and plenty of drinking. Though Umeå is primarily known as a heavy metal capital of Sweden, A Choral Midsummer Night’s Dream (17–21 Jun; www.umeachoraldream.se/­en), Umeå international choir festival, shows the town’s more mellow musical side.

Summer (Giessie), 11 July–28 August

Summer festivals take advantage of the warmest time of year, with the U x U festival – a mix of music, film and art – held in Hedlunda Park (19 Jul) and other venues, including a river barge.  Richard Strauss’ Elektra opera is performed outdoors by NorrlandsOperan (14, 16, 19, 21 and 23 Aug) at the old military barracks.

Sweden's wildlife, like elk, are a core part of local life in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Sweden's wildlife, like elk, are a core part of local life in Umeå. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

Early autumn (Tjakttjagiessie), 29 August–9 October

Traditionally this season sees reindeer building up fat for the winter and surplus male animals slaughtered for food. Fittingly, food with take pride of place during autumn's events in Umeå. Locally sourced seasonal ingredients such as mushrooms and game dominate dining tables at this time of year. Try Rex Bar och Grill (www.rexbar.com) or sample a variety at the Food Festival (17–21 Sep), which celebrates the autumn harvest with themed food tents, a focus on Sámi food and cook-offs. Contemporary Circus Festival (29 Aug–7 Sep; www.umeateaterforening.se) celebrates human dexterity through performances by acrobats, contortionists, and street dance. Survival Kit festival (20 Sep–19 Oct;  www.survivalkitfestival.se) sees a collaboration between 30 Swedish and international artists who explore ‘survival’ in all its forms.

Umeå is the home town of many internationally famous fashion designers such as Johnny Johansson, Petter Hollström, Sandra Backlund and Helena Hörstedt. October brings Umeå Fashion Week (7–11 Oct), with in-store events and catwalk exhibitions.

Spoonfuls of salmon served in a block of ice. Image courtesy of Umeå  2014.

Spoonfuls of salmon served in a block of ice. Image courtesy of Umeå 2014.

True autumn (Tjakttja), 10 October–20 November

With long nights closing in, Umeå residents turn to music and film for entertainment. The Jazz Festival (22–25 Oct) (www.umeajazzfestival.se) offers stage time both to jazz greats and unknowns. This year’s Film Festival, hosted by the new Väven cultural centre, looks to northern lands for inspiration, while the Sápmi Indigenous Film & Art festival (10–12 Oct) showcases short films by indigenous peoples worldwide. On a sobering note, at Bildmuseet, painter Anders Sunna focuses on forced relocations of the Sámi, based on his family’s own experience.

Early winter (Tjakttjadálvvie), 21 November–29 January

As winter rolls around once more, the town turns to a festival of lights – Umeå Autumn Light (24–30 Nov) – to dispel the encroaching winter darkness. Watch the lights and raise a glass of hot lingonberry juice to toast the close of Umeå's epic year of culture.