28 June 2013
Not many tourists wander the streets of Murmansk. Only a few adventurous Russians come to visit – the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. Behind its apparent austerity, young Murmansk, born in 1916, reveals a certain charm to those who know how to look.
At first glance, you see heaps of coal invading the harbor, and concrete blocks on the horizon – towering memories of the Soviet era. With a cloud-cover over the landscape, not uncommon at this time of the year (from June to September the weather is rainy), we have to admit that Murmansk doesn’t look great. Yet the city can be proud – proud of its title, “City of Heroes”, received for its tenacity against the Germans during World War II. At the time, the Luftwaffe attacked Murmansk, dropping a total of over 185,000 bombs on the buildings and people. This city is young, but has suffered enormously. Today the soldier Alexei, more than 35 feet tall, perched on the hill, perpetually scans the Kola Gulf, watching over his protégée.
Despite these dark passages of the past, the Russian city has rediscovered color. Scanning the horizon, it’s a surprise to see the many colorful facades and roofs around the big red and white lighthouse overlooking the city. Some are a bit faded, but they’re colorful nonetheless! This may be the charm of Murmansk – a touch of old-fashioned coquetry in the midst of so much sobriety.
Added to this palette of colors is a green band encircling the port city and its 350,000 inhabitants. The forest dominates the area, offering hikers a good supply of fresh air. Nature here doesn’t stop at the city gates. “I find it a relatively airy town. You don’t feel like you’re suffocating in a concrete space. Avenues are lined with trees, and there are lots of parks in the center,” says Vincent Pennec, the first mate, who took advantage of a few moments of respite to walk around the city. So, when the polar day shows up, when the snow disappears from driveways, Murmansk residents know how to enjoy these green spots. Old folks sit on benches in public parks and watch the passers-by. Young people get out their bicycles and ride around the wide streets of the city center.
Some crew members appreciate the charm of nature, “the bucolic landscapes contrasting with the austerity of the port,” as described by Céline Blanchard the cook. Others are seduced by the industrial aspect of the Russian port city. “I love this black dust, the rusty, dented railway cars mixed in with flamboyant cranes and colorful locomotives. Under the midnight sun, it’s really beautiful. In fact, when I walk around the port of Murmansk, it’s like being in a movie!” says Nicolas de la Brosse, deck officer. T
he contrast between the blackness and the color, between softness and hardness, with a dash of anachronism mixed in – That’s what creates the charm of Murmansk, for those who take the time to contemplate it.
Anna Deniaud Garcia