Norway’s Sommerfesten music festival: small and beautiful

August 3, 2013

The hippy ideals of Sommerfesten, a music festival on the Norwegian coast, are as pure as its stunning backdrop of mountains and fjords. Plus five more European festivals

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The tiny Sommerfesten music festival in Ålesund holds such utopian ideals that its motto – “Peace, Love and Understanding” – is delivered completely straight-faced. Normally such wide-eyed naivety would stoke the inner cynic in me, but there’s something about this place that makes me resist judgement, and I come away from the experience a little wide-eyed myself.

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For a start, it’s beautiful. Ålesund itself is an art-nouveau toytown built between 1904 and 1907 after a fire destroyed the settlement, and the surrounding countryside is a breathtaking, film-set-perfect jumble of mountains and fjords. Sommerfesten takes place on Giske, a miniscule island roughly 15 minutes from the town. It’s been going since 2008 and has gained in popularity year by year. In 2011, 30,000 turned up and the founders restricted ticket sales to 20,000 last year, principally, it seems, to reduce the queues for the ladies’ loos. “This is a non-commercial festival,” insists co-founder and chief booker Ante Giskeødegård. “We’ve never made any money on it and we never will.”

For a festival that’s grown quickly and surely, it still feels small and local, and that is down to this determination to keep doing what they want to, rather than what makes the big bucks. Instead of the usual festival rota of burger vans and greasy noodles, people are encouraged bring their own food (you get a sticker for doing so).

It’s not so much a giant packed lunch as a mass communal barbecue – whatever it is you decide to donate, to whatever value, is taken to a mysterious white marquee, from where it emerges as a bowl of salad, or marinaded and ready to chuck on to one of the many drums of hot coals. In addition to steak and sausages, I spotted elk, langoustines and a seemingly endless supply of local salmon sashimi, plus cinnamon buns and home-baked cakes for desert. It’s hard to imagine, say, Reading and Leeds being able to pull this off, unless people were prepared to eat a communal casserole of lager, pot noodles and bacon butties.

Many attendees have been before, and it’s not just the punters who love it. When I visited last year, singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche was high up the bill. He grew up in Bergen, Norway’s second city, and moved to Brooklyn 10 years ago, but Sommerfesten makes him happy to be home. “It’s becoming more and more of a thing,” he explains just before his set, as the winds off the north Atlantic whip up a brisk breeze. “And you hear about it mainly from fellow bands. If you say you’ve played at Sommerfesten, everyone has a specific story, experience of here. I have high expectations.”

Again, this is down to its hippy-like, village fete approach. Lerche got to Alesund a few days earlier to make use of the founders’ studio, a picturesque building perched on the coastline. In fact, they often pay their artists this way, and Giskeødegård recalls Damien Rice refusing to accept his fee, simply because he’d enjoyed playing there so much. “We have to say no to so many bands because all the people who played here last year want to come back, and it’s just one day,” he shrugs. “It’s a one-day concept, really.”

Of course, this ethos, also its charm, means it’s unlikely that you’ll see Daft Punk lighting up the main (well, only) stage. Many of the artists are folky, with a few bigger names – Lerche, and 2012’s headlining act Travis – and it’s similarly low-key for 2013, with Kaizers Orchestra, Pal Angelskar and Big Band on the bill. But this does throw up spectacular curiosities like Jahn Tiegan, who looks like Iggy Pop crossed with Lionel Blair, and is, according to my guide, “Norway’s Rolf Harris”. He pulls Mr Bean faces as he shouts through his bizarre back catalogue and it’s completely, brilliantly bonkers. The internet reveals that he’s entered the Eurovision song contest three times. Perhaps he’s ready for a fourth.

Such is my enjoyment of this strange, idealistic little festival that the suddenly brutal weather barely puts a dent in the fun. It’s a coastal site, and we go from bright sun to torrential, icy rain in the space of minutes. But there are giant inflatable animals to hide underneath, where friendships with drunk Danish people can be forged. Of course, the enormous pink cow has both horns and an udder, lest anyone feel left out. It’s that kind of place.

• Sommerfesten ( is on 27 July 2013, tickets 490 kroner (around £57). Flights were provided by Norwegian Air (; Gatwick to Ålesund costs around £170 return for the weekend of the festival. Accommodation was provided by the Rica Hotel Scandinavie in Ålesund; rooms from around £75 per person in summer


Unknown: Rovinj, Croatia, 10-14 September

Celebrate the last days of summer: that’s the message of the inaugural Unknown festival besides the Adriatic sea. A collaboration between Hideout, the Warehouse Project and Field Day, the five-day event’s bill includes the Horrors, Django Django, Sbtrkt, Four Tet, Jessie Ware and Lindstrøm.
• Tickets cost £119.90 and you must book festival-approved accommodation. Camping and some other options have already sold out, but you can still get an apartment in the nearby old town from £26 per person per night

Burn Selector: Warsaw, Poland, 6-7 September

Poland’s electro festival Burn Selector is pitching up in Warsaw for the first time in 2013, headlined by previously elusive Swedish duo the Knife. Londoners James Blake, Archive and Jessie Ware will also be performing, as well as Copenhagen’s When Saints Go Machine and LA’s Capital Cities. The two-day event will take place at Służewiec horse track in the heart of the city.
• Weekend (non-camping) tickets cost £48, day tickets cost £30

Positivus: Salacgrīva, Latvia, 19-21 July

Music, woodland and beach create the formula for this increasingly popular Lativian festival, which will stretch to three days for the first time this year. Sigur Rós are the headliners; with the xx and Crystal Castles also making appearances, along with many local acts, including Jauns mēness and Zodiaks.
• A three-day festival ticket costs £47.50 (camping) or £43 (non-camping)

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MS Dockville: Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg, Germany, 16-18 August

Located on Europe’s biggest river island in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg district, this three-day music festival is held in an old industrial complex, giving it an edgy feel. On the line-up for 2013 are Foals, the Lumineers, Chvrches, Woodkid and, fresh from their prime slots at Glastonbury, Haim. The music festival is preceded by an arts camp from 1 August, plus there’s a separate kids event called Luetteville, running in the last weekend of July.
• Weekend camping for the music event costs £83, non-camping tickets cost from £67

Pohoda: Trenčín, Slovakia, 11-13 July

In 2009, Pohoda festival made international headlines for all the wrong reasons, after a stage tent collapsed in bad weather, fatally injuring an attendee. That was expected to be the end of Slovakia’s music festival, but since then it has reduced capacity and upped safety, and it’s still going strong. This year Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace are headlining; fresh from Glastonbury, come Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Smashing Pumpkins and Major Lazer; plus there’s Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club and some Slovakian folk from Peter Breiner to add an extra dimension.
Three-day tickets cost £76 and include camping

Rebecca Nicholson © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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