Vik­ing cos­tumes and fire come to­gether in a boozy cel­e­bra­tion.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Up Helly Aa, Europe’s big­gest fire fes­ti­val, takes place an­nu­ally on the last Tues­day of Jan­uary in the town of Ler­wick.

Shet­land’s tourism de­scribes it as ‘‘a su­perb spec­ta­cle, a cel­e­bra­tion of Shet­land his­tory, and a tri­umphant demon­stra­tion of the is­lan­ders’ skills and spirit’’.

Also billed as a north­ern Mardi Gras, the fes­ti­val lasts just one day and one night, but is highly an­tic­i­pated, and trans­forms this usu­ally quiet and peace­ful town into a wild bon­fire party.

Thou­sands of guiz­ers (usu­ally male am­a­teur ac­tors) pa­rade the streets kit­ted out in Vik­ing out­fits. But the star of the show is the ‘‘Guizer Jarl’’ or the fes­ti­val head – his cos­tume, and which Norse char­ac­ter he de­picts is a highly guarded se­cret that’s only un­veiled on the day.

The Jarl leads his squad of Vikings through the streets, set­ting fire to a long boat or gal­ley in the city cen­tre. Once the flames die down, the celebrations con­tinue well into the next night.

Al­though it’s win­ter, the rest of the coun­try has a lot to of­fer too. Visit Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow, ex­plore fa­mil­iar myth-soaked lochs, glens, and far-flung is­lands. Bon­nie Scot­land is cer­tainly one of Europe’s most vis­ually – and cul­tur­ally – ab­sorb­ing des­ti­na­tions.

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