The other day the team over at Contiki asked me if I could share a few reasons why I think Europe is a great destination anytime of year, and the first thing that came to my mind were all the festivals and cultural celebrations.
When it comes to travel in Europe, most of us think of it as a summer destination, however, the place is bursting with possibilities year round. In today’s post I wanted to highlight some of the quirkiest and most unique celebrations that take place; I’m talking about everything from fun orange fights in Italy and downhill cheese races in England, to the plain strange like baby-jumping festivals and open-coffin processions in Spain.
Snow Festival in Kiruna, Sweden – This is one event you’ll want to bundle up for! Located 140 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, Kiruna plays host to the biggest snow festival in all of Europe. Events include hockey games, snow sculpture contests, dog-sledding, ice-skating and lots of musical performances.
La Tamborrada in San Sebastian, Spain – La Tamborrada is a drumming parade that takes place every year on January 20th in San Sebastian. It is a celebration of the town’s patron saint and it involves a drumming procession that lasts 24 hours! We suggest bringing some earplugs if you’re planning to get any sleep.
Rijeka Carnival in Rijeka, Croatia – The Rijeka Carnival has been gaining quite the reputation over the past few years. It is the third largest Carnival celebration in the world, surpassed only by Rio de Janeiro and Venice. The celebrations start in the middle of January and last for 5 weeks!
International Hot Air Balloon Week in Salzburg, Austria – In mid-January, the little Austrian village of Filzmoos plays host to the International Hot Air Balloon Festival. Sitting at the foot of the stunning Bischofsmütze Mountain, this little town is the perfect setting for a choreography of balloons floating through the sky.
Carnival in Venice, Italy – When Carnival rolls around, Venice gets ready to party. Balls are organized across the city and revellers dress in elaborate costumes that will have you feeling like you’ve travelled back to the Renaissance period.
Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, Italy – Most of us have heard of the tomato-throwing tradition in Spain, however, there is one little town in northern Italy where people throw…oranges. The origins of this celebration are quite unclear, but this has become the biggest food fight in all of Italy.
St. Valentine’s Day in Terni, Italy – Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world, but the town of Terni has special significance because it’s the town where Saint Valentine married lovers in secret. Today the town is nicknamed “The City of Lovers” and it holds special events on February 14.
Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain – Las Fallas is a celebration that started as a way to honour Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Today it has evolved into one of the loudest and most elaborate festivals in all of Spain. Ninots or giant puppets are paraded down the streets while loud firecrackers are set off in every direction.
St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland – While St. Patty’s Day technically takes place on March 17th, in Dublin it has turned into a 5 day long celebration. The festivities include concerts, dancing, parades, and plenty of Guinness to go around. You’ll spot many a leprechaun dancing in the streets.
Strong Beer Time in Munich, Germany – Munich may play host to Oktoberfest in October, but this doesn’t mean they forget about their beer the rest of the year, no no! Nicknamed “the fifth season”, Strong Beer Week is a 3 week period when breweries brew their beer with an alcohol content that is higher than 7%. It’s like Oktoberfest all over again, except this celebration seems to be a well kept secret from most international travellers!
King’s Day in Amsterdam – On April 27 Amsterdam turns into a sea of Orange. Like the name suggests, King’s Day is a celebration of the King’s birthday, and for the Dutch this means a public holiday. People flock to the capital to take part in the parades, boat parties on the canals, and enjoy the djs playing in the square.
Semana Santa in Seville, Spain – Holy Week is one of the biggest celebrations in all of Andalucia, and celebrations have been held there since the 16th century. Some 50,000 people are estimated to take part in the processions across town.
Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England – While Shakespeare’s exact date of birth is unknown, he was baptised on April 26, 1564 so that’s when his birthday is commonly celebrated. His birthtown of Stratford-Upon-Avon knows how to throw a party of two in his honour.
Feira do Livro in Lisbon, Portugal – The Lisbon Book Fair is held in Park Eduardo VII and it has been held annually since 1930. Bibliophiles flock to the fair to browse through thousands of old and rare books.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Brockworth, England – Here’s one for the cheese lovers – every May during the spring bank holiday, people gather on Brockworth Hill to chase a 9 lb. ball of cheese. The first person to the bottom of the hill wins the cheese, and with the cheese reaching speeds of up to 112 km/hr it’s quite the race.
La Ducasse in Mons, Belgium – La Ducasse, also known as Doudou, is a festival with roots that stretch back to the Middle Ages. The festival recounts the tale of St. George battling a fiery dragon, an event which is reenacted in the town square. Come prepared for battle.
Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France – The Cannes Film Festival descends in Cannes for 12 days every May. Directors, producers, and Hollywood stars flock to this French beach town for film screenings and glitzy parties. You won’t be able to get into the screenings unless you know somebody, however, you might just spot your favourite celeb wandering the streets.
Midsummer in Sweden – Midsummer is always celebrated at the height of summer on the Friday between June 19 and June 25. On this day Swedes head to the countryside where they make flower crowns, dance around a Maypole, eat pickled herring with potatoes, play games, and spend their evening drinking and dancing.
The Wine Battle in Haro, Spain – Also known as La Batalla del Vino, this festival is all about the wine. It takes place every year on June 29 and it involves a wine drinking competition or two. People wear white and by the end of the day everyone is soaked in wine from head to toe. Bacchus would approve.
The Baby-Jumping Festival in Burgos, Spain – I think this one may take the cake for strangest festival ever! El Colacho is the name given to the baby-jumping festival which takes place every June in the village of Castrillo de Murcia near Burgos. The festival originated in 1620, and it involves a man dressed as the devil jumping over babies. The idea is that when the ‘devil’ jumps over these babies it takes away all evil and the babies’ souls are cleansed.
Oil Wrestling in Kirkpinar, Turkey – In Turkey, oil wrestling is the national sport, so it’s only fitting that they would hold an annual wrestling tournament where the men are covered in olive oil. This event dates back to the days of the early Ottoman Empire and it has been held since 1346; that makes it one of the longest running sports competitions in the world.
Festival of the Near-Death Experience in Las Nieves, Spain – In the town of Las Nieves, those who have been fortunate enough to survive a near-death experience in the past 12 months get to partake in a rather strange ritual…they are paraded down the streets in coffins. This procession is done as part of La Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme which celebrates the patron saint of resurrection.
Wife-Carrying World Championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland – So apparently wife-carrying is an actual sport where men carry their wives through a series of obstacles. The world championships have been held in Sonkajärvi since 1992, and the grand price is the equivalent of the wife’s weight in beer. I guess it pays to have a heavy wife…
La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain – La Tomatina is held the last Wednesday of August and it’s one big tomato fight. The festival begins at 10 in the morning as people try to climb a soapy pole to knock down a large piece of ham (it sounds strange, I know), once the ham is knocked off, the fight officially begins. Trucks loaded with tomatoes roll in and people begin to pelt each other until the streets are running with tomato sauce.
Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland – The Fringe Festival is the world’s largest art festival and it takes places every August in the Scottish capital. It’s a mixture of comedy shows, plays, concerts, cabarets, and everything else in between.
Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales – A bog is a long trench that is filled with water, and in Wales, bog snorkelling has become a bit of a sporting event. Every year snorkelers hop into these murky waters and race to be the champ.
Human Towers Competition in Tarragona, Spain – A castell is a human tower which is traditionally ‘built’ during festivals in the region of Catalonia, and it requires incredible strength and skill. The event is held every 2 years, so keep this in mind before you book a trip.
The Horn Dance in Abbots Bromley, England – This English folk dance dates back to the Middle Ages and it involves 12 people dancing in the streets; 6 of them playing instruments and the other 6 carrying reindeer antlers. Although held in a small village, the event draws a bit of a crowd.
Caber Tossing in Braemar, Scotland – Caber-tossing is one of the most popular events of the Highland Games, and it involves men trying to toss and flip a pole (really a Larch tree) which is about 6 meters tall. This particular event takes place in Braemar, and it draws people by the thousands.
Festival of the Virgin of Mercy in Barcelona, Spain – Also known as La Mercè, this particular celebration honours the Virgin of Grace who is one of the patron saints of the city. The festival has been held since 1687, when the Virgin is believed to have delivered Barcelona from a plague of locusts that swept through the city.
Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany – Held annually in Munich, Oktoberfest runs for 16 days from the end of September through the first week of October. The festivities begin once the Mayor of Munich taps the first keg of beer, and from then on it’s a blur of dirndls, lederhosen, singing and dancing.
Chocolate Festival in Bruges, Belgium – Chocolate lovers delight! For four days in October, this city revolves around chocolate and chocolate alone. You’ll be able to sample chocolates from local chocolatiers, watch chocolate-sculpting competitions, and even go on a chocolate walk around the city.
Halloween in Transylvania, Romania – Where spend Halloween if not in Transylvania – home to the famed Count Dracula? You’ll find a few tour operators running spooky Halloween themed tours over this holiday.
Guy Fawkes Night in England – Also known as Bonfire Night, this celebration takes place on November 5 and it involves lighting fireworks, bonfires, and even burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. FYI Fawkes was one of the conspirators planning to blow up Parliament shortly after King James I ascended to power.
Festival of the Horned One in Rocca Canterano, Italy – In Italian culture, ‘horns’ are a metaphor for having cheated on your partner, and in the town of Rocca Canterano there’s an entire event dedicated to those who have felt that betrayal. On this day, people parade down the streets with horns on their heads and recite poetry about lost love and bust-ups.
Hogmanay in Edinburgh, Scotland – Last year I had the pleasure of celebrating this fun holiday in Scotland. Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year, and in Edinburgh the festivities last for days! There were street parties, people paraded with torches, and on the first day of the New Year some brave souls jumped into the icy waters of the Firth of Forth to take part in the Loony Dook.
Christmas Markets in Germany – Christmastime in Germany is always a good idea! Villages, towns and cities transform their town squares into gathering places where people can come and sip Glühwein, eat gingerbread, shop for handmade Christmas ornaments, and enjoy Christmas carols. Some of the most popular Christmas markets in the country include Nuremberg, Cologne, Munich, and Dresden, but you seriously can’t go wrong with any.
Whirling Dervishes Festival in Konya, Turkey – Turkey has a rich tradition of whirling dervishes who dance in order to reach a trance-like state which brings them closer to God. In Konya, an annual festival is held where people can come and watch the dervishes undertake this spiritual journey.
And those are just a few reasons why Europe may not be such a bad idea after all! This is just a small sampling of festivals and celebrations that take place annually, so if you have any others to add to the list, let me know in the comments below.
Have you attended any of these festivals?
Images were sourced through Flickr Creative Commons license and were free to use at time of publishing. Credits: Bengt Nyman, Stefano Montagner, Keith Ellwood, Rok Hodej, Michael Warren, Bengt Nyman, Charles Roffey, Nedim Chaabene, Stasiu Tomczak, Digital Cat, Shane Global, and Samuel Jeffery.