Travel tips

Published on March 7th, 2014 | by Tayla Gentle


Travellers, here’s a guide to Europe’s best festivals

Read time: a bit over 4 minutes

Everyone knows you head to Munich for Oktoberfest and Bunol for La Tomatina, Pamploma for the bull running and Glastonbury for, well, Glastonbury. But if you want a truly unique travel tale to tell, we recommend getting off the holiday highlights route and experiencing some of Europe’s more obscure festivals. Steeped in history, rich in culture and abundant in celebration, this continent has a lot to offer the adventurous, and festival-inclined traveller. Here are some of the best.

JANUARY: Kiruna Snow Festival, Sweden

Ice Sculpture by Kate MunroWhen you pair Europe’s largest snow festival with the chance to see the northern lights, you end up with a pretty special event indeed. The festival also celebrates the traditions of the native Sami people with events such as dog and reindeer sled racing. And there’s a hotel made out of 1000 tons of ice (it’s called ICEHOTEL, FYI). When the Swedes do a snow festival, they do it proper.

FEBRUARY: Ivrea Orange Festival, Italy

Orange Festival, ItalyIt turns out Northern Italy puts on a food fight to rival La Tomatina. Well, that’s if you swap buckets of tomatoes with buckets of oranges, and Spaniards for Italians. Ivrea sees excitable locals re-enact an old town battle legend in which the common folk rise up against the city’s tyrant in defense of a young girl’s honor. If you’re planning on getting in amongst the battle, remember to wear your red safety hat of “invisibility”. Oranges can leave a welt.

MARCH: St Patrick’s Day, Ireland/The world

St Patrick's DayAh St Patrick’s Day, when the beers flow freely and the blood runs green. The international community may have embraced the celebration, but no one takes St Patrick’s Day more seriously than the Irish themselves. Commonly associated with mid-day drinking and general larrikinism, St Paddy’s actually has its roots in 17th century Christianity. Deemed a feast day by the Catholic, Anglican Communion, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches, it quickly became a people’s favourite when the sect leaders decided to lift the Lenten restrictions on eating and boozing for a day. It’s no wonder the drinking got out of hand.

APRIL: Chios Rocket War, Greece

Everyone knows the Greeks can be a fiery bunch, but the small town of Vrontados takes scorching to a whole other level. If you feel like fireworks on your Easter Sunday eve, head to the island’s highest point for the best seat in the house. When the clock strikes twelve, watch on as two church congregations pelt one another with tens of thousands of homemade rockets. That’s right, it’s a rocket war. Allegedly dating back to the Ottoman era, this festival isn’t for the feint-hearted. BYO lighter fuel, good eye and great aim.

MAY: Distortion Festival, Denmark

Tired of medieval tradition? Craving a slightly more modern festival experience? Well, Copenhagen has you covered. Described as a “celebration of streetlife and nightlife” Distortion is all-night, all-day orchestrated party chaos. With over 150 dance floors, live music and a bunch of open houses, this is the perfect high-energy street party to break up your museum route.

JUNE: El Colacho (Baby Jumping Festival), Spain

So apparently those crazy Spaniards are letting the devil jump over their newborns. And have been doing so since 1620. If you visit the village of Castrillo de Murcia during the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi you can sit in a stupor of both horror and fascination as various men dressed as the Devil take leaps over tiny babies snuggled on mattresses in the street. Believed to cleanse the tiny kidlings of original sin and ward of those pesky evil spirits, El Colacho is rated one of the most dangerous, but bizarre, festivals in the world.

JULY: World Body Painting Festival, Austria

Body painting festival, AustriaFor all you arty folk, Austria’s Carinthia has been serving up the cream of the body painting crop since 1988. The international body painting competition involves a night-held UV Effects contest, World Facepainting Award and Special Effects competition. It’s like landing on the set of a sci-fi film.

AUGUST: World Bog Snorkelling Festival, Wales

Once a year on a chilly August day in Wales, spectators gather to watch both young and old tackle the Waen Rhydd Bog. In a not-so-impressive feat of athleticism, swimmers don their goggles, snap on their snorkels and take to the muddy waters doggy-paddle style. If you’re into the outdoors and old men in budgie smugglers, this is the British festival for you.

SEPTEMBER: Giostra del Saracino (Joust of the Saracen), Italy

Jousting festival, ItalyIf you’re the kind of person who likes medieval jousting tournaments, you’ll probably enjoy Giostra del Saracino (a medieval jousting tournament). Everyone gets dressed up in 12th-century garb, and the jousters fight to the death. Well, they don’t fight to the literal death, just the metaphorical death.

OCTOBER: Halloween, Transylvania 

Dracula. Enough said.

NOVEMBER: Clau Wau (Santa Claus World Championships), Switzerland

This gathering of international Saint Nick impersonators actually reads a little like a horror movie – there’s a lot of red and quite a few suspicious bearded men. Putting creepy aside, this unique competition in Switzerland’s Engadin Valley certainly draws a crowd. Check out the Santa Parade, Santa’s Journey, Santa Sled Race and Santa Snow Sculpture events to really get your Christmas jolly on.

DECEMBER: Mevlana Whirling Dervishes, Turkey

Whirling DervishesTo commemorate 13th-century poet, scholar and philosopher, Rumi, the town of Konya put on a 10-day Whirling Dervish festival. Rumi employed whirling in an attempt to achieve divine harmony, and the Whirling Dervishes (or the Mevlevi Order) have been marking his death for nigh on 750 years. And the fact that it all goes down in Konya, where Rumi’s tomb lies, makes this festival that much more kick-ass. Good job, Turkey.

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About the Author

A sucker for air fare sales to Asia and a good story, I’ve eaten my body weight in Philippine chicken, trekked the highlands of Myanmar and practiced with a very legit yogi in India. He could stand on his head for three hours. I once got lost in a rainforest in El Salvador and found myself eating burritos with a corn farmer. To me, travel means bantering with tuk tuk/moto/jeepeney drivers, mosquito bites and coconuts. But never socks and sandals, not when travelling, not ever.

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