Time. The main ingredient needed to create, evolve, erode and adapt. To create tradition, habit, ritual and culture. What’s cultured yoghurt? Old yoghurt. What’s cheese? Old cultured milk. What’s fine wine? Old fermented grapes.
So it’s no wonder that Europe, with its eons of history and civilization dating back to ancient Greece, is rife with culture. It’s been fermenting so long that it’s the finest wine you’ll ever taste. So if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Europe for a season, you should drink and drink deeply of the traditions and festivals that seep through the land.
Here is a list of our favorites that will give you a local insight, an authentic experience and a lot of fun.
1. Venice Carnival
Being predominantly Catholic for a long time, a large portion of Europe honors lent, where they give up something they love in the 40 days before Easter. Since the idea of self-denial is not that appealing, time has developed the tradition of having one big blowout just before these days of self-imposed discomfort. This blowout is called carnival and Venice does it pretty darned well.
The city is beautiful and the residents are classy and confident. They dress up in their old Venetian attire, there are masks everywhere, there’s dancing and drinking and fireworks, and for a few nights, this already surreal city takes on a hedonistic, ethereal air. Be sure to pack your wigs.
2. Battle of the Oranges
Italian women are generally considered to be stylish, beautiful, strong and feisty. It naturally follows then that back in the day when a certain guido dignitary tried to force his way with a young commoner Violetta, she wasn’t going to give in so easily. So she cut off his head. Naturally.
How this lead to an orange fight is unclear, but it did lead to a revolution of sorts. Soon the more retiring British and the slightly sentimental French were loading their purses with oranges too. Thus, a festival was born and nowadays the battle of the oranges is a symbolic fight against tyranny.
Every year in late February/early March during the carnival period, medieval war games meet food fight in the little town of Ivrea. Moral of the story: don’t mess with a guidette.
3. Concurs de Castells
You think you’re hardcore because you went skydiving with an instructor strapped to your back? Try making a human castle without a safety rope or net and putting a 5-year-old kid at the top. This Catalan tradition is something else. The crowd is not comprised of acrobats or stuntmen, but rather normal locals who happen to build 10m high structures with their bodies on a weekend.
It’s teamwork to the highest degree – literally. And the highest degree recorded has been a 10-tier structure! It’s not all fun and games though and people (children) have died falling from these towers. This tradition is an incredibly authentic and awe-inspiring spectacle and if you happen to be in Barcelona and experience this, you will never forget it.
4. Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling
Long before most of these festivals existed, a small town near Gloucester in England was already playing with their food. Their weapon of choice? A roll of cheese. And if you wanted to be the big cheese of the town, you had to catch the big cheese they rolled down the hill. If that sounds cheesy, don’t be fooled – that their roll of cheese could reach speeds of up to 70mph!
That was in the 1500s and today the tradition continues in pretty much exactly the same manner with the same amount of injuries from people stumbling down the craggy hill, but probably with slightly more ambulance staff on hand. And the original cheese has been replaced by a foamy one to minimize the pain. The prize? A 9lb wheel of Double Gloucester cheese!
5. El Colacho (Baby Jumping Festival)
Castrillo de Murcia, Spain
Which means… wait for it… baby jumping by devils. Yup, you read that right. From shaky origins, this tradition is believed to cleanse the babies of original sin and illness.
So every year, the locals lay their babies born that year on mattresses in the street. Men then dress up as devils and jump over them.
Apparently, the Pope is trying to discourage this and encourage baptism instead. The man may have a point. Yet the tradition continues and all we’re saying is if you have an infant in that region at that time of year, you’d better hope those are some sure-footed devils! Perhaps some things are extinct for a reason and this tradition should follow the Dodo into distant memory.
6. Festival of Giants
The French are big on a few things: wine, cheese, frogs legs, snails, berets… one could say they’ve got the culture thing down. In the town of Douai in North France, however, it’s size that matters and they’re big on giants.
Legend has it that there once was a man who was renowned for his strength and kindness. When the town of Douai came under threat, he miraculously appeared and fought them off. When he died, the town honored him as a giant, which is a big compliment.
Now they make massive statues and parade them through the town for three days in July and celebrate the big, burly, goodhearted man that saved their town. Worth a look, especially if you’re watching from a good vantage point with a glass of pinot noir and a hunk of brie in your face.
7. San Fermin (Running of the Bulls)
If you’re a no bulls**t kind of person, this is the festival for you. Yes, there’s dancing in the streets and excessive consumption of sangria. Yes, there’s fireworks and passionate romances with fiery locals. But yes, there’s also the insane and adrenaline-spiking bolt from boulder-sized, steam-snorting, ground-pounding, all-leather-and-no-suede-bulls!
For a week in July, thousands storm Pamplona to test their mettle against stampeding herds through the constructed gauntlet that leads to the arena. A word to the wise – good running shoes and a shot of tequila will set you on the right path to get through this with your bones intact. Or you can just watch from the sidelines. Also exciting, plus less chance of getting a hoof to the head.
Ready to run? Check out Stoke Travel’s all-inclusive Running of the Bulls trips
Scottish New Year, which is on the same day as the calendar new year, but done sooo much better. Edinburgh lights up with pagan fire as the fireball swingers flow through the main street swinging their chicken mesh balls of burning tinder which are then cast into the harbor. This is the traditional bit.
Then’s there’s live music, loads of fireworks, tons of Scotch whiskey and ale, and a massive, world-renowned, televised party. They ring in the new year with ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which has now been adopted by the rest of the world as the new year tune of choice. No one is quite sure where the name of the song came from, but more than likely it was a heavily intoxicated Scotchmen muttering ‘Happy New Year’. Go local and get kilted up but leave your knickers at home because Scots don’t have time for timidity.
Celebrate the new year with Stoke Travel’s Hogmanay package!
9. Il Palio
Bareback baby. Just the way we like it. That’s bareback horse riding of course. What were you thinking? This is the culmination of the Sienese year and dates back to the 12th century. You want pride and respect from your fratellos and sorellas? Win the race. The only solace in losing the race on July 2 is knowing there is another on August 16 where you can redeem yourself.
The most ardent football fan is blasé compared to the burning passion these locals have for their horserace. The 17 districts have a jockey each to go for gold and even if the horse loses its rider, it can still win. As previously mentioned, they don’t have saddles, so staying on a horse as it gallops at top speed around the track is no small task. Are these Italian stallions daunted? Hells no! The pain of lost pride would be way worse than the pain of a broken arm/leg/neck.
10. Kings Day (Koningsdag)
The Dutch have a few things they do particularly well. Legalizing illegal things. Making cheese. Beers. Canals. Bicycle lanes. The color orange. And partying on boats to celebrate their current regent’s birthday.
At the end of April every year, orange is the new black and thousands of Dutchies and every other nationality under the sun take to boats in Amsterdam armed with beer and clad in their national color to celebrate their Netherlandiness. There’s fireworks, hash cakes, pancakes and croquettes and there’s a whole lot of fun to be had.
Do some Amsterdamage with Stoke Travel’s King’s Day trip
11. Las Fallas
The Italians aren’t the only ones with attractively fiery tempers, and at this incredible festival in Valencia in March, we’re like moths to a flame. In the city center on every main corner, you can see giant effigies that take months to build. Everything’s a little tongue-in-cheek depicting political or social stereotypes of the year.
On the eve of March 19, they burn these stigmas to the ground in the celebration of spring and a new beginning and positivity. It’s astounding. You know how you get mesmerized by a flame? Imagine a flame the size of a building! Health and safety can go hide in a corner, ’cause the Spanish are gonna burn shit and we’re invited.
Go up in flames with Stoke Travel’s Las Fallas trip
12. La Tomatina
Another Spanish festival (’cause these guys are the pros when it comes to original street fests). Ever wanted to partake in a food fight? Got a particular gripe with an acquaintance? Invite them to this festival in the tiny town of Buñol and you can let vent to your frustrations and they’ll be none the wiser.
The masses gather along the main streets into the main square, begoggled and itching to get their hands on the red fruit known as a vegetable. People compete to climb a slippery pole to reach a pork leg (don’t ask) and once someone gets it, the canons sound and the festivities begin. Truckloads of squishy tomatoes are distributed through the crowd and the world goes red as the tomato war begins. Passive-aggressives need not apply.
Join one of the biggest food fights on Stoke Travel’s La Tomatina trip
Eine kleine stein. Or more. This is the motherload. The festival to beat all festivals. Culture meets oompah-loompah bands meets funky, folksy outfits meets gallons and gallons of Germany’s finest beer.
There’s lovely roast chicken and steamy bratwurst and candied nuts and pretzels! Everywhere! There’s Germans who, let’s face it, have a rep for being quite stern, but at this festival there’s none of that. There’s rosy cheeks and singing on benches and swaying to the music and many many Prosts (cheers in German). This is the perfect mix of culture and drunken fun. Plus there are rollercoasters. Life can’t get much better.
Join the world’s biggest beer festival with Stoke Travel’s Oktoberfest trip
13. Notting Hill Carnival
Gone are the days of Elizabethan London where the locals were white, British folk. Now London is a myriad of cultures and nationalities all living and breathing and moving together. And a brilliant effect of this multiculturalism is the development of exotic and exciting traditions stemming from far-off roots but becoming ingrained in the local flavor.
One such tradition is Notting Hill Carnival, which has its roots in the Trinidadian community of west London. It started off as a small parade to show off the skills of the steel drum players, but as soon as the local Caribbeans heard these beautiful sounds that transported them back to their original home and culture, they took to the streets to boogie. Now this carnival is the biggest and most colorful of it’s kind in Europe with beautiful costumes, parades, music food and color. This happens at the end of August each year and is an experience worth riding a packed underground for.
15. Up Helly AA
This festival is quite modern and only dates back to the 18th century. It was originally just a piss-up when sailors and soldiers came home from the Napoleonic war. Gradually the locals added things and created their own festival. Now they dress up like vikings, parade through the streets, sing songs, visit school and then burn a bloody great Viking ship for funsies. There’s a Guizer Jarl (head viking) and Jarl Squad (viking gang) and they make their own costumes and practice their march and put a load of effort into this little-known festival. You can catch the action 24 days after Christmas. It’s sure to be a merry time – just don’t forget your horned helmet and drinking horn!
And there it is. The complete cultural picnic basket of festivals for your enjoyment, filled with oranges, viking horns, fire, tomatoes, cheese, masks, face paint, loads of beer and all carried by a devil-suited giant riding bareback on a bull, skipping over babies and singing Auld Lang Syne.