8 of Europe’s Most Fascinating Festivals
Beyond Europe’s well-known music and literary festivals are a panoply of other celebrations, ranging from the mainstream to the decidedly quirky.
Midsummer in Sweden: June 21
"Midsummer, a celebration of the summer solstice, is one of the most important holidays on the Swedish calendar. Festivities commence on Midsummer’s Eve—June 21 this year. Historians trace midsummer celebrations to pagan festivals, but most modern traditions solidified last century. There are specific dishes to be served—new potatoes, pickled herring, strawberries—and songs to be sung, including “Små Grodorna” (“The Little Frogs”), which involves hopping around a maypole. Traditionalists dust off their folk costumes and flowers are tied into colorful midsummer crowns. Beer flows freely and food courses are punctuated by shots of ice-cold aquavit accompanied by raucous drinking songs, called snapsvisor. The only absolute must at midsummer is nature. Those unable to retreat to the countryside can join public celebrations in city parks or the three-day festival at Skansen, an open-air museum and zoo in Stockholm. I once spent a dreamy Midsummer’s Eve in a Stockholm park with only a picnic blanket, a single-use grill and a messy wreath of wildflowers. Playing Swedish lawn games in good company beneath clear blue skies was celebration enough to mark the passage into summer and welcome the abundant daylight that had finally returned to Sweden after months cloaked in darkness." —Ingrid K. Williams. Get a glimpse of more amazing summer solstice celebrations around the world.
Boat Festival, Portsoy, Scotland: June 22-23
"Historic fishing boats and competitive sailing teams will sail into the 26th annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in the cozy seaside town of Portsoy on the north Aberdeenshire coast. Famed for its picturesque 17th- century harbor and stone buildings, the town frequently stars in TV commercials and feature films. Vessels regularly attending the festival include the Isabella Fortuna, a restored, 45-foot fishing boat built in 1890, and the White Wing, a 33-foot sailboat launched in 1917. The festival also brings in a flotilla of smaller vessels. In between visiting larger fishing ships, attendees can even try out rowing a coracle, a small traditional round boat made of wickerwork, in Portsoy’s old harbor. Whatever you plan on doing, keep the elements in mind. “Be prepared for the Scottish weather, bring sunscreen and also an umbrella!” Vivien Rae, one of the organizers, advised. Other attractions include pipe bands and lots of tempting Scottish fare including Arbroath Smokies—a traditional type of smoked haddock—as well as fried fish and rare whiskeys. Visitors can check out the town’s museum, housed in a restored ice house and salmon processing plant from 1834, which includes information on local family histories and genealogy. Pay attention to the rules: In previous years, the organizers have banned bananas and whistling, both frequently believed by mariners to bring bad luck." —Evan Rail
Wedding Festival, Galicnik, Macedonia: July 12-13
"Only two year-round residents live in Galicnik, Macedonia, a mountain settlement about six miles east of Albania, but during the village’s Wedding Festival, the population explodes. Thousands of travelers and returning countrymen join a two-day blur of revelry, rites, and pageantry, culminating with the marriage of a couple with roots in the settlement. 'The festival started in 1963 using customs that are centuries old,' said Marko Bekric, grandson of the only year-round residents. 'It began so people from the village, who had immigrated or moved away, could come back, get married, and continue our traditions.' When the sun sets on Friday, musicians playing traditional wind instruments and drums file into a banquet hall-size gazebo of revelers. Platters of grilled meat vie for table space next to trays of beer and bottles of local brandy. The music inspires fest-goers to mount tables, shout approval, and lock arms while waving sparklers. A full program of scheduled rituals continues for the next two days. The men wear thick woolen trousers and tunics. The women wear 60-pound brocaded dresses that have been passed down for generations. Ceremonies include shaving the bridegroom on the main square, hiking to the cemetery to invite the dead to the wedding, and sending the bride on horseback to her soon-to-be husband’s house before walking to St. Peter and Paul Church. 'This ceremony is something that is just ours,' said Tanja Lepcheska, whose brother was married here two years ago. 'It cannot be taken away.'" —Alex Crevar. If you're worried Europe is too expensive, just get a look at these amazing European vacations for under $400.
Jasmine Festival, Grasse, France: August 2-4
"Every August, the Provençal town of Grasse—known as the perfume capital of the world—pays three days of exuberant homage to one of the two fragrant flowers that shaped its destiny: the jasmine. During the Jasmine Festival (the first was in 1946), the town is decorated with purple garlands. Women dress up in flower blooms and play medieval instruments, and children watch flower-themed puppet shows. The main event is a parade during which the town’s fire department sprays jasmine-infused water on the crowds. Young women throw flowers into the crowd, and men in bowler hats on stilts make their way through cobblestone streets strewn with petals. In centuries past, Grasse had a thriving leather business, but the tanning process made for pungent merchandise. A local perfumer offered a pair of scented leather gloves to Catherine de Medici, the queen of France from 1547 until 1559, and an industry was born. Both jasmine and the Centifolia rose play major roles in the perfume industry as well as in a number of famous perfumes." —Colleen Creamer.
La Tomatina, Buñol, Spain: August 28
"One of the most beloved spectacles in Spain is La Tomatina, a massive food fight held in the tiny town of Buñol, 25 miles outside Valencia. The festival, which starts at 11 a.m. and lasts fewer than two hours, involves the hurling and smashing of nearly 160 tons of overripe tomatoes. It has been a fixture on the Spanish calendar only since the late 1950s. Held annually on the last Wednesday of August, the merriment begins with a ham placed on top of a greased pole in the town square. Once someone claims the ham, trucks discharge past-their-prime tomatoes to the crowd. Mayhem ensues. After crowds started swelling to more than 50,000 awhile back, authorities limited access to the first 22,000 participants who purchase the tickets (which cost 12 euros last year). If you go, think about taking swim goggles to protect your eyes, a pair of old sneakers (they’ll be ruined), and a change of clothes. After the battle, residents pitch in by hosing everyone—and everything—off." —Andrew Ferren
Festival-Mediaval, Selb, Germany: September 6-8
"Every September, the small Bavarian town of Selb on the Czech border transforms into a phantasmagoric realm of dancing elves, fairy maidens, head-banging Teutonic warriors, and vendors hawking everything from stained glass to Mutzbraten, a Bavarian-spiced pork specialty. Festival-Mediaval, which claims to be the largest medieval festival in Europe, follows the unspoken rule of such events in that loosely faithful historical re-enactments mix with characters and imagery drawn from the magical worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Game of Thrones, Dungeons & Dragons, and countless other fantasy and role-play subgenres. While the Selb festival doesn’t approach the Middle Ages with quite the bellicose rigor of other German fests like the Kaltenberger Knights’ Tournament, purportedly the world’s largest jousting event, there will be battles taking place on land and water, by joust, sickle, and powder keg. In addition, there will be a literature tent where leading fantasy and historical authors will read from their books, as well as a pirate-themed Pirate Bay with a rum-tasting bar. Festival-Mediaval’s musical program runs the gamut from Balkan dance music to Celtic rock from Germany. A one-day pass costs between 52 and 66 euros, a three-day pass 95 to 114 euros, and includes falconry, medieval dance, and entry to a gigantic tug-of-war." —Charly Wilder. Selb might end up becoming one of the small European towns you never thought to visit (but should).
Beer Festival, Pilsen, Czech Republic: September 20-21
"One of the best small-scale beer festivals is Slunce ve Skle, or 'Sun in the Glass,' in Pilsen, the birthplace of Pilsner beer. 'What makes Slunce ve Skle unique is how you get the mix of the classic Czech lagers with the best of modern craft brewing,' said Mark Dredge, author of The Beer Bucket List, a guide to beer events around the world. The tiny festival takes place in the courtyard of the Purkmistr brewery, in the suburb of Cˇernice, just south of Pilsen, and on the neighboring village green. The combination of traditional lager and modern craft makes for a beer-lovers’ Valhalla, as well as an opportunity to sample brews you’ll probably never see again. In 2018, Slunce ve Skle tapped the beers of 74 breweries from four countries. Rare-beer fans can also expect to find a festive atmosphere, the smoky aroma of roasting sausages, and bowls of goulash backed up by hops and barley." —Evan Rail
White Truffle Fair, Alba, Italy: October 10-November 24
"Impossible to cultivate and increasingly rare because of changing climate conditions, the Alba white truffle grows in the forests of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, where trifolao (truffle hunters) employ specially trained dogs to unearth the fragrant fungi. In autumn, crowds descend on Alba for the annual truffle festival, La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba. The heart of the festival, the Alba White Truffle World Market, occupies a large pavilion in the center. It’s here that Piedmont’s trifolao bring their haul to be inspected, measured, weighed, judged, and valued. A truffle commodities market sets prices based on the quality and quantity of the year’s supply. In 2018, a particularly good year for truffles because of a rainy season, truffles were valued at between 2,000 and 3,000 euros per kilo. which was about half the usual price. Admittedly, few visitors are buying truffles by the pound. But merchants will still let you fondle and sniff their wares, which range from walnut-size tartufi that sell for under 150 euros, to grapefruit-size rarities with three- or four-figure price tags. In addition to the truffle sellers, there are stalls packed with related products: truffle-studded pecorino, truffle-infused salumi, truffle-scented honeys and oils, specialized tools for grating truffles, and fresh pastas upon which to grate them. On weekends, crowds convene at cooking demonstrations, celebrity guest appearances, wine tastings, donkey races, and historical reenactments. During the festival, local restaurants, trattorias, even market stalls will shave truffles atop almost anything. But the preferred dish is buttery tajarin, a thin, ribbonlike pasta. As steam rises from pasta strands, the earthy truffle aroma blossoms—an exquisite but ephemeral indulgence." —Ingrid K. Williams. If you love festivals like these but can't swing a trip across the ocean, check out the best small-town festivals in the United States.