Want to Celebrate? A Whole Continent Is in the Mood
Posted May 1, 2018 11:49 p.m. EDT
Updated May 2, 2018 12:00 a.m. EDT
Jasmine in France, truffles in Italy, medieval pageantry in Germany: Beyond Europe’s well-known music and literature festivals, there is a panoply of celebrations, from the mainstream to the decidedly quirky. Here, our writers share their favorites across the Continent.
There is a scene ingrained in the collective Swedish subconscious: a maypole clad in birch leaves and flowers, with two wreaths hanging from the cross’s outstretched arms; a long table set for a party on the veranda of a country cottage; bowls filled with strawberries — the first of the season; and the guests, many crowned with wreaths of flowers, who will eat, drink, sing and dance into the wee hours of the year’s longest day.
Midsummer, a celebration of the summer solstice, is one of the most important holidays on the Swedish calendar. Festivities commence on Midsommarafton, or Midsummer’s Eve, which is always a Friday in late June. This is when, as crooned by the Swedish rock band Kent:
We drink to another midsummer
Fresh potatoes and herring
As if time stood still.
Historians trace midsummer celebrations to pagan festivals, but most modern traditions solidified in the 1900s.
There are specific dishes to be served — new potatoes, pickled herring, strawberries — and songs to be sung, including “Sma Grodorna” (“The Little Frogs”), which involves hopping around the maypole. Traditionalists dust off their folk costumes, and bouquets of flowers are tied into colorful midsummer crowns. Beer flows freely throughout the day, and food courses are punctuated by shots of ice-cold aquavit accompanied by raucous drinking songs, called snapsvisor.
Yet 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.
Even without a maypole, a traditional feast, or a single shot of aquavit, the spirit of midsummer can still be summoned with little more than a grassy lawn.
In a Stockholm park, I once spent a dreamy Midsummer’s Eve 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
Each August, in the medieval Provençal town of Grasse — also known as the perfume capital of the world — the village pays three days of exuberant homage to one of the two fragrant flowers that shaped the town’s destiny: the jasmine.
During the Jasmine Festival (the first was in 1946), villas are decorated with purple garlands, as is much of the town and town square. Women dress up in various versions of flower blooms and play medieval instruments. And on streets lined with quaint cafes, children watch flower-themed puppet shows.
The bells of Cathedrale Notre Dame du Puy ring out in celebration. The main event is a parade during which a fire department truck filled with jasmine-infused water is sprayed on the crowds. Floats slowly motor through the circuitous streets while young women throw flowers into the crowd, and men in bowler hats on stilts make their way through cobblestone streets strewn with petals.
Grasse’s place in the history of perfume is undisputed. 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 May (or Damascus) rose play major roles in the perfume industry as well as in a number of famous perfumes.
For dates and information on this year’s festivities, check the website of the Grasse Tourism Office: grassetourisme.fr.
— COLLEEN CREAMER
Spain has an outsize reputation for celebrating. Every corner of the country provides its share of festivals, most encouraging long nights of prodigious eating and drinking.
Events range from the silent and somber religious processions of Semana Santa in Valladolid to the polka-dot social whorl of Seville’s Feria de Abril, to the running of the bulls in Pamplona during the Feast of San Fermín.
Despite all this visual pageantry, abundant history and, for many of these celebrations, deep religious roots, one of the most beloved spectacles is La Tomatina, a massive food fight held in the tiny town of Buñol, 25 miles outside Valencia. The festival, which lasts less than two hours and involves the hurling and smashing of nearly 180 tons of overripe tomatoes, 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 manages to claim the ham, trucks discharge past-their-prime tomatoes to the crowd. As the trucks wind through the narrow streets, revelers are squeezed into shooting-fish-in-a-barrel range. Juicy, red, vitamin C-packed mayhem ensues.
This year’s Tomatina will be Aug. 29. After crowds started swelling to more than 50,000 a while back, the authorities limited access to the first 22,000 participants who purchase 10-euro tickets.
If you go, think about taking goggles to protect your eyes, a pair of old sneakers (they’ll be ruined) and a change of clothes in a waterproof bag. After the battle, residents pitch in by hosing everyone — and everything — off.
Information is available at latomatina.info.
— ANDREW FERREN
For four mead-soaked days in 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 in chain mail and codpieces, hawking everything from stained glass to Mutzbraten, a Bavarian-spiced pork specialty.
Festival-Mediaval (this year, from Sept. 6 to 9), 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 JRR Tolkien, “Game of Thrones,” Dungeons & Dragons and countless other fantasy and role-play subgenres, with a generous sprinkling of pirates and Vikings of unclear historical and geographical provenance.
While the Selb festival doesn’t approach the Middle Ages with quite the bellicose rigor of other German fests like the Kaltenberg Knights Tournament, said to be the world’s largest jousting event, there will, of course, be battles taking place on land and water, by joust, sickle and powder keg.
Festival-Mediaval also offers a range of workshops where visitors can, for instance, make herbal tinctures according to the original recipes of the visionary Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen, take tin whistle lessons or have their manuscript appraised by Bernhard Hennen, author of the German fantasy hit “The Elves” and its many sequels.
Festival-Mediaval’s musical program runs the gamut from Nordic goth-industrial to a neo-shamanic Hungarian duo called the Moon and the Nightspirit, and a professed German minstrel named Knud Seckel who plays what he describes as “jazz for Crusaders.” A four-day pass costs 90 to 111 euros ($111 to $137). Camping is included, not to mention falconry, medieval dance and entry to a gigantic tug of war that unfurls in the shadow of the Fichtel Mountains.
— CHARLY WILDER
Scottish Traditional Boat Festival
Fishing boats and competitive rowing teams sail into the 25th annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival (this year June 30 and July 1) in the cozy seaside town of Portsoy on the north Aberdeenshire coast. Famed for its picturesque, 17th-century harbor and stone buildings, the much-photographed village frequently stars in TV commercials and feature films, including the 2016 movie “Whisky Galore!”
But when the waterfront is filled with stately antique vessels like the Isabella Fortuna — a restored, 45-foot fishing boat built in 1890 — the cameras are generally pointing in the other direction.
Other vessels regularly at the festival include the White Wing, a 33-foot sailboat built in 1917, and the Waterwitch, a fishing boat launched in 1923. The festival also brings in a flotilla of smaller vessels. In between cheering on the rowing teams and visiting larger fishing ships, attendees can even try to pilot boats in Portsoy Harbor.
No matter what you plan on doing, it’ll help to keep the elements in mind. “The majority of the activities take place outdoors,” wrote Vivien Rae, one of the organizers, in an email. “So be prepared for the Scottish weather, bring sunscreen and also an umbrella!”
Other attractions include pipe bands, play areas for kids and plenty of clooties — a type of spiced, sweet dumpling — as well as fried fish, rare whiskies and other local flavors. 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.
If you go, do pay attention to the rules: In previous years, the organizers have announced bans on bananas and on whistling, both frequently believed by mariners to bring bad luck. Information: stbfportsoy.org.
— EVAN RAIL
By any standard, Galicnik, Macedonia, is tiny. Only two people live year-round in this mountain settlement hidden on the remote Bistra massif about 6 miles east of the Albanian border. During the village’s annual wedding festival — held on the weekend nearest July 12, or St. Peter’s Day for Orthodox Christians — the population explodes. Thousands of travelers and returning countrymen fill the otherwise quiet houses that cling to steep hillsides for a three-day blur of revelry, rites, processions and pageantry culminating with the marriage of a previously selected couple with roots in the settlement.
“The festival started in the 1950s using customs that are centuries old,” said Marko Bekric, the grandson of the only year-round residents. From May to November, Bekric operates cycling and hiking tours in town and helps run the family’s guesthouse and restaurant. “It began so people from the village, who had immigrated or moved away, could come back, get married and continue our traditions. In the early days, dozens of weddings would take place.”
The expected dates for this year’s wedding festival are July 13-15.
When the sun sets on Friday, musicians playing traditional horns and drums — called zurli and tapani — file into a banquet hall-size gazebo of revelers surrounded by horses tethered to rough-sawn fence rails. Platters of grilled meat vie for table space next to trays of beer and bottles of local grappa, called rakija. The rising wall of primal rhythm inspires partyers to mount tables, shout approval and lock arms while waving sparklers. The music also becomes the festival’s constant soundtrack: a call-and-response woven from generations of tribal fabric.
A full program of scheduled rituals continues for the next two days — each accompanied by processions of men and women, and girls and boys, in traditional regalia. The men wear thick woolen trousers and tunics. The women wear 60-pound brocaded dresses, some more than 300 years old, that have been passed down for generations.
Symbolic ceremonies include hanging a flag and firing a rifle, shaving the bridegroom on the main square, hiking to the cemetery to invite the dead to the wedding, and sending the bride on horseback, with dowry, to her soon-to-be husband’s house before walking to St. Peter and Paul Church.
“When those horns and drums start playing I still get goose bumps,” said Tanja Lepcheska, whose brother was married here last year. Since her father’s family is from Galicnik, she is a possible candidate for this year’s wedding. “This ceremony is something that is just ours,” she said. “It cannot be taken away.” Information: galichnik.mk/GalichnikJ.
— ALEX CREVAR
PILSEN, CZECH REPUBLIC
As Pilsner, dunkels and other traditional lagers continue to gain ground among craft beer fans, more curious drinkers are heading to Central Europe to sample these styles in their homelands. While the beer halls of Prague and Munich offer great drinking experiences, cognoscenti recommend hitting one of the region’s small-scale beer festivals, which take place just about weekly.
No fan of traditional brews will be disappointed by Annafest in Forchheim, Sandkerwa in Bamberg or Festival Minipivovaru in Prague. For those in the know, one of the region’s best is Slunce ve Skle, or Sun in the Glass, a tiny celebration that takes place in Pilsen, the birthplace of Pilsner beer.
“What make 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 upcoming guidebook “The Beer Bucket List,” which covers beer events around the world. “I don’t think there’s another beer festival with such a blend of traditional and new.”
After debuting in 2008, the festival remained a one-day event for years, taking place on a (usually) balmy Saturday in mid-September in the courtyard of the Purkmistr brewery, just south of Pilsen, as well as on the neighboring village green. But in 2017, the festival started running Friday and Saturday (this year Sept. 21 and 22).
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 2017, Slunce ve Skle tapped the beers of 78 breweries from seven countries. There will probably be a few more this September, but fans can expect to find the same festive atmosphere and the same smoky aroma of roasting sausages and bowls of goulash backed up by hops and barley.
Beer fans wondering if the event is overrun by tourists can relax. Although Dredge’s book lists some 150 beer experiences, Slunce ve Skle is not among them. Perhaps he wanted to keep it to himself.
Information can be found at slunceveskle.cz.
— EVAN RAIL
Wine, Whimsy and Song
The church bells had barely struck 10 a.m. in Montmartre, the leafy hilltop neighborhood where French modern art and cabaret life were born, but the wine and festivities were already flowing.
Under pale October sunlight and to a soundtrack of melodies cranked from a vintage street organ, crowds in costumes climbed the cobbled streets onto a vine-planted slope between the venerable Lapin Agile music club and a town house where painter Auguste Renoir once lived (now the Musée de Montmartre).
Some were dressed like court jesters, others as Napoleonic army officers. Many wore wide-brimmed black hats, black capes and red scarves — the outfit of the République de Montmartre, a century-old neighborhood association. From a stage crowded with musicians and merrymakers, the district’s mayor praised the neighborhood and turned over emcee duties to one of the Montmartre republicans.
“Lift your glass!” the fellow shouted over the grounds, which weeks earlier had bloomed with grapes. “Long live Montmartre, its vines and its wines!”
With those words, last year’s edition (the 84th) of the Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre — the neighborhood’s annual autumn harvest festival — was officially underway.
Perhaps no vineyard in France inspires as much pageantry per square foot as tiny Clos Montmartre, which was planted by community groups in the 1930s and is operated by the city of Paris.
Although the plot is barely a third of an acre, it takes one day to harvest and annually produces only 1,000 or so bottles — a rosé and a red that are pressed in the neighborhood’s town hall and sold in the local tourism office — the festival ignites several days of musical, artistic, theatrical, gastronomic and oenological events around Paris’ bohemian 18th Arrondissement.
Anyone attending last year’s festivities could have signed up (via the website, fetedesvendangesdemontmartre.com) to visit the vineyard with local experts, tour the Moulin Rouge cabaret and absorb cultural lectures at the Musée de Montmartre before staggering through the “Parcours du Gout” — a trail of some 100 food and wine stands around Sacré Coeur basilica — and dancing in Louise Michel square to the music of superstar Dalida (a neighborhood resident during her lifetime).
As for the wine itself, early reviews of Clos Montmarte were promising. “Good concentration of tannins. Very ripe,” said Sylviane Leplatre, the municipal winemaker who oversees the vineyard, as the costumed throngs filed out of the grounds and prepared for the imminent harvest parade. This year’s festival is scheduled for Oct. 10-14.
— SETH SHERWOOD
White Truffle Festival
There’s something about holding one in your hand. Examining the knobby, misshapen surface still flecked with bits of dirt. Inhaling the musty aroma redolent of a damp forest. And imagining the subtle, vaguely garlicky flavor, all under the watchful eye of a merchant who is well aware that this rare tuber — the Alba white truffle — is worth a small fortune.
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. Autumn is the height of truffle season, and it’s also when crowds descend on Alba for the annual truffle festival, La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba, this year from Oct. 6 to Nov. 25.
The heart of the festival, the Alba White Truffle World Market, occupies a large covered pavilion in the cobblestone center. It’s here that Piedmont’s trifolao bring their haul to be inspected, measured, weighed, judged and valued, according to a truffle commodities market, which sets prices based on the quality and quantity of the year’s supply.
In 2017, a bad year due to summer heat waves and drought, truffles were valued at nearly $3,000 a pound.
Admittedly, few visitors to Alba 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 100 euros ($123) 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 re-enactments around town.
And what about actually eating Alba’s illustrious tartufo bianco? During the festival, local restaurants, trattorias, even market stalls will shave truffles atop almost anything. But the preferred dish is buttery tajarin — thin, ribbonlike pasta, also known as taglierini outside Piedmont. As steam rises from pasta strands covered in paper-thin shavings, the earthy truffle aroma blossoms — an exquisite but ephemeral indulgence, like so many of life’s great pleasures. Information: fieradeltartufo.org.
— INGRID K. WILLIAMS