Five European celebrations you simply have to see before you die
EUROPE: Every country in the world has its own unique traditional events that seemingly everybody honors with pride. In the United States, the Fourth of July is one such occasion, but Europe has its own set of festivals that everyone should experience at least once.
Here are five of the best:
New Year’s Eve (Salzburg):
Right off the bat you’ll say, “What’s so special about that? Doesn’t everybody celebrate New Year’s?”
Yes, and even more to the point, Salzburg isn’t even the biggest nor does it have the best fireworks. So how does it make the list?
As the real estate broker likes to say, “It’s location, location, location.” Salzburg’s setting is ideal, and best of all, though crowded, it isn’t nearly as jam-packed with humanity as some of its fellow European challengers.
Related story: Salzburg: Austria’s tiny gem at the edge of the Alps
Situated on the banks of the Salzach River at the northern edge of the Alps, the birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and fourth-largest city in Austria, is renowned for its Baroque architecture.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, the “Old Town” is dominated by baroque towers rising amid 27 churches that reach toward the massive Hohensalzburg Fortress which peers protectively down from its lofty perch high above the city.
For New Year’s visitors, find a location on one the bridges spanning the river and marvel as the pyrotechnics edge their way along both sides of the Salzach before reaching the castle for the final display.
With the backdrop of the Alps to the south, Hohensalzburg in the foreground and a spectacular river of reflections bursting in air, this is a festival you will long remember.
Let’s get this out of the way at the start. If the festival takes place in September, why is it called “Oktoberfest”? The answer is because it always ends on the first Sunday in October.
Beginning in 1810, Oktoberfest has grown into the world’s largest beer festival with roughly six million visitors each year. Nearly 75% of the participants come from Germany with the rest arriving from virtually every other country in the world.
Held in Munich, Germany each year at a permanent fairgrounds set up for the event, the festival varies in length from 14 to 18 days. The ten largest breweries are available in some 14 different tents which average approximately 4,000 to 5,000 patrons each.
Related Read: Oktoberfest: Germany’s festival is a global tradition
The largest tent, Winzerer Fandl, one of three that features Paulaner beer, accommodates 8,450 guzzlers inside and another 2,450 outside. Just walk in, find a spot and, even if you don’t have a beer, sway to and fro and sing loudly and happily until one appears. You’ll definitely know it when you see it.
In case you are wondering, in 2013 some 1,700,000 imperial gallons of brew were consumed. If you like beer, huge crowds and waiting in line for a bathroom, Oktoberfest is for you.
One word of warning, do not get in the path of a fraulein who can tote a dozen glasses of beer at a time. She may be pretty but she can run you down faster than the offensive line for the New England Patriots.
Scandinavian Midsummer celebrations have been held since the Stone Age in honor of the summer solstice marking the longest day of the year.
Many countries celebrate the festival, so it’s easy to participate virtually anywhere in Europe if you are traveling between June 19 and 25, depending upon the year, the culture and the tradition.
In Sweden, Midsummer is typically a holiday where locals wear traditional clothing, do folk dancing, feasting and the raising of the Maypole.
This is also a day replete with parades and the of waving national colors. Finns being somewhat more somber than Swedes, or other Scandinavians for that matter, appear more mournful about the festivities, however.
Related Story: The Solstice heralds the official start of Summer
In Helsinki, one young female is selected to be married at the small chapel on the open-air museum island of Seurasaari. Following the wedding, the bride and her new husband are rowed in a longboat to a tiny outcropping of rock where they light a bonfire built of numerous longboats standing on end.
Midsummer, like July 4th in America, is great because you can enjoy it wherever you may be.
Military Tattoo (Edinburgh):
Theoretically, tattoos have been a part of military lore. However, in the UK tattoos have more to do with ceremony than needles and ink.
The term “tattoo” derives from a 17th-century signal to tavern owners to “turn off the tap.” This was so soldiers would stop drinking and hit the rack in order to be fresh the next morning.
The Dutch phrase evolutions in the 18th century are to describe the last duty call of the day. As well as a ceremonial form of evening entertainment by military musicians.
Today, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a series of performances on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. The annual Edinburgh Festival is in August.
Officially, the first military tattoo was in 1950 and it has been a staple of the festival ever since. Performances by the British Armed Forces as well as other international military bands and artistic groups entertain festival-goers.
For pure spectacle, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo is unrivaled, even for those who do not usually enjoy the sounds of bagpipes and traditional pomp and ceremony.
The Palio (Siena):
While many festivals have evolved into commercial ventures over time, the Palio in Siena, Italy is the real deal. Actually, there are two Palio horse races each year, one in July and the other in August.
The Palio is to horse racing what MMA is to boxing. Siena has 17 districts, known as contra de, but only ten compete in each race. A drawing held about a week before the event decides who will race. The colors of each competing ward hang from the windows of city hall.
The races are bareback competitions of three laps around Piazza del Campo, the main square in the heart of Siena.
Ninety seconds later, perhaps slightly more, the race is over, with the victorious horse frequently crossing the finish line without a rider.
For outsiders, though the pre-race competition appears friendly, with visitors invited to join in the celebrations leading up to the races, the internal local pride for winning is fierce for competitors.
For citizens of Siena, the Palio is an all-out war. Feelings run deep between the challengers where grudges can be powerful and uncompromising.
As they say in Italian “That’s Amore!”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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Lede image by the Writer – Bob Taylor