These are the festivals listed chronologically.
To see the festivals listed alphabetically by country see here.
Europe – the cradle of modern western civilisation. The United Kingdom colonised the globe; the Continent gave us the great art movements, the Enlightenment and pizza.
Yet despite the solemn weight of their history, Europeans continue to give us some of the most senseless, silly, and just plain strange festivals the world has seen. Whether these events’ serious origins lay shrouded in the mists of time, or whether they were simply the creation of a twisted sense of humour, these festivals are a window through which we can glimpse the real cultures that lie beneath the fragmented map of European stereotypes.
So join me as we take your readers on a journey to rediscover the Europe they thought they knew.
For editors interested in tailoring articles to their publications needs, see all the information at ‘Editor Opportunities’. Updates to specific activities and opportunities that I’ll be undertaking at each festival will be listed here as they are organised.
Keep in mind that this itinerary may change slightly depending on circumstance and the unpredictability inherent in throwing oneself into the living, breathing melee of Europe.
Year-long preparations go into this incredible fire festival that will see almost 350 gorgeous multi-story sculptures go up in flames, all IN ONE NIGHT. The city-wide towering infernos of La Cremà at only the climax of a week of all-day activity, all-night parties and early morning marching bands.
It’s dangerous, it’s chaotic, it’s inexplicable. The whole of Valencia comes alive for this annual votive offering to satire, fun and fire!
For a taste of the excitement, see my blog post from the event: How not to be Blown Up, Deafened, or Buried Alive at Spain’s Las Fallas
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Fete de Oeufs
As Easter Sunday dawns over France’s idyllic alpine countryside, the children of the Montrottier region are preparing. All around this quaint French village, are hidden 20,000 chicken eggs for eager hands to search out. Europe’s Ultimate Easter Egg Hunt!
A powerful community event. See my post Fete des Oeufs and the Strangest Easter Traditions
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King’s Day is a national holiday in the Netherlands and the party-loving Dutch capitalise on the chance to celebrate.
The night before Koningsday is Koningsnach, or King’s Night, with cities across the country hosting massive parties. The biggest of these is in The Hague, which puts on the Life I Live Festival, a FREE outdoor music festival spread across seven stages located around the city centre.
As if that weren’t enough, the country come down with Orange madness as the carnival spirit continues into King’s Day. In Amsterdam the roads, parks and canals fill to bursting with revellers. The whole city becomes an open air flea-market, a moving dance party and a glaring homage to the royal colour: Orange.
Mischief runs wild as Edinburgh celebrates the turning of the seasons with this fiery benediction to nudity, performance and paganism. Held on a hill overlooking the castle city, and set against the bizarre ruins of Edinburgh’s own replica Parthenon, the fire festival embraces the unexpected.
Beware the semi-naked Red Men who embody the spirits of chaos and lust – and that have a licence for mischief – as you watch the May Queen kill the Green Man, to fulfil the promise of new beginnings.
Blackawton International festival of Wormcharming
Historical? No. Cultural? Not really. Utterly bizarre? Undoubtedly! Find yourself a 1 metre square plot of land and begin charming those worms. The winning team is the team that coaxes the most worms out of their patch without digging or forking. How do they do it? Well, that’s what I’m going there to find out.
World Waterbombing Championships
The English continue the general nuttiness with the creation of a sport that everyone is good at: Waterbombing. And it’s all in the name of charity.
Wear fancy dress,make the biggest splash, collect the adulation. Simple but effective.
The pirate invasion festival of Es Firo commemorates the 1561 storming of the coastal village of Sóller by 22 Algerian galleons. Yet the festival is no static historical tribute but a full reenactment of the invasion including guns firing and even small catapults. Storm the Harbour; Seize the Town!
Through the smoke and the shouting, witness the clash between the invading army and the townsfolk, all in period dress, as the pirate menace is defeated and the town saved!
World Toe Wrestling Championships
Toe-to-toe, or rather toe-on-toe, action. Clip your nails, limber up those joints and get ready for a toe-down! Heading into its 38th annual Championships, toe-wresting should be a serious contender for future Olympics.
Combining skill, strategy and digital dexterity, I may have to face up against 10-time winner and current Champion, Alan ‘Nasty’ Nash if I’m to take out the crown of world’s best toe-wrestler…
Maldon Mud Race
Dress up, run round, get filthy. What better way to celebrate than in the cold, cold English mud… Doesn’t stop them having a lot of fun though!
The world’s quintessential ridiculous competition…A wheel of cheese, a dangerously steep slope. Beat your tumbling, flailing and rolling opponents to the bottom of Cooper’s Hill (and survive) and you get to keep the cheese.
One of the best examples of how far sensible people will go for a piece of cheese the size of their heads. Injuries are expected and yet competition survives despite numerous attempts by Health and Safety zealots to shut the event down!
The Hopping Procession of Echternach
In 2010 UNESCO added Echternach’s ‘Dancing Procession’ to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with the event’s history dating back to at least 1100 BC. Thousands of people turn up to dance with crisp white handkerchiefs in honour of St Willibrord.
Why you ask? Well, no one really knows, but they don’t let that stop them!
Calcio Storico – Medieval Football
The World Game gets medieval! An early precursor to football/soccer, Calcio Fiorentino – as it’s otherwise known – was a game played by Italian aristocrats and even Popes. It was marked by its violence and even caused the visiting King of France to pronounce the sport “Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game”.
Now only played in Florence once a year, Calcio Storico involves pomp, ceremony and parades off the field and headbutts, choking, and half-naked brutality on the field. To modern sports fans this is a blood-pumping look back into the bloodier history of sport.
Gioco Del Ponte – Battle of the Bridge
It’s the Pisans’ turn for period costume and processions when the leaning city of Pisa puts on its annual Battle for the Bridge. ‘Armies’ from the city’s various neighbourhoods, march through town with tremendous fanfare to face off against each other for control of the Ponte de Mezzo bridge.
The Gioco Del Ponte traces its origins back to the 16th century under the Medici and, unlike Calcio Storico, is a bloodless contest. The armies meet on the bridge and, like reverse tug-of-war, try to push the opposing army back and win honour for their district.
Il Palio di Siena
The Il Palio – which translates as ‘The Prize’ – is a twice annual horse race around Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Yet this is not the safe, sanitised Sport of Kings. This is bareback, breakneck, whip-your-opponents-as-well-as-your-horse style racing to a roaring crowd. This is blink and you’ll miss it action, with the race’s 3 laps usually only taking a total of 90 second. And though all the horses will start with a rider, the horses may not necessarily finish with one. A huge pageant precedes the race, with all of the rich ceremony required of any Italian festival.
World Bodypainting Festival
The best of the world’s bodypaint artists descend on Austria for a festival devoted to making their subjects look anything but human. At once gorgeous, seductive, disconcerting and unbelievable, the festival rewards the weird and the wonderful.
Wattolümpiade – Mud Olympics
Get a team together and flop about in the mud flats of the River Elbe competing in such illustrious events as Mud Football, the Mud Eel Race and the Rubber Boot Toss. If cleanliness is next to godliness then a great deal of absolution will be in order as the thick, rich mud turns upstanding Germans into creatures from the Black Lagoon.
As much fun as it is dirty!
Festival of the Unusual
Set in the beautiful countryside of Brittany, the French get their weird on with a festival devoted to the sports you never thought were sports. Hospital bed racing, Crepe Launching, Apricot Kernel spitting, Egg Throwing. Get the chance to set a world record! All in the name of laughter, fun and Summer.
Summer inspires competitive expectoration this sleepy French town famous for its prunes. Combining humanity’s shared love of competition, spitting and excellent digestive health, St Livrade’s iconic sport sees over 100 locals take part. But to be the best you have to beat the current world record spit of 10m 95 cm…
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
It would be highly remiss not to visit the world’s largest festival dedicated the underside of humour and art, the Edinburgh Fringe, where the strange comes in every shape and size, and the bizarre gets bigger every year. Last year, 24,107 artists performed in 2,871 shows, selling almost 2 million tickets. From stand-up comedy in haunted catacombs to theatre in a public toilet, The Fringe is a wondrous and surreal experience.
With Summer in full swing Europeans are taking to the water: In Belgium that includes in their bathtub. To compete in the Annual Bathtub Regatta all you need do is: get some mates, Pimp yo Bathtub (the more elaborate and ridiculous the better), somehow get your floating monstrosity onto the Meuse River, and then enjoy the leisurely 1km float through the pretty city of Dinant.
Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling
Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales
The Welsh are generally known for their lilting accent, their love of tractors, and their rugby team. Not for their off-beat sense of humour. But then how do you reconcile the Welsh with the creation of what is probably the world’s most absurd sport?
Re-engineer a mountain bike by augmenting its already pronounced ability to sink in water by adding lead to the frame and water to the inner tubes of the wheel. Then challenge people to ride underwater through a cold Welsh bog, around a marker and back again, armed only with a snorkel (and if you’re lucky, fancy dress). It’s ridiculous, it’s hardly a spectator sport…and I can’t wait to give it a shot! And for the athletic among you, there is also the Bog Snorkelling Triathlon.
Square Boules Championships
Live in a town on the top of hill and want to play Pétanque (the French version of the Italian ball game Bocce) without having to chase your balls down-hill? In the picturesque town of Cagnes-sur-Mer they have solved the problem: use square balls! Then host the world-championships! Genius.
Chüefladefäscht – Cow Pat Golf
The Swiss Alps are not known for their golf courses, for obvious reasons. So the local farmers have come up with their own version, turning a yearly chore into a tourist sport. With Summer drawing to a close, cow deposits litter the grazing hills of the famous Swiss fields. Yet the cow-cakes don’t break down fast enough to be integrated into the soil before next year’s grazing season and Switzerland’s fussy cows would be unlikely to eat the grass in that pasture, if encountering their last year’s offerings.
So it has been an age-old chore for farmers to smash the cow pats apart. Some smart cookie added a golf club and voila! you have a sport that non-locals will come and do for free! Simple, manipulative yet unabashed fun, against one of the world’s most spectacular backdrops.
Many places around the world have strange festivals devoted to a single fruit or vegetable species, yet how does the World’s Largest Pumpkin Festival distinguish itself from your run-of-the-mill produce-devoted gathering? Well, you hollow it out and turn it into a boat race! Not only that, you do it in the shadow of a gorgeous German Palace.
If you’ve ever wanted to see hundreds of thousands of pumpkins in one place, or appreciate pumpkin art in all it’s forms then the Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival is going to pop your socks.