Add a Festival to Your European Vacation (Part 1)

People & Culture

Add a Festival to Your European Vacation (Part 1)

If you are heading on a European vacation, why not check out what special events are taking place during your time there.

On my travels, purely by coincidence, I came across three festivals I had never heard of which I will never forget. They certainly enhanced my visit. As far as Europe is concerned, there are countless festivals, some of international fame and others perhaps only known locally. I have compiled a list of festivals and events which I feel have some significance, large or small. You may know of others equally interesting to enhance your European vacation.

United Kingdom

Starting in London there is the Lord Mayor’s Show, which takes place usually in November. It started back in 1215, the days of King John, in barges sailing up the River Thames. Now it takes place in a Stage Coach. This colourful procession spreads over three and a half miles, between the Bank of England in the city and the Aldwych.

The Notting Hill Carnival in August is basically a street party spread over two days. It is staged by the Caribbean community who put on parades with exotically dressed participants, mostly dancing and singing to the beat of steel bands. There is also a main stage showcasing performances by musicians, singers, and dancers. Caribbean food is available too.

For gardening lovers, there is the Chelsea Flower Show held in May over 5 days. The show features award-winning gardens, rare flowers and plants, and the ability to check out the latest in gardening tools and garden sculptures. In other words, everything for the avid gardener.

Chrysanthemums at Chelsea Flower Show, London, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Chrysanthemums at Chelsea Flower Show, London

Just outside London, Royal Ascot takes place in Ascot, Berkshire, just 10 kilometres/6 miles from Windsor Castle, hence the Royal connection, as members of the Royal Family usually attends. This is a horse race event unlike any other. It is staged over 26 days between May and October, but the Royal Meet is held in June and lasts for 5 days. The Gold Cup is the main draw and is on Ladies Day when you can see them fashionably dressed “to the nines.” If you can find a way to obtain an invitation to the Royal Enclosure, a dress code is strictly enforced. Women must wear a day dress with a hat, and for men, black or grey morning apparel with a top hat is required.

A rather unusual and bizarre, but not major, festival to discover on your European vacation takes place in Devon, in southwest England. This is one I found out about when visiting friends who live there. It’s called the Ottery St. Mary’s Tar Barrels, an annual tradition dating back to the 17th century, which takes place in November. Seventeen men carry 17 tarred barrels aloft through the town. The catch is that the tar is lit and the barrels are ablaze. Only those who were born in the town or lived there for a long time are allowed to take part. Originally, it was supposed to ward off evil spirits.

Painting of East Devon countryside view from East Hill Blackdown Hills near Ottery St Mary, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Painting of East Devon countryside view from East Hill Blackdown Hills near Ottery St Mary

The Llangollen International Eisteddfod in Wales takes place over six days in July. It is a music festival incorporating everything from choral music to folk singing and dancing. Approximately 4000 performers take part. There is a competition called Choirs of the World to determine the best overall choir at the festival.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival Bagpiper, Scotland, UK (United Kingdom)
Edinburgh Fringe Festival bagpiper

This festival should not be confused with the International Eisteddfod of Wales held in August. The venue changes every year so that most major cities and towns in Wales get to host it. All competitions are in the Welsh language. It is a festival mainly involving poetry and drama.

In Scotland, there is the famous Edinburgh Festival in August. This is truly an international event as it features performers from all over the world over 3 weeks in Edinburgh. The multitude of performances includes opera, plays, classical and popular concerts, and dance. Then there is the Fringe Festival taking place at the same time, featuring everything from comedy shows to cabaret, theatre, dance, and many surprises.

Taking place in a small Scottish Aberdeenshire village, the Braemar Highland Games is an event in September for unusual sports such as caber-tossing, tug-of-wars, a hill race, hammer-throwing, and stone putting. These games date back over 900 years.

Ireland

The Galway International Arts Festival takes place in July for 2 weeks. This is an exceptional arts and entertainment festival held in Galway, Ireland, featuring theatre, dance, visual arts, music, and literature with participants from both Ireland and overseas. It attracts over 150,000 visitors each year. In the past, such luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Brad Mehldau, and Philip Glass have performed there, as well as the Abbey Theatre from Dublin, the Royal Court Theatre from London, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Steppenwolf Theatre from Chicago. British newspaper, The Guardian, said, “Rarely encountered a better festival or one that more exhilaratingly mixed the local and the international.”

Enjoying the evening during Galway Art Festival with Big Top and Cathedral on the bank of Corrib river in Galway, Ireland
Enjoying the evening during Galway Art Festival, with “Big Top” and Cathedral on the bank of Corrib River

The Belfast International Arts Festival taking place in October is an important arts festival in Belfast, featuring drama, music, theatre, film, dance, and talks from around the world. This lasts for 3 weeks with many international participants.

Dublin’s fair city has three festivals for you to consider. There is the International Literature Festival, which attracts writer and poetry participants from all over the world who give readings, have discussions, and debates. Another is the Bloomsday Festival which is a week-long celebration of James Joyce’s writings through readings and performances. Both of these are in June. The Dublin Theatre Festival lasts through September and October and covers performances from drama to opera.

Kilkenny is an attractive medieval city in the south of Ireland and holds the Kilkenny Arts Festival every August, lasting 10 days. It primarily includes classical music and has featured in the past artists such as Alfred Brendel, Nigel Kennedy, and Joshua Bell. It also stages open-air productions of Shakespeare. One attraction of this festival is that the events take place in the city’s historic churches, castle, courtyards, townhouses, and gardens.

Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
Kilkenny Castle

Italy

I mentioned coming across festivals by accident. Il Palio in Siena was one of these. And was I lucky to see it! This is a very special and colourful event which takes place twice a year in Italy, once in late June/early July and again in August. The pageant starts with a horse race around the central square – a contest between the many districts/neighbourhoods of Siena. The whole day of the race is taken up with processions through the streets of the various neighbourhoods competing in the competition. After the race, the winning horse, rider, and citizens celebrate by parading around the city for several days.

Panoramic view of Piazza del Campo during the Palio of Siena, Italy
Panoramic view of Piazza del Campo during Il Palio, Siena

I’m sure many know the song, The Carnival of Venice. The festival goes by the same name. The Carnival of Venice is a celebration in the same vein as Mardi Gras, as it celebrates the same event. It consists of colourful costumed parades, masquerades, competitions, and much more taking place in the streets of Venice. Locals wear elaborate masks and visitors on their European vacation are also encouraged to do so.

France

Close-up of Military Parade during Bastille Day ceremonies, Paris, France
Close-up of military parade during Bastille Day ceremonies, Paris

Every year, since 1880, the year after the storming of the Bastille, Bastille Day is celebrated in Paris on July 14th, with festivities honouring the Republic of France. There is a military parade with several thousand soldiers, police officers, and firefighters taking part, plus a flyover by France’s air force, trailing smoke in the red, white, and blue of the national French flag. The high point of the festival is a free concert in the afternoon on the Champs-de-Mars near the Eiffel Tower. It includes 250 musicians of the National Orchestra of France and the Radio France Choir. This is followed by a fireworks display at Eiffel Tower. Actually, Paris is not the only city to hold celebrations this day.

In early October, Parisians celebrate their ‘national drink’ at the Grape Festival Harvest in Montmartre, Paris. There is a vineyard, believe it or not, right in the heart of Paris, and once a year, the inhabitants gather in the streets of Montmartre for a joyous and convivial festival that celebrates the new grape harvest.

The Avignon Festival is an annual arts festival held every summer in July, in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes as well as in other locations in the city. The performing arts festival has been compared to the Edinburgh Festival with its main performances and fringe ones. Last year’s festival featured some 950 shows over 3 weeks in theatre, dance, music, and fine arts.

Panoramic view of Avignon Papal Palace (Palais des Papes) and Bridge at night, Avignon, France
Panoramic view of Avignon’s Papal Palace (Palais des Papes) and Bridge at night, Avignon

Next:
Add a Festival to Your European Vacation (Part 2)