Crazy celebrations populate every page of the European calendar, and going to as many of these fun festivals in Europe as I can is really high on my travel to-do list. Fun festivals in Europe like The Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, and my favorite Oktoberfest may garner the boldest headlines and biggest crowds, but there is definitely a solid second tier of probably-just-as-great and often quirkier festivals that are also well worth seeking out.
Since it’s summer and all and some people may be heading to Europe, I decided to list some of the summer ones I would really like to go to one day along with the dates they happen.
Festa de São João – Porto, Portugal – June 23rd & 24th
If you have always dreamed about what it would be like to wander the streets of a riverside town whacking strangers over the head with a plastic hammer – and let’s face it, who hasn’t? – Porto’s Festa de São João (Feast of St. John) is the festival for you. Saint John is Porto’s patron saint, and every year the town uses his feast day as an excuse to let loose and have a two-day fiesta. The party percolates during family gatherings on the afternoon of June 23rd, gathers steam through a firework-filled evening, then boils over to beach parties welcoming sunrise on St. John’s Day, June 24th. Throughout all the fun, the historic hilly streets of Porto are alive with singing, dancing, wine-swigging, and the ubiquitous bopping of plastic hammers on skulls. The toy hammer-to-the-head tradition originated as a light tap from a leek, but has mysteriously evolved over the years and taken on a life of its own.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling – Gloucestershire, England – Last Monday in May
An annual star of the lighthearted last segment on your local nightly news and the Zippo awards, the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling competition is no laughing matter to those who participate in the chase. At the top of a protractor-snapping steep hill in the emerald green English countryside, a wheel of Gloucestershire cheese is let loose, reaching breakneck speeds as it whizzes down the incline being chased by scores of “normal people” looking to survive the descent and claim the prize. While the prize may be just a wheel of cheese, the bragging rights at the pub apparently last a lifetime. Spectators are the real winners at the raucous Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling, as they are regularly treated to hilarious scenes of racers going head-over-heels down the hill and falling face-first on to a table of cheese on their quest to be a cheese champion.
Wine War -Haro, Spain, June 29th
Spain is hands-down the capital of “projectile festivals”, most notably Los Indianos, where revelers toss talcum powder on each other; Els Enfarinats, which is a flour-flinging fest; and La Tomatina, where revelers famously throw tomatoes. It only seems natural that a wine-soaked fiesta would somehow spring to life in Spain as well, and the region of Rioja, Haro provides just that. The Wine War starts quietly with a long procession to a local church to say mass, but on the way back the rowdiness begins as the masses start drenching each other with the local red wine via water guns, buckets, and any other spraying device they can get their hands on. Participants whose white shirts have been turned pink then flock en masse to Haro’s medieval town center to polish off the rest of the wine in town while swapping tips for removing wine stains.
Il Palio – Siena, Italy, July 2nd & August 16th
Take the Kentucky Derby to a piazza of a Tuscan hill town and put life-or-death neighborhood pride on the line instead of horse-racing prestige, and you have a tiny taste of what the thunderous fun of Il Palio is all about. Siena, one of the most eye-catching of Tuscan hill towns (allegedly), is home to this riveting horse race twice a year, and crowds come from near and far to be a part of this thrill ride. Siena is divided into seventeen districts called contradas, and during this race the contradas all compete for bragging rights by being represented by a heroic or villainous rider (depending on how he finishes). As it has for centuries, after plenty of colorful pomp and circumstance, the bareback race furiously charges around a dirt track in the Piazza del Campo for approximately 90 seconds . The winning contrada gets the spoils, a banner called a palio to put on a high pedestal in their neighborhood and enjoys a raucous feast filled with wine and grilled meat from the losing horses. Nope, actually I’m being told I just made that last part up.
An earlier version of this post appeared in U.S. News & World Report.