Festivals are perhaps the easiest way to sample Europe’s immense variety of cultures and histories. For the time poor, this guide represents a cross-section of the continent’s most popular gatherings. Music, film, art, theatre – taste some of it, taste all of it.
Carnevale di Venezia, Venice, Italy
When: Yearly from mid January to the start of Lent
The Carnival of Venice began circa 1162 AD and has run almost every year since, save for a two-century hiatus that began in the Napoleonic era and ended in 1979. It’s a slow-burner of an event, beginning between January and February and ending at the beginning of Lent, forty days before Easter.
The carnival opens at St Mark’s Square to exuberant fanfare: you’ve got dress-up contests, musical and theatrical performances, balls, and feasts. The carnival celebrations are probably most famously punctuated by the elaborate white masks you’ll see everyone wearing.
Mardi Gras is the world’s derivation of Carnival di Venezia, and shares the original spirit of frivolity and exaltation of culture for culture’s own sake.
La Tomatina, Spain
When: 30 August
The immortal (and, depending on who you ask, unverified) tale of La Tomatina’s inception is nonetheless close to its present-day reality. Back in 1945, a group of young people at the Los Gigantes Carnaval in Bunol started throwing tomatoes at each other; unsurprisingly, the participants and onlookers loved the novelty, and it became an institution. Spain made it an official annual fixture in 1957, and now, you can join the battle. It happens on 30 August this year so book your flights accordingly.
Cannes International Film Festival, France
When: 17 to 28 May
Every year a near-tangible buzz overwhelms the bucolic streets and alleyways of Cannes, as the who’s-who of the international film industry fly into the Cote d’Azur to celebrate the film festival of film festivals. While much of the Cannes Film Festival is locked down tight, the public can participate in select screenings and huddle beside press photo-stops in hopes of seeing world-famous celebrities in the flesh. Anyone who’s been we’ll tell you the magic of Cannes Film Festival has little to do with the films, or even the coveted Palme d’Or; the place becomes an effervescent hub of comingling cultures. Eat at a restaurant by the beach, catch a screening under the stars at Cine ma de la Plage; whatever you do, your very existence will justify the festival’s purpose.
When:16 September to 3 October
Don’t like beer? No matter. Oktoberfest is a people festival, a social gathering elevated by song, dance, and brilliantly hearty food. The event is a convivial, open-air, open-plan affair held on the Theresienwiese, which is the official space set aside for the festivities. Munich is a boisterous place during Oktoberfest: you’ll go on rides, wave at männer und frauen passing by your table on gigantic stein-shaped floats, and listen to traditional German music performed live. Whatever you do, make sure you spring for a litre-sized stein and toast your fellow human in singular style.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, England
When: 29 May 2017
During what may be Europe’s most bizarrely entertaining festival, the citizens of Gloucester – plus whoever else is fortunate enough to be present – roll a seven-pound wheel of cheese down a series of hills varying in steepness. Participants in their hundreds compete to catch the cheese before it reaches the bottom of the hill. That’s it, and it’s been that way for around two centuries. Injuries are common, but as local reports detail, they’re commonly hilarious. Be one of the thousands who flock in hopes of seeing a victor capture the cheese; or, if you’re well-insured and game, consider contending yourself.