There’s no better (or more fun) way to explore a culture than to discover what they deem worthy of honour and celebration.
The world loves a party—a reason to feast on succulent delicacies and giggle over tasty intoxicants, to exchange with loved ones sentiments of merriment and well-wishing, to sense an ancestral connection by engaging in cultural traditions and sacred practices, or just to throw tomatoes at strangers.
That’s why this two-part mini-series is devoted to the World’s Best Festivals. If you missed it, here’s Part 1 of the World’s Best Festivals from the beginning, otherwise continue reading to discover the greatest fiestas on earth.
Buñol, Spain on last Wednesday in August
There are certain festivals whose sacred traditions are deeply rooted in ancient religion—and then there’s La Tomatina, which began in 1945 during the Giants and Big Heads parade when the raucousness of the crowd caused an individual to take an accidental tumble from one of the floats. The fallen man was so enraged that he grabbed tomatoes from the cart of a nearby produce vendor and began to hurl them at the masses, instigating an impromptu food fight that was eventually broken up by police.
Residents evidently found great joy in the excuse to pelt their neighbours with fruit as the following year a number of attendees brought their own tomatoes to chuck. Officials were wary of the mischief and tomfoolery that La Tomatina seemed to promote and the festival was banned in the early 1950s.
Much to the relief of food fight aficionados everywhere, it was reinstated in 1957 after citizens protested by citing the “death of the tomato” and parading a giant tomato in a coffin through the streets, accompanied by a band playing a funeral march. Nowadays, the festival draws tens of thousands of people and is organized by town council. Note that not just any muchacho can strut in and fling a tomato—this is a ticketed event.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil just before the start of Lent
Hold onto your sequins—this is arguably the most plumed, panache and pumpin’ street party on the planet. Though similar revelries are held around the globe (such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans), none compare with the celebrations in Rio, which draw approximately two million people to the streets every day and date back to 1723. If there was ever a place to shake your tail feather, this is it.
Lent is a Christian observance stretching for 40 days prior to Easter. During this time, devotees abstain from one or more pleasurable activities in a demonstration of penance. Carnival and other such festivals are thus seen as a final hurrah before the commencement of nearly six weeks of atonement and prayer. Of course, there are partygoers whose antics predictably result in their having more to repent for during their time of spiritual reflection and reparation, but hey, isn’t that all part of it?
During the parade, motorized floats, costumed dancers and brass musicians represent over 200 samba schools: groups of neighbourhoods collaborating due to an overarching geographical or micro-cultural commonality. The choreography and themes of each school depict a specific style, mood or story.
Samba is a dance that originated in the ghettos and was inspired by tribal African rhythm and movement (the homeland traditions of African slaves brought to Brazil). The most common samba in Rio is performed in the style of batucada, which is characterized by percussion-led music.
Many of Carnival’s main events are ticketed, such as the parade occurring in the Sambadrome and the balls in the Copacabana Palace. That said, there is an abundance of street parties to which everybody is welcome.
Munich, Germany either mid or late September until early October
If you’ve ever sought an excuse to wear lederhosen, the world’s most infamous beer and folk festival is it. Over six and a half million people from around the world annually flock to Bavaria to lend their taste buds to fare including schweinebraten (roast pork) and brezen (pretzels), and their ear drums to music from yesteryear (brass instruments) and today (Schlager pop).
There are also amusement park rides and carnival style games, and a parade with horse-and-carriage floats and marchers showing off traditional Germanic costumes.
Oh yeah, and then there’s the brew. Beer may only be served at Oktoberfest if it has been brewed in Munich and conforms to the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law).
The first Oktoberfest was held in 1810 in honour of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Festivities included a beer and wine tasting, a parade of children donning Wittlelsbach and other regionally representative fashions, and a horse race (the latter of which was likewise an Oktoberfest tradition until its discontinuation in 1960).
Nowadays, the celebration commences with the mayor of Munich tapping the inaugural barrel and declaring, “O’zapft is!” (“It’s tapped!”).
As with La Tomatina and Carnival, if you are planning on attending Oktoberfest remember to book your accommodation well in advance and be prepared for crowds and price hikes during this time.
The world is brimming with innumerable festivals honouring beliefs, traditions, histories, events, people, food, music, dancing, art, sport, nature and the spirit of love, goodwill and playfulness. Listed in this mini-series are only a miniscule fraction of the revelries occurring in every (and any) recess of the globe on any (and every) day of the year.
Regardless of the ills plaguing humanity, we are a tenacious species—as is evident in that we always find elements of life to celebrate. The next time you’re on the road, why not join in on a local festival? After all, there’s no denying it: everybody loves a party.
- Sue Bedford wrote a travel column for Outpost and is author of It’s Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker (excerpt here), which is available from Brindle & Glass at Amazon and other online retailers.