Europe & the UK: Top 5 festivals



It’s playtime: One brave soul climbs to the top of a greased wooden pole to retrieve the coveted ham at the apex and then the water cannons are fired to signal the start of La Tomatina. The streets of the town of Buñol are soon covered in over 110 tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes in what is surely the world’s craziest food fight. After exactly one hour, the water cannons are fired to signal the end of the fight and fire trucks arrive to hose down the streets. The festival continues over the ensuing days with music, parades, dancing, fireworks and a paella cooking contest.

Check the diary: August 29, 2012.

Origins: La Tomatina originated in 1945, though no one is completely sure why it started. One popular theory is that disgruntled townspeople attacked city councilmen with tomatoes during a town celebration.

Sample package: Busabout offers a La Tomatina festival trip priced from $489. The five-day tour also takes in various sightseeing highlights around Valencia, with hostel accommodation.

FAST FACT: La  Tomatina participants  must squelch  tomatoes  before throwing  them, for  safety reasons

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 It’s playtime: A church clock in Pamplona strikes eight in the morning and two rockets are launched. Six bulls are then released from the corral into the streets of the city’s old quarter, charging behind the runners for 825 metres before reaching the bullring. The Running of the Bulls is repeated every morning of the Fiesta de San Fermin, a celebration held in honour of Saint Fermin, the patron saint of the Navarra region. The rest of the festival is a non-stop cacophony of music, dance, fireworks and processions. Spectators are kept safe by a double fence along the route, but would-be participants should beware, there are many injuries each year and 16 people have died since 1910.

Check the diary: July 6 to 14, 2012.

Origins: The Running of the Bulls was borne out of the need to get bulls from outside the city into the bullring. Spanish folklore suggests that the event first took place during the early 14th century.

Sample package: Topdeck offers several Running of the Bulls trips, staying in a campsite or apartment. The five-day Camping Make Your Own Way starts from $379.

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It’s playtime: The use of masks to create illusion was behind the early Venice Carnival, as it meant there was no differentiation between the nobility and the common people. People wearing elaborate, colourful masks and costumes stroll the streets of Italy’s most romantic city during this festival, while in the squares, street-artists and singers entertain visitors. Venice Carnival is also chock-a-block full of events including a contest for the best masked costume.

Check the diary: February 2 to 12, 2013.

Origins: Venice Carnival is believed to have originated from a political victory for Venice around the 1200s, where the people danced and celebrated in St Mark’s Square.

Sample package: Clients heading to the Venice Carnival can discover more of Italy afterwards, with the new MSC Divina departing Genoa on February 10, 2013 – also taking in Spain, Morocco and Portugal on a 12-day itinerary. Prices start from $999.

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It’s playtime: While the marching bands playing their powerfully stirring music are the stars of the show, it’s magnificent Edinburgh Castle as the stage that makes it so magical. The castle slumbers until nightfall, when the footlights transform it into a dazzling backdrop and the massive gates open to a swell of pipes and drums. The tunes are echoes of Scotland’s glorious and often tragic past, played by men from four continents who are soldiers first and musicians second. Around 217,000 people attend the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo during its season.

Check the diary: August 3 to 25, 2012.

Origins: The first Edinburgh Tattoo took place in 1950. The word “tattoo” comes from the closing-time cry in the inns during the 17th and 18th centuries – “doe den tap toe” which means “turn off the taps”.

Sample package: Tickets to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo are included with select departures of Globus’s 17-day The Best of the British Isles, which departs from London. Prices start from $3099.

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It’s playtime: Teetotallers, this one isn't for you. The beer and bratwurst – accompanied by the raucous singing of merry Germans and overseas visitors – might scare you a little. But regardless of how much you choose to imbibe at Oktoberfest, the fact is that it’s all about large-scale fun. There are 14 beer tents to check out, from the massive Lowenbrau tent through to the cosy Glöckle Wirt – the smallest tent. And to soak up the beer, a variety of Bavarian dishes are served up at each tent.

Check the diary: September 22 to October 7, 2012.

Origins: The marriage of King Ludwig I to Princess Therese of Bavaria was celebrated with festivities for Munich’s residents. Horse races marked the close of the event and the decision to repeat them the following year gave rise to Oktoberfest.

Sample package: Contiki offers the choice of camping, hostel and hotel accommodation options for Oktoberfest. Clients can travel on the coach from London or make their own way to Munich. A seven-day trip from London, staying in a hostel, starts from $659.

FAST FACT: 1L of beer at Oktoberfest,  known as a “mass”,  will set you  back around 9€ ($11)

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