Location: Vassilyevsky Spusk, Moscow, Russia

Dates: Last week before Lent

Description: Akin to Mardi Gras, Russia’s only surviving pagan festival celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring, kicking off Orthodox Lent on a very full stomach. The word ‘Maslenitsa’ comes from the Russian for butter, which is a key ingredient in the festive treat, bliny (pancakes). Besides bingeing on Russian pancakes, the week-long festival features horse-drawn sledges, storytelling clowns and beer-drinking bears. It culminates with the burning of a scarecrow to welcome spring, as well as with Forgiveness Day, in which people traditionally ask their family and friends for forgiveness for wrongdoings in the past year.

Maslenitsa is celebrated throughout Russia but has been truly revived in the last few years in Moscow where a ‘Maslenitsa town’ is created in Vassilyevsky Spusk near Red Sq. In St Petersburg, the Mariinsky Theatre celebrates Maslenitsa with special festival performances.
Essentials: In truth, it’s a little early to call this a spring rite, with temperatures in Moscow continuing to hover around -10°C for weeks, so come with plenty of warm clothing.

Local Attractions:
 Wander through the Kremlin for a brush with Cold War powerbrokers, and then tread the cobblestones in Red Sq with the wonderful onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral (and the embalmed body of Lenin) for company.

More Info:
 www.maslenitsa.com


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Location: Venues throughout Austin, USA. The trade show is in the Austin Convention Center.

Dates: Dates vary in early to mid-March

Description: Here’s further proof that things really are big in Texas, with a music festival so large it has almost single-handedly earned Austin the title of ‘live music capital of the world’. Started in 1987, it brings the music industry and performers together for 10 days – bands come to be discovered and music execs come to discover. During the day, industry buffs head to the Austin Convention Center to talk shop at a trade show, and by night more than 1200 acts perform at 50 or so venues across the city. Coupled to the music festival, SXSW has swelled in recent years to include a film festival and conference and a festival for interactive media.

Essentials: Registering for a Platinum Badge (around $800 to $1100, depending on how far ahead you buy it) gets you into all three trade shows, conferences, screenings, clubs and VIP lounges. A Music Badge ($500 to $650) allows entry into the music conference, trade show and nightly gigs.

Local Attractions: If you want more live music just spend an ordinary day in Austin, where bands regularly play at supermarkets, record shops – even at the airport. The Texas State Capitol is 5m taller than the US Capitol.

More Info: sxsw.com

Location: Valencia, Spain. The fireworks displays are in Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

Dates: 12–19 March

 

 

Description: Exuberant and anarchic, Las Fallas is Europe’s wildest spring party, which is a pretty big deal for what is essentially a glorified puppet show. It’s a time when the city is all but taken over by the fallas, which are huge sculptures of papier-mâché on wood, built by teams of local artists. Each neighbourhood sponsors its own falla, and when the town wakes after the plantà (overnight placement of the fallas) on the morning of 16 March, more than 350 have been erected. Reaching up to 15m in height, with the most expensive costing more than €350,000 to build, these grotesque, colourful effigies satirise celebrities, current affairs and local customs.

Though the festival begins on 12 March, it doesn’t really get going until after the plantà. The fallas are placed at various locations around the city and you have four days to wander about checking out the displays as well as revelling in the around-the-clock festivities, which include street parties, paella-cooking competitions, parades, open-air concerts and bullfights.

What Las Fallas truly prides itself on is fireworks, with afternoon shows that also reach their peak on 16 March. Valencia considers itself the pyrotechnic capital of the world and each day at 2pm a mascletà (more than five minutes of deafening thumps and explosions) literally shakes the city, so much so that pregnant women are banned from attending a mascletà…this could be one of the loudest events you’ve witnessed.

Unsurprisingly, Las Fallas’ grand finale involves fireworks when, at midnight on the final day, each falla goes up in flames in another fiery explosion, with months of work turning to ash in seconds. Thirty minutes after midnight, it’s the turn of the falla judged the festival’s best to be burned. It’s hardly the spoils of victory.

Las Fallas is held in honour of St Joseph’s Day (19 March), though it’s said to trace its origins to a pagan celebration of the spring equinox. The first records of the festival are from the late 15th century. Banned in the mid-19th century, and then taxed almost out of existence, the fallas were revived in the 1880s. Today, the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Essentials: Come prepared for a manic few days. Maps are available to guide you between the fallas displays – pick one up at the regional tourist office at Calle Paz 48.

Local Attractions: Visit the aesthetically stunning Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts & Sciences), which is mostly the work of local architect Santiago Calatrava, designer of the new World Trade Center site in New York. Inside, you can go marine at the Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest aquarium.

More Info: 
Valencia Tourism & Convention Bureau (www.turis valencia.es)

Source: worldnomads.com

Location: Rynek Glówny, Krakow, Poland

 

Dates: Thursday after Corpus Christi

 According to Polish legend, when the head of Krakow’s defensive raftsmen defeated a Tatar marauder in the 13th century, he slipped into the Mongolian’s robes and triumphantly rode into the city. The folkloric myth has been celebrated for more than 200 years with the procession of ‘Lajkonik’ through the Gothic city.

Clad in Mongol robes, the fairy-tale figure rides a hobbyhorse topped with peacock feathers, accompanied by the Mlaskoty musical troupe. The pageant proceeds from the Premonstratensian Convent in the suburb of Zwierzyniec to the main square, where the mayor greets Lajkonik and presents him with a symbolic ransom and a goblet of wine. En route, the energetic larrikin dances, jumps, greets passers-by, pops into cafés, collects donations and strikes people with his mace (it’s said to bring good luck).

 Another bizarre tradition, the abruptly ending hejnal trumpet call from a church tower in Rynek Glówny, commemorates the trumpeter who received a Tatar arrow to the throat as he tried to warn medieval Krakow of the approaching threat.

 

Local Attractions: With its basement bars, Krakow’s nightlife is like Prague’s with less stag parties. If you prefer to swot up on Lajkonik, head to the Historical Museum to see the hobbyhorse that was used in the early 20th century. Covered in leather, caparison, nearly a thousand pearls and coral beads, it weighs about 40kg.

 

More Info: www.krakow.pl/en

 


 

 

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Location: Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal

Dates: 12–14 June

 

On the feast day of St Anthony, patron saint of Lisbon, the Portugese capital goes sardine crazy. The winding streets and steep staircases in Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, fill with the smell of sardines being grilled outside little houses and restaurants.

Even by the standards of a coastal country where the population lives on fish dishes, the grilled treats consumed in honour of Anthony of Padua are a tasty snack. The tradition relates to a remarkable event that occurred while the 13th-century Catholic saint was in Rimini, Italy. Depressed that the locals would not listen to his sermons, he wandered to the shore to confide in the fish. Suddenly, row upon row of fish raised their heads above the waves, from nippers in the shallows to sizable listeners in the deep water. Rimini’s townsfolk flocked to witness the fish, which bowed their heads and opened their mouths to show their reverence to the wandering missionary.

There is a parade along Avenida de Liberdade and balconies everywhere are draped with coloured lights, streamers and paper lanterns. And the quirky practices don’t end with sardines. Single girls carry out all sorts of rituals to implore Anthony, known as the matchmaker saint, to help them find a worthy husband. The girl might fill her mouth with water until she hears a man’s name mentioned, or write her suitors’ names on pieces of paper, roll them up and place them in a bowl of water under her bed. In the morning, the piece of paper that has unfurled the most indicates the lucky man.

If girls are really sick of being single, they stand a small statue of Anthony upside down and bury its head, returning it to its proper position only when the hard-working saint has placed their case at the top of his long list of lonely hearts. Men, meanwhile, present the Portugese pomme of their eye with a basil plant containing a love poem. This is a popular practice, and balconies across the city sport pot plants and paper carnations with messages of affection for Anthony or the recipient.

 Unsurprisingly, a popular soundtrack for these activities is fado, the melancholy Portugese music imbued with a sense of longing. Bands often play alongside an image of the saint.

The matchmaking ploys must work. Mass marriages, known as St Anthony’s Weddings, take place in his church, where you can also see the tradition of St Anthony’s Bread. People write prayers and press them, with a small bread roll, into the frame of the saint’s portrait. The practice relates to a woman who agreed to give the poor an amount of wheat equal in weight to her drowned child, who Anthony revived.

 

Local Attractions: One of Europe’s most beautiful cities, Lisbon has architecture from Baroque to Art Deco on its seven hills.

 

More Info: www.visitportugal.com

 


 

 

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Location: Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

Dates: 14–16 June


Billing itself as a festival of progressive music and multimedia arts, Sónar began in 1993 as a hobnobbing opportunity for the music industry and now attracts 80,000 electronica lovers. The cutting-edge festival is an appropriate excuse to visit Barcelona, where Gaudí built psychedelic buildings in the early 1900s and the Spanish Civil War inspired great literary accounts.

 

By day you can discover musical genres such as ‘digital concretism’ by checking out the showcases in the Museum of Contemporary Art and Centre of Contemporary Culture. The buildings, not far from La Rambla in central Barcelona, also host technology demonstrations, record and clothes fairs, multimedia art, and film screenings.

 

By night the chin stroking is replaced by flailing arms when the action shifts to a clubber’s nirvana, with four stages of live acts, DJs and VJs. No wonder the day’s programme starts at midday. The rollcall of international artists who have swung by the Catalonian capital for the event includes Aphex Twin, Björk, De La Soul, Richie Hawtin and the Chemical Brothers.

Essentials: Swot-up on what terms like ‘post-rock’ mean for conversations with electronica enthusiasts.

 

 

Local Attractions: If you have any energy left after climbing Gaudí’s modernist basilica, the Sagrada Família, Barcelona has galleries devoted to Picasso and the surrealist Miró, who both spent periods here.

 

 

More Info: www.sonar.es

Location: Palazzo Medici, Pisa, Italy 

Dates: 17 June

 

Venice may be famous for its gondolas, but across the country, Pisa stages this 1500m dash up the River Arno, a tradition dating to the 1290s. The four narrow rowboats, differently coloured to represent the city’s four districts, each contain a steersman, a climber, and eight oarsmen struggling against the current.

 

The finishing line is a boat anchored at Palazzo Medici, a location decided in 1737 upon the request of the Duke of Montelimar, who was staying in one of the palaces there. The climbers must scale one of four cables to the top of the boat’s 10m mast and grab apaliotto (triangular, silk banner). The blue banner indicates first place, white is second, and red is third. The winners receive an animal such as an ox or a rooster; the losers are awarded with a pair of goslings and torrents of abuse from onlookers.

 

 The regatta originally celebrated Assumption and moved to St Ranieri’s feast day in 1718. On the eve of the high-speed celebration of the city’s patron saint, Luminara is an altogether more sombre event. Some 70,000 candles in glass holders are arranged along the bridges, palaces and churches overlooking the river, their flickering reflections broken only by candles bobbing on the water.

  

Local Attractions: Pisa is famous for its 12th-century leaning tower, which was recently straightened by 45cm to save it from collapse.

 


 

 

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Location: Dublin, Ireland

 

Dates: 16 June

 

In order to create the critical distance required to write about Dublin, the great Irish scribe James Joyce went into self-imposed exile. In contrast, the biggest decision Bloomsday’s Joyce-loving participants face is which pub to visit next.

 

The Joyce fest takes place on the date when the writer took his future wife Nora on their first outing in 1904. This was also the day he chose to set his scarily long masterpiece,Ulysses. Bloomsday’s literary pilgrims make life reflect art by descending on the locations visited by the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. The tradition began in 1954, when some local writers commandeered horse-drawn cabs and attempted to visit all the locations in the modernist yarn.

 

Dressed in Edwardian costume, Joyceans from around the world stop at landmarks such as Davy Byrne’s pub, where they mimic Bloom and tuck into a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy. Beginning with a full Irish breakfast – another reference to the kidney-scoffing Bloom, not to mention a good fortification for all the ‘dark stuff’ to come – the day includes readings, performances, guided walks and talks. Fanatics have held marathon readings of the 250,000-word novel, and the centenary celebrations in 2004 saw 10,000 people treated to an open-air full Irish breakfast.

 

Local Attractions: The capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin is brimming with beautiful Georgian architecture and inviting pubs.

 

More Info: www.visitdublin.com

 


 

 

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Location: Heimaey, Westmann Islands, Iceland

 

Dates: Verslunarmannahelgi (first weekend in August)

 

All over Iceland, bonfires are lit and vodka is shared to celebrate the ratification the country’s constitution in 1874, but Heimay hosts the mother of all parties. Some 10,000 people make like the local puffins and flock to the only inhabited Westmann island for a music festival on the edge of the world.

Scandinavian bands like Sigur Rós take to the stage, but the music is perhaps the least remarkable aspect of the event. For starters, the stage is in the shadow of a volcano, which last erupted in 1973. The chilly climate induces an extreme degree of heart- and hide-warming camaraderie, with singsongs rolling across the site between sets. At night, the festival hotfoots it to the huge bonfire halfway up the volcano. 

Not that there’s much night, of course. Due to its position at the top of the map, Iceland experiences almost endless daylight during the summer, a situation that’s cruelly reversed during the winter. At the festival, roving bands of ‘sleep police’ kindly encourage catnappers not to waste the day. The gangs’ job is easy – most people are more interested in warming themselves with a bottle of vodka or a fellow Arctic beauty.

 

Essentials: Bring your thermal underwear and a strong constitution.

 

 

Local Attractions: Surtsey Island was thrown up by a volcanic fissure in 1963.

 

 

More info: Reykjavic Tourist Information Centre: (   +354 590 1550   )

 


 

 

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Location: Old Market, Trie Sur Baïse, Hautes-Pyrénées, France

 

 Dates: Second Sunday in August

 

The smell of roast pork fills the air at this porcine celebration, which gives a boost to the declining pig-farming industry. In fact, it’s universally enjoyed, because it gives everyone an excuse to do an impression of a porker at the swill trough.

 

Trie Sur Baïse, once the country’s largest pig market, fills with decorative piggy displays in shop windows. In the old market, waiters flourish pigtail corkscrews and banqueters happily dig in until it’s time for the spectacular sports. The Piglet Race pits the speediest runts against each other, but the strangest contests are purely human affairs. In the Black-Pudding-Eating Competition, men force down yummy lengths of congealed blood stretching over 1m. The judging criteria are simply ‘how much and how fast?’

 But the event that challenges entrants to really make pigs of themselves is the Cri do Cochon (pig-squealing championships). Contestants not only imitate our pink friends, but represent various stages in the twisty-tailed life cycle. Starting with the squeals of newly arrived piglets, they cover the whole gamut of pivotal moments in the pen, from the grunts of lovemaking to the wheeze of an old hog preparing to trot off this mortal coil.

 

Local Attractions: Walk off the pork in the mountainous Hautes-Pyrénées area, where snow-capped peaks lie along the Spanish border.

 

More Info: www.pourcailhade.com in French

 


 

 

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