European Festivals (and Pledge Event)
In this one-hour special, it's party time in Europe. In addition to all its epic history and high culture, Europe also knows how to celebrate — and it does so with amazing gusto. Joining Rick, we drop in on the Continent's top 10 festivals, each one rich with tradition, great food, and fun with the locals. We run with the bulls at Pamplona, don a mask in Venice for Carnevale, dance with Spaniards at the April Fair, cheer on the horses at Siena's Palio, hoist a frothy stein at Munich's Oktoberfest, toss a caber at a Scottish Highland Games, and join European families for their traditional Easter and Christmas celebrations. No museums or galleries…just Europe at play. Filmed on location across Europe, this promises to be a very entertaining hour.
2018 Lowell Thomas Silver Award Winner for Excellence in Travel Journalism
Length: 57 minutes. Pledge event length: approximately 90 minutes, interspersed with fundraising breaks. Release November 2018.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves and it's party time in Europe. In the next hour you'll see no museums, and no art galleries! Just Europeans having lots of fun. Europe is expert at festivals — and we're about to enjoy my favorites. Thanks for joining us!
Europe, with so much history, art, and high culture, also knows how to celebrate. And, with so many centuries of practice, they do it with amazing gusto. If you know where to go and when to go, you can enjoy festival extravaganzas throughout the continent and throughout the calendar.
We're dropping in on what you could call the continent's top ten parties — each rich in tradition and a celebration of local culture — and all of them full of opportunities to sing and dance, feast on traditional food, and party like a local. We'll join wild and crazy crowds, don a mask for anonymity, toss a caber with Scottish strongmen join in festive feasts, and run for our lives. We'll browse holiday markets, sled down Alps by torchlight, dance with Spaniards, drink lots of beer, and light up the sky. With the entire continent as our playground, fun is our mission.
We'll careen all over Europe: the Palio in Siena; Highland Games in Scotland; carnival in Venice, Slovenia, and Luzern; Holy Week in Andalucía; and Easter in Greece. April Fair in Sevilla, Bastille Day in Paris, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Munich, and Christmas in Nürnberg, Norway, and Switzerland.
Across Europe, festival traditions go back centuries and are filled with time-honored pageantry and ritual. Entire communities hurl themselves with abandon into the craziness. There's no better example than here in Italy: Siena's Palio.
In this gorgeously preserved Tuscan hill town, the Middle Ages seem to survive in the architecture. Its towering City Hall tower fronts an elegant shell-shaped main square: Il Campo. While its streets are peaceful, they contain a lively legacy of civic pride and independence. And twice a year that spirit shows itself in a crazy horse race as it has for five centuries.
The city is divided into 17 neighborhoods (or "contrade"). These are autonomous, competitive, and filled with rivalries.
In this densely populated city, most of the year the contrade are almost indistinguishable. One small piazza or street looks much like the next, but as the Palio approaches the battle lines are drawn. The distinctive flags and colors of each contrada line the neighborhood showing their namesake mascot — like turtle, eagle, dragon…and a fierce-looking dolphin.
All year long, citizens prepare. Women lovingly stitch vests and banners. Neighborhood fathers coach kids in drumming and flag throwing. Any time of year, if you hear drumming, check it out for a taste of the Palio to come.
And twice a year — each July and August — the entire city readies itself as 10 of the 17 neighborhoods — chosen by lottery — prepare for the big race. Its central square, Il Campo, is transformed into a medieval race track. Tons of clay are packed atop the cobbles, padding is added to the treacherous corners, and bleachers and railings are set up in anticipation of the big day.
While the horse race only lasts only a couple of minutes, for the Sienese the Palio is a way of life — for many it's a philosophy. Locals joke that in Siena "you're born, there's the Palio, and then you die."
While the jockeys — usually from out of town — are hired hands, the horses are the stars. Each neighborhood gets its horse through a lottery. They're then adopted and showered with love--respected as if special neighborhood citizens. They're groomed and washed, and housed in stables right in the city center.
In the days leading up to the race, they're frequently paraded through the streets for their admiring fans.
As race day approaches, processions break out across the city. Locals belt out passionate good-luck choruses. With the waving flags and pounding drums, it all harkens back to the Middle Ages, when rituals like these boosted morale before battle.
Each contrada marches into Siena's ornate cathedral. The centerpiece of the parade is the actual palio — that's the famed and treasured banner — lovingly painted and featuring the Virgin Mary to whom the race is dedicated. The church is thronged, as all the neighborhoods wave their stirring flags in unison to honor the palio's procession to the altar.
Here it's blessed as the crowd looks upon it reverently. Soon it will be awarded to the victorious contrada. With the horses and jockeys chosen, and the palio blessed and waiting for the winner, competing neighborhoods gather for big community dinners that last well into the night. Each banquet is beautifully situated in the heart of the district. It's a multigenerational affair, with old-timers, the young, and the very young. There are rousing choruses, all cheering their contradas…and little ones soaking up the centuries-old traditions. Even if I don't fully understand what's happening the excitement is contagious — and the wine is delightful. I feel privileged to participate in a scene that's changed little over the centuries.
On the day of the race those honored to represent their contrada put on elaborate medieval costumes and armor. This requires many assistants, who not only help fit the clothing, but make sure it looks just as it did centuries ago.
In full regalia the contrade then process to the neighborhood church, where there's a colorful flag ceremony…followed by a full-throated singing of the contrada's hymn. And finally, the traditional blessing of the horse by the priest. "Go — and return victorious," says the priest.
Then — you guessed it — there's another procession, with more drums and flags as each contrada marches through Siena, eventually flowing together at the cathedral — where, before the bishop, they showcase their passion and talents.
After all have gathered at the cathedral, there's one last grand parade through the canyon-like streets. With drums thundering the people crush to join the scene. The town converges on its main square.
And then, with what seems like all of Siena packed into the Campo, it's time for the race. Bleacher and balcony seats are expensive, but standing room with the masses in the square is free.
A cart pulled by oxen, carrying the coveted Palio banner, enters. This only increases the crowd's anticipation.
Then, 10 snorting horses and their nervous riders line up to await the start. The jockeying includes a little last-minute negotiating — it's…complicated. Then, silence takes over. Once the rope drops, there's one basic rule: There are no rules. They race bare-back like crazy, while spectators go wild.
With nonstop spills — and thrills — life in Siena stops for these frantic three laps…just about 90 seconds.
…And Lupa — the she-wolf district — wins.
When the winner crosses the line, one-seventeenth of Siena- — the prevailing she-wolf neighborhood — goes berserk. Tears of joy flow; people embrace. The jubilation is over the top for both the winners, and for the many neighborhoods joyously celebrating their rival contrada's defeat.
The happy horde thunders through the streets and up to the cathedral. Once there, they pack the church and the winning contrada receives the coveted Palio. Champions…until the next race.
Along with ritual and pageantry, some festivals originated with a more practical purpose: to train their men to be fit for battle. Warriors — whether in ancient Greece competing in the Olympics, or clansmen gathering here in Scotland — would go at it on the field.
And today, communities throughout Scotland still host a Highland Games, where kilted athletes from the surrounding countryside gather to show off their speed, strength…and grace.
A Highland Games is an all-day celebration of local sport and culture, like a track meet and a county fair rolled into one. It's a fine day out for the family. With a soundtrack of traditional Scottish music, and clan pride showing itself in the tartan patterns, the community cheers on the athletes and dancers.
The day's events typically kick off with the arrival of a parading pipe band,led by the local clan chieftain. After a lap around the field, the competition begins.
In the heavy events — billed as feats of Highland strength — brawny, kilted athletes push their limits. In the weight throw, competitors spin like bulky ballerinas before releasing a heavy ball on a chain. The hammer throw involves a similar technique with an iron ball on a long stick, and the "stone put" has been adopted in international sports as the shot put. In this event, Highlanders swing a 56-pound weight over a horizontal bar that keeps getting higher and higher. And, of course, there's the caber toss: Pick up a giant log (called a "caber"), get a running start…and release it end-over-end with enough force to make the caber flip all the way over and land at the 12 o'clock position. Or…not.
Meanwhile, the track events run circles around all that muscle.
The races offer fun for all those attending — including events for the kids.
And visitors from faraway lands are welcome to join in as well.
OK, I think I've found my sport. Lifting what's called a "manhood stone" is a standard part of these games. Brawny lads impress their girls with a show of strength.
Rick: Why not?...that's good. Thank you.
With a wee glass of courage, competitors lift and carry the 250-pound stone…or at least give it a good try. I taught this guy everything he knows, There's always a show-off.
And it's not all brute strength. Highland dancing shows off both athleticism and grace. With years of practice, young girls dance with an impressive confidence and fluidity. A lone piper accompanies serious wee dancers who toe their routines with intense concentration. Within a few years they'll likely be dancing with the same mastery as the older girls.
These Highland Games — like most European festivals — go way back. And the time of year they happen is no accident. It's often tied to the struggles of the season. In fact, some of Europe's major festivals are scheduled in the dead of winter.
Many modern celebrations are rooted deep in Europe's Dark Age past. In a time filled with superstition and mystery, when winters were bleak and hungry, people craved an off-season pick-me-up. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival was the ultimate midwinter festival.
A memorable way to experience Carnival traditions is in the countryside of Slovenia. Whether it's in the mountains or the valleys, a common theme is a visitation of masked hairy creatures. Some are called "Kurents," and others are called simply "the Ugly Ones." These wooly monsters parade through villages making a racket, rattling and clanging their bells from door to door, chasing away evil spirits, and trying to frighten off winter.
Homeowners eventually come to the door and, to quell the clamoring mob, they give the leader a sausage…and a few cups of wine for the gang. The Ugly Ones swing their hips wildly with satisfaction. This ritual is a remnant from the distant past, when families were persuaded to share food during hard times.
Another band of characters also roves from house to house. A group of ploughmen pull a colorful wagon decked out in ribbons and flowers representing fertility and the coming of spring. The homeowner is asked for permission to "plough for the big turnip." The ploughmen then drag the fanciful plough behind men dressed as horses. This "wakes up the soil" in preparation for a season of bountiful crops. Cracking whips announce the procession.
After the symbolic ploughing and sowing, the homeowner offers the merry band eggs and sausage, and wishes the merry band good health and a good harvest.
The best-known carnival celebration in Europe is in Venice. Each winter, carnival casts a spell on Venetians and visitors alike. Following a tradition that originated in the 13th century, the city slips behind a mask of anonymity as Venetians promenade, pose, and pretend to be someone they're not. Authority is challenged; rules are broken. The goal? To indulge in all the pleasures that will be forbidden in Lent.
An elegant disguise is both transformative and liberating. But it's the mask, so symbolic of this enigmatic city, that functions as a cloak of invisibility. The pleasurable appeal of anonymity is as powerful today as it was in the Middle Ages. As dusk falls, the back streets come alive with strangers. Now — as then — in Venice, decadence rules the night.
In palazzos off the Grand Canal, elaborately staged parties take the aura of mystery a step further. Behind their masks, all people — from bankers to bakers — are equal. Tonight no one knows who's who, and reality seems a distant dream. And as it was centuries ago, what happens in Venice…stays in Venice.
Carnival is celebrated in a much less elegant fashion in Switzerland, where the locals, often considered the most buttoned-down people in Europe, really let loose. And an epicenter of this mid-winter craziness before Lent are the celebrations in the city of Luzern.
Before sunrise, the driving beat of multiple parading bands wakes the city up like a mobile alarm clock. Musicians wearing weird masks — playing loudly, often out of tune — march through the waking town.
Today is Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday…the same Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans. After six days of Carnivale celebration this is the climax. Lent and fasting start tomorrow. But today is all about bringing on what is fun and tasty, music of all kinds, costumes of all kinds, and food of all kinds. What better time for a little cheese fondue?
After sunrise the bands forget typical Swiss discipline and order and break up, wandering randomly throughout the town. The bands play on, the streets are filled with the vibe of relaxed good will. Restaurants are packed. Bands spontaneously take the stage and play enthusiastically. A children's parade is a sweet way to train kids to carry on this tradition. Even five-star hotels open their doors and let the partying public celebrate inside.
Somehow late in the afternoon the groups reorganize for a long parade. Band members with famous Swiss stamina keep playing. Themes vary from ancient pagan to political satire and to every creative scene in between. With the end of Fat Tuesday parties, carnival celebrations in Luzern and across Europe are finished. Festival-filled valleys and towns are now quiet as, after Fat Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday…and the party is officially over.
The end of Carnival coincided with the leanest days of winter. Imagine 4,000 years ago, when these stones marked the seasons. Imagine in ancient times the despair of winter. Where did the sun go? Nothing's growing. Will we all starve? But gradually — every year — flowers bloomed, crops grew again, and the green promise of spring returned.
Back in pagan times, communities built stone circles — which experts believe functioned as celestial calendars — to track the sun and mark the seasons. With the spring equinox, druids would gather to celebrate the end of winter — and the arrival of spring, a time of renewal, birth, and fertility.
Over the centuries, the Church embraced the same springtime theme of new life — and that's Easter. Easter is preceded by a week filled with holy activities, when Christians remember Jesus Christ's final week progressing from suffering…to death…to resurrection.
In Spain, Holy Week is called "Semana Santa." It's celebrated with unrivalled pageantry and emotion — most famously in Seville (or "Sevilla"). Here, Semana Santa is an epic event that stirs the soul and captivates all who participate.
On Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, families dressed up for this important day head into their parish church for Mass. Then, promenading with palm and olive branches, they make a loop through the neighborhood, eventually returning to their home church. Afterwards, they visit other churches throughout the city — each displaying elaborate floats.
Sevilla has many religious brotherhoods (or "fraternities") that are entrusted with the care of venerable floats that carry statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets during Semana Santa.
Sevillanos hold a special place in their hearts for Mary. Floats with Mary evoke great emotions and remind them of the grieving mother who has lost her only son.
Every neighborhood church has its own unique Mary — all are the grieving mothers of the crucified Christ, but each one represents a different aspect of her sorrow. And there are other floats. This one, nicknamed "La Borriquita" (or "The Little Donkey"), depicts Jesus' grand entrance into Jerusalem.
La Borriquita leaves its church and begins its procession through the narrow streets. This marks the official start of Holy Week. From now on, every day until Easter Sunday, the city is enlivened with dozens of such processions. These ritual parades first filled the streets of Sevilla 400 years ago. They're designed to present the story of the Passion — the death and resurrection of Jesus — in a way the average person could understand.
Today some 60 fraternities each make the journey on foot, carrying floats in processions like these from their parishes to the city's cathedral and back. The journey, through miles of passionate crowds, can take up to 14 hours. Strongmen called "costaleros" work in shifts. As a team, they bear two tons of weight on the backs of their necks, an experience they consider a great honor despite — and indeed because of — the pain involved.
As the floats slowly make their way to the cathedral, moments of great passion occasionally bring everything to a standstill. Centuries of flamenco singers have serenaded Mary and Jesus with love songs as they process through the city. Traditionally spontaneous, these passionate songs occur when a singer is so overcome with emotion, he must break into song.
As dusk settles on Sevilla, a long line of silent, black-clad penitents escort one of the city's most moving floats toward the cathedral. The float portrays the dead Jesus taken down from the cross and mourned by the people who loved him most. Among the most dramatic of the week's processions, the float is decorated simply, with purple iris and a single red rose, symbolizing the blood Jesus shed.
As night closes in, penitents' candles sway like fireflies dancing in the dark. The entire Holy Week in Spain is a glorious spectacle. After a full day, it's hard to imagine more — and then the Mary known as "Estrella" appears, ethereal and radiant. A shower of petals rains down upon her as if heaven itself is thanking her for her immense and loving sacrifice.
In Greece — we're in the city of Nafplio — Easter is celebrated as both the welcoming of spring and as a deeply religious festival with a distinctly Orthodox Christian flavor. By late Saturday night, on the eve before Easter, the people spill from their churches and fill the main square with a palpable sense of expectation.
When midnight strikes, fireworks light up the sky, and finally, Easter Sunday is here. The Holy Flame, which literally travels from Jerusalem to Athens and then to towns throughout Greece, is shared along with the ritual Easter "kiss of love." And it's not over yet: Everyone then heads home for the biggest party of the season.
People carry the Easter flame home as a burning candle. Raising it above their heads, they make a cross above the doorway — symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed their home for another year.
A long table awaits as the extended family gathers. They have a competition to find out whose Easter egg will be the strongest. Sighs of disappointment from losers are mixed with the laughter of winners until the proud victor — who'll enjoy a particularly blessed upcoming year — is declared. It's a joyous family gathering.
The feast continues into the wee hours of Easter Sunday with lots of meat and eggs, and no shortage of Easter bread. And the feasting continues after a little sleep. By the afternoon, in villages all across Greece, families are grilling lamb, eating, singing, and dancing. It seems there's a spring lamb on a spit in every back yard. The roast takes hours…but no one's in a hurry.
It's an all-day affair. People move between households checking on each other's lambs, and socializing. When the spit stops, the feast begins: Lamb off the bone, lamb off the fingers, beer, wine, music, more food, more family fun…more lamb. People party all day long.
Eventually the village ends up back at the church, dancing and singing. Together they celebrate — as they have every year for all their lives. Celebrating the hope of renewal at yet another joyous Easter Sunday.
As if to continue this celebration of the return of spring, some places let loose in vibrant secular festivals. One of the most exuberant and colorful is in Spain: Sevilla's gigantic Spring Fair [a.k.a. the April Fair].
Throughout southern Spain, a region so expert at fiestas and romance, cities like Sevilla greet each spring with a festival for all ages. A festival where the horses are nearly as dressed up as the people [and] a springtime flirtatiousness fills the air — and travelers are more than welcome to join in the fun.
For seven days each April it seems much of Sevilla is packed into its vast fairgrounds. The fair feels friendly, spontaneous…very real. The Andalusian passion for horses, flamenco…and sherry…is clear. Riders are ramrod straight, colorfully clad señoritas ride sidesaddle, and everyone's drinking sherry spritzers. Women sport outlandish dresses that would look clownish all alone, but somehow [look simply] brilliant here en masse.
Hundreds of private party tents (or "casetas") line the lanes. Each striped tent is the party zone of a particular family, club, or association. To get in, you need to know someone in the group — or make friends quickly.
My local friend, Concepción, is well connected.
Woman: My caseta.
….and as a friend of a friend, we're in.
Rick: This is your caseta?
Woman: Esta la caseta.
Because of the exclusivity, it has a real family-affair feeling. Throughout Andalucía, at spring fairs like Sevilla's, it seems everyone knows everyone in what seems like a thousand wedding parties being celebrated all at the same time.
Festivals help maintain a culture's identity. Pageantry stokes local, regional, or national pride. And, while annual festivals are the big events, this celebration of culture can be just as rich on a smaller scale.
Traveling through Europe, any day of the year, you can experience a festive spirit powered by music that simply makes daily life more celebratory. Beloved musical traditions have long helped embattled cultures to assert their identity, to sing and dance their way through centuries of challenges. Like the Roma people here in the Czech Republic, and throughout Europe.
People everywhere grab their folk instruments, pull on their national costumes, and gather together to celebrate their culture. Here in Bulgaria, dance troupes in colorful dress whoop it up Slavic-style.
And people celebrate what makes them unique as a nation. In this small Bulgarian town, in a land that uses a different alphabet than most of Europe, the entire population is out on the street for the annual celebration of their Cyrillic script.
Patriotic hearts beat stronger with the sounds of each nation's unique music, such as klapa music in Croatia…or rousing folk songs in Romania.
In Austria, cradle of so much classical music, waltzing is the national dance, and hearts beat in three-four time.
In the Czech Republic, what could be more festive than listening to lively folk music while enjoying some of the best beer in the world with local friends. It's a great way to celebrate a good day of travel wherever you are.
In university towns throughout Spain, roving bands of musicians, like medieval troubadours, are a festival just waiting to happen. These bands are generally students available for hire. Here in Salamanca, a folk group serenades a woman preparing for her wedding.
Colorful traditions are often rooted in a desire to stoke patriotism. Many European countries, like Norway, are democracies but still have constitutional monarchs. And they celebrate their royal heritage with a stirring Changing of the Guard ceremony — like this one at London's Buckingham Palace. These martial spectacles, like here in Sweden, are holdovers of a time when this coordinated show of force helped dispel any thoughts of attack or revolution against the crown.
And you'll see cute little ceremonies by cute little countries — like here in Monaco.
In Greece, fierce (if gaily clad) soldiers remind their citizens of their hard-fought independence with rituals at the national capital.
Even though Europe may be unified as one, each country has its own national pride, and national holiday. The most famous of these celebrates the violent end of a monarchy, and the advent of modern democracy in France.
France's national holiday is July 14: Bastille Day. And that means a big party as all of France indulges in a patriotic bash. In Paris that means lots of flags, and lots of parties. Everyone's welcome to join in.
Like towns and villages all over the country, each neighborhood here hosts parties until late into the night. The local fire department's putting on this party, so I guess it doesn't matter if the fire marshal drops by.
Each year, crowds pack the bridges and line the river, as a grand fireworks display shares the sky with the Eiffel Tower.
Each country has its iconic celebration. In France, it's fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. In Italy, it's a crazy horse race. And in Spain, it's bullfighting. Next on our party tour: the biggest bull festival of all, Pamplona's Running of the Bulls.
Officially known as the Festival of San Fermín, the Running of the Bulls is perhaps Europe's greatest adrenaline festival. For nine days each July, throngs of visitors — most dressed in the traditional white, with red sashes and kerchiefs — come to run with the bulls…and a whole lot more.
The festival, which packs the city, has deep roots. For centuries the people of this region have honored St. Fermín, their patron saint, with processions and parties. He was decapitated in the second century for his faith, and the red bandanas you see everywhere are a distant reminder of his martyrdom. And you know, I don't think anyone on this square knows…or even cares.
But at the Church of San Fermín, it's a capacity crowd…and there's no question what to wear for this Mass. To this day, locals look to Fermín, their hometown saint, for protection.
Back out on the streets, it's a party for young and old. There's plenty of fun for kids. And towering giants add a playful mystique to the festivities.
The literary giant, Ernest Hemingway, is celebrated by Pamplona as if he were a native son.
Hemingway first came here for the 1923 Running of the Bulls. Inspired by the spectacle, he later wrote his bullfighting classic The Sun Also Rises. He said he enjoyed seeing two wild animals running together: one on two legs, and the other on four.
Hemingway put Pamplona on the world map. When he first visited, it was a dusty town of 30,000 with an obscure bullfighting festival. Now, a million people a year come here for one of the world's great parties.
After dark, the town erupts into a rollicking party scene. While the craziness rages day and night, the city's well organized and, even with all the alcohol, it feels in control, and things go smoothly. Amazingly, in just a few hours, this same street will host a very different spectacle.
The Running of the Bulls takes place early each morning. Spectators claim a vantage point at the crack of dawn. Early in the morning? Nope — for many of these revelers, it's the end of a long night.
The anticipation itself is thrilling. Security crews sweep those not running out of the way. Shop windows and doors are boarded up. Fencing is set up to keep the bulls on course and protect the crowd.
The runners are called "mozos." While many are just finishing up a night of drinking, others train for the event. They take the ritual seriously, and run every year.
At 8:00, a rocket is fired, and the mozos take off. Moments later, a second rocket means the bulls have been released. They stampede half a mile through the town from their pens to the bullfighting arena. At full gallop, it goes by fast.
Bulls thunder through the entire route in just two and a half minutes. The mozos try to run in front of the bulls for as long as possible — usually just a few seconds — before diving out of the way. They say on a good run you feel the breath of the bull on the back of your legs.
Cruel as this all seems for the bulls — who scramble for footing on the cobblestones as they rush toward their doom in the bullring — the human participants don't come out unscathed. Each year, dozens of people are gored or trampled. Over the last century, 15 mozos have been killed at the event.
After it's done, people gather for breakfast and review the highlights on TV. All day long, local channels replay that morning's spectacle.
The festival's energy courses through the city. Overlooking the main square, the venerable Café Iruña pulses with music and dance. While the masses fill the streets, VIPs fill the city's ballrooms — it seems everyone is caught up in this Festival of San Fermín.
Of Europe's many great festivals, one of the wildest is Oktoberfest here in Munich. Germany's favorite annual beer bash originated about 200 years ago with the wedding reception of King Ludwig I. Ludwig's party was such a hit, they've celebrating every year since.
Oktoberfest lasts for two weeks, from late September into [the first few days of] October. Filling a huge fairground, under a dramatic statue representing Bavaria, locals set up about 16 huge tents that can each seat several thousand beer drinkers.
The festivities kick off with grand parades through Munich, heading toward the fairgrounds. The queen of the parade is the Münchner Kindl, a young woman wearing a monk's robe riding the lead horse with her beer stein raised.
With thousands of participants, the parade seems endless. You'll see traditional costumes from every corner of Bavarian society. Elaborately decorated horses and wagons, along with keg-filled floats from each of the city's main breweries, entertain the crowds while making their way to the festival grounds.
Revelers fill massive tents awaiting the grand opening. After trotting through much of Munich, the parade finally enters the fair grounds. Dignitaries are formally greeted, and another Oktoberfest begins.
From now on, for the next two weeks, it's a beer-fueled frenzy of dancing, music, food, and amusements. There's no better place to see Germans at play.
The tents are surrounded by a fun forest of amusements. There's a huge Ferris wheel. The five-loops roller coaster must be the wildest around. For locals and tourists alike, the rides are unforgettable. And probably best done before you start drinking your beer.
Inside the tent, the party rages day and night. Bavarian culture is strong here. Each of the tents has a personality. Some are youthful, some are more traditional. It's a festival of German culture. While there are plenty of tourists, it's really dominated by locals, who look forward to this annual chance to celebrate Bavaria…and its beer.
Fast-moving waitresses hoist armloads of massive glasses. The beers are served in cherished glass mugs — each holding a liter of their favorite local brew.
The people watching — Germans letting their hair down — is itself entertaining. It's a slap-happy world of lederhosen, dirndls, fancy hats, and maidens with flowers in their hair. It's a multigenerational blowout — complete with smaltzy music and lots of new friendships.
Rivers of beer are drunk, and tons of food are eaten. Radishes, pretzels, lots of sausage…all served by saucy maids. While I was too tipsy to count, locals claim there are 6 million visitors, 7 million liters of beer drunk, half a million chicken cooked, and 100 oxen eaten. That's one truly memorable festival.
Just a few weeks after Munich folds up its Oktoberfest tents, Germany celebrates in a different way: by rolling out its Christmas markets. Perhaps the most beloved Christmas market is about 100 miles away, in Nürnberg.
Each Christmas, Nürnberg's main square becomes a festive swirl of the heartwarming sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday season.
Long a center of toy making in Germany, a woody and traditional spirit that celebrates local artisans prevails. "Nutcrackers are characters of authority: uniformed, strong-jawed, and able to crack the tough nuts." Smokers — with their fragrant incense wafting — feature common folk, like this village toymaker. Prune peoplewith their fig body, walnut head, and prune limbsare dolled up in Bavarian folk costumes.
Bakeries crank out the old-fashioned gingerbread — the Lebkuchen Nürnberg — using the original 17th-century recipe. Back then, Nürnberg was the gingerbread capital of the world, and its love affair with gingerbread lives on.
Shoppers can also munch the famous Nürnberg bratwurst — skinny as your little finger — and sip hot spiced wine.
Like Easter, Christmas is built upon a pagan pre-Christian festival. And we celebrate it today with plenty of pre-Christian rituals — often without even knowing it. In Salzburg they shoot big guns to scare away evil spirits. In the Tirol, fathers bless the house as their ancestors did.
Families, friends, and food are integral to the French Noël. Winter brings a sense of magical wonder to Germany and Austria. Italy reveals the sacred nature of the season, from its countryside to its grandest church. Nature, in all its wintry glory, seems to shout out the joy of the season in Switzerland. And everywhere, Christmas is celebrated with family, as together Europe remembers the quiet night that that holiest family came to be.
The European Christmas season is long and festive. Rather than counting down the shopping days left, it's all about traditions and saints' days. For example, December 13 is big in Norway. It's Santa Lucia day — one of the darkest days of winter — and an important part of the Scandinavian Christmas season. All over Nordic Europe, little candle-bearing Santa Lucias are bringing light to the middle of winter, and the promise of the return of summer. These processions are led by a young Lucia wearing a crown of lights.
This home has housed widows and seniors for over 200 years, and today the kindergarteners are bringing on the light in more ways than one. The children have baked the traditional Santa Lucia saffron buns — the same ones these seniors baked when they were kindergarteners.
Taking their cue from Santa Lucia, Norwegians — cozy in their homes — brighten their long dark winters with lots of candles, white lights — you'll never see a colored one — and lots of greenery.
And high in Switzerland, where the churches are small and villages huddle below towering peaks, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with good cheer.
In these villages, traditions are strong...and warmth is a priority. Stoves are small, so fire wood is, too.
My family has arrived for a Swiss Alps Christmas. They've joined me here in the tiny village of Gimmelwald. Our friends Olle and Maria and their kids are giving my kids, Andy and Jackie, a good lesson in high-altitude Christmas fun.
Olle is taking us high above his village on a quest to find, and cut, the perfect Christmas tree.
Olle: What do you think?
Andy: I like it a lot, Olle.
Jackie: Yeah this is a good tree; I think we should cut it.
Still high above Gimmelwald, we're stopping in a hut for a little fondue. Fondue seems perfect in winter after you've come in from the cold. For them [the Swiss], it sets the tone for a warm and convivial time. Combined with good friends and family during the Christmas season, we have all the ingredients for a delightful little Alpine festival.
Before we know it, the light outside begins to fade.
Rick: Here's to a happy Christmas.
As the sun sets, we've got our tree, and enjoy a fairy-tale ride home to Gimmelwald.
In every part of Europe, and in every season…in big cities, and in remote farmsteads…from timeless traditions to modern celebrations, people embrace life through festivals. They celebrate what the season brings with great parties. They bargain with God and show their faith with festival rituals. They remember the accomplishments and lives of their forebears. They enjoy fun-loving opportunities to dress in traditional costumes and wave their national flags, all the while gorging themselves with great feasts, and lubricating themselves with the local drink. And all of it may just be an excuse for the very human need to celebrate family, friends, and culture…year after year.
Festivals help keep Europe's rich heritage alive. As we've seen, they bring families and communities together, and everybody's welcome. They create lifelong memories and are flat-out lots of fun. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, encouraging you to enjoy festive journeys. Keep on travelin'.