European Festivals I

In this first of two episodes on Europe's greatest festivals, we'll cheer with the masses at Siena's crazy Palio horse race, toss a caber at a Scottish Highland Games, don a mask for Carnevale in Venice, and celebrate Easter in Greece. Dropping in on some of the Continent's top parties, we discover that each one is a celebration of traditional culture, and all of them are full of opportunities to sing and dance, feast on traditional food, and party with locals.

Travel Details

Il Palio

Siena's world-famous horse race happens twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. This is not some folkloric event — it's a real medieval moment. If you're packed onto the square with 60,000 people, all hungry for victory, you may not see much, but you'll feel it. (Go with an empty bladder as there are no WCs, and be prepared to surrender any sense of personal space.) While the actual Palio packs the city, you can more easily see the horse-race trials on any of the three days before the main event (usually at 9:00 and after 19:00, free seats in bleachers). And keep in mind that finding a room in Siena is tough at Palio time. Many hotels won't take reservations until the end of May for the Palio, and even then they might require a four-night stay.

Highland Games

Throughout the summer, communities in central and northern Scotland host traditional festivals of Highland Games (sometimes called Highland Gatherings), which range from huge and glitzy (such as the Braemar Gathering, which the Queen attends, or the Cowal Highland Gathering, Scotland's biggest) to humble and small-town (which I find more fun). Some of the more modern games come with loud pop music and corporate sponsorship, but still manage to celebrate the Highland spirit. Most take place between mid-June and late August (usually on Saturdays, but occasionally on weekdays). The games are typically a one-day affair, kicking off around noon and winding down in the late afternoon. Events are rain or shine (so bring layers) and expect to pay a nominal admission fee at smaller games. If you're traveling to Scotland in the summer, check schedules online to see if you'll be near any Highland Games before locking in your itinerary.


Ptuj is famous for its distinctive Slovenian Mardi Gras celebration. Locals dress up in elaborate costumes and parade through the streets, celebrating the end of winter and heralding the arrival of spring. The party is in full force on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, when about 350 of the hairy "Kurent" beasts, each one with five huge bells clanging at top volume, come stomping down Ptuj's main street. Daytime parades are followed by evenings of music, celebration, and general debauchery. (Nearby villages have similar, smaller, and more traditional processions, as shown in this episode.)

Carnevale di Venezia

In the Venetian Carnevale's heyday — the 1600s and 1700s — you could do pretty much anything with anybody from any social class if you were wearing a mask. These days it's a tamer 18-day celebration that's most festive on weekends (but can be particularly quiet during the first week), and culminates in a huge dance lit with fireworks on St. Mark's Square. Sporting masks and costumes, tourists and Venetians — from kids to businessmen — join in the fun. In drawing such big crowds, Carnevale has nearly been a victim of its own success, driving away many Venetians. European tourists descend en masse, spending hundreds of euros on costumes and attending extravagant events. If you're interested in photographing (or participating in) the fun, be prepared for astronomical hotel rates and general chaos.

Luzerner Fasnacht

Central Switzerland's biggest Carnival celebration begins with a cannon blast at exactly 5:00 a.m. on "Dirty Thursday" ("Schmotzige Donnschtig" in local dialect), the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. The biggest parades are on Dirty Thursday (early morning and again in the afternoon, as shown in this episode), Rose Monday, and Fat Tuesday, with a "Monster Parade" that stays noisy well into the morning of Ash Wednesday. If planning a visit during the festivities, book accommodations well in advance.

Semana Santa

Holy Week — the week between Palm Sunday and Easter — is a major holiday throughout the Christian world, but nowhere is it celebrated with as much fervor as in Andalucía, especially Sevilla. Being in Sevilla for Holy Week is both a blessing and a curse: It's a remarkable spectacle, but it's extremely crowded. Parade routes can block your sightseeing for hours — what would normally be a five-minute walk can take an hour if a procession crosses your path (check printed schedules if you want to avoid them). But any hassles become totally worthwhile as you listen to the spontaneous devotional songs and let the spirit of the festival take over.


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I'm Rick Steves and it's party time in Europe. In this special episode 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 share some of 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.

In this first of two episodes on European festivals, we'll drop in on some of Europe's top 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 go to the craziest horse race imaginable, and toss a caber with Scottish strongmen. We'll don a mask for anonymity, and celebrate both spring and the resurrection. With the entire continent as our playground, fun is our mission.

Over two episodes, we'll careen all over Europe. In this first one, we'll see the Palio in Siena; Highland Games in Scotland; Carnival in Venice, Slovenia, and Luzern; Holy Week in Andalucía; and Easter in Greece.

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.

The distinctive flags and colors of each contrada line the neighborhood showing their namesake mascot — like turtle, eagle, dragon…and a fierce-looking dolphin.

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.

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.

Finally, race day is here, and there's a 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.

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 these traditions is in the countryside of Slovenia [where Carnival is called "Kurentovanje"]. 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 woolly 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.

The Kurents then move on from house to house throughout the village.

The best-known Carnival celebration in Europe is in Venice. Each winter, Carnival ["Carnevale" in Venice] 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.

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 [where it’s called "Fasnacht"].

Before sunrise, the driving beat of multiple parading bands wakes the city up like a mobile alarm clock. Musicians wearing weird masks and playing loudly, often out of tune, march through the waking town.

[This is all building up to] Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday…the same Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans. After six days of Carnival celebration this [Fat Tuesday] is the climax. Lent and fasting start [the next day]. But today [Dirty Thursday, five days before Fat Tuesday] 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.

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 unrivaled 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We're seen that Europe really knows how to party, whether celebrating religious holidays, cultural traditions, a crazy horse race, or just to keep the doldrums of winter at bay. And the celebrations will continue in Part II of our look at European festivals. We'll sing and dance at Sevilla's April Fair, sled by torchlight in the Alps for Christmas, run for our lives in Pamplona, light up the sky during Bastille Day, and eat and drink with gusto at Europe's Oktoberfest.

And, as travelers, we're more than welcome to join in the party. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, wishing you festive journeys. Keep on travelin'.