European Festivals II

In this second of two episodes on Europe's greatest festivals, we'll dance with Spaniards at Sevilla's April Fair, celebrate Bastille Day in Paris, run with the bulls at Pamplona, and hoist a frothy stein at Munich's Oktoberfest. And we'll celebrate a traditional family Christmas, browsing the holiday market in Nürnberg and sledding down alpine slopes by torchlight in Switzerland. With the entire Continent as our playground, fun is our mission.

Travel Details

April Fair

Every day for one crazy week, horses clog Sevilla's fairground lanes in an endless parade until about 8 p.m., when they clear out and the lanes fill with exuberant locals. The party goes on literally 24 hours a day for the entire week, and any tourist can have a fun and memorable evening by simply crashing the party. The city's entire fleet of taxis (who'll try to charge double) and buses seems dedicated to shuttling people from downtown to the fairgrounds (consider walking). Arrive before 8 p.m. to see the horses, but stay later, as the ambience improves after the caballos giddy-up on out. Some of the larger tents are sponsored by the city and open to the public, but the best action is in the streets, where party-goers from the livelier casetas spill out. Although private tents have bouncers, everyone is so happy that it's not tough to strike up an impromptu friendship, become a "special guest," and be invited in. The drink flows freely, and the food is fun, bountiful, and cheap.

Running of the Bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín)

For nine days each July, a million visitors pack into Pamplona to watch a gang of reckless, sangria-fueled adventurers thrust themselves into the path of an oncoming herd of furious bulls. The festival begins at City Hall on noon on July 6, with various events filling the next nine days and nights. Originally celebrated as the feast of San Fermín — who is still honored by a religious procession through town on July 7 — it has since evolved into a full slate of live music, fireworks, general revelry, and an excuse for debauchery. The festival ends at midnight on July 14, when the townspeople congregate in front of the City Hall, light candles, and sing their sad song, "Pobre de Mí": "Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended."


Oktoberfest is held at Munich's Theresienwiese fairground, south of the main train station, in a meadow known as the "Wies'n." The festivities kick off on a Saturday in September with an opening parade of about 9,500 participants, and usually end on the first Sunday in October. Even though the beer tents are enormous, they're often full, especially on weekends — if possible, avoid going on a Friday or Saturday night. If you find yourself inside a tent with nowhere to sit, be bold — find an underused table and ask some potential new friends to scoot (or at least keep your elbows sharp). For some cultural background with your Wies'n visit, consider hiring a local guide or going as part of a group tour. If you'll be staying anywhere in Munich during the festivities, it's best to reserve a room early. During the fair, the city functions even better than normal, but is admittedly more expensive and crowded.

Nürnberger Christmas market

The annual Christkindlesmarkt — Germany's largest, with more than two million annual visitors — engulfs the central square (Hauptmarkt), starting on the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent, and wrapping up on Christmas Eve.

Olle and Maria's B&B

The Eggimanns rent three rooms — Gimmelwald's most comfortable and expensive — in their quirky but alpine-sleek house. Having raised three kids of their own here, Maria and Olle offer visitors a rare and intimate peek at this community.


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 we'll see no museums, and no art galleries! Just lots of Europeans having lots of fun. People here are expert at festivals — and we're invited. Let's go!

Europe has some amazing festivals. And as travelers, we're welcome to join in. I've found that the more you relax, the more people you meet, and the more you eat and drink, the more fun you're gonna have. Now, with that attitude…let's party.

In this second of two episodes on European festivals, we'll drop in on some of the continent'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 dance with Spaniards, join wild and crazy crowds, and run for our lives. We'll browse holiday markets, sled down Alps by torchlight, drink lots of beer, and light up the sky. With the entire continent as our playground, fun is our mission.

Over two episodes, we'll careen all over Europe. In this second one, we'll visit the 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.

Europe, with all its history, art, and high culture, also knows how to celebrate. And, with centuries of practice, it does it with gusto. If you know where to travel and when, you can enjoy extravagant festivals throughout the Continent and throughout the calendar.

And what better time of year to celebrate than spring — a season of renewal and rebirth.

Throughout southern Spain, a region so expert at fiestas and romance, cities like Sevilla greet each spring with a festival for all ages [the April Fair]. 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.

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 university towns throughout Spain, roving bands of musicians, like medieval troubadours, are a festival just waiting to happen.

In Austria, cradle of so much classical music, waltzing is the national dance, and hearts beat in three-four time.

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 from 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.

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 anybody 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 schmaltzy 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 toy-maker. Prune people — with their fig body, walnut head, and prune limbs — are dolled up in Bavarian folk costumes.

Bakeries crank out the old-fashioned gingerbread — the Nürnberger Lebkuchen — still 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.

Man: Oh, that's a good sign.
Woman: Mmm.

In Salzburg they shoot big guns to scare away evil spirits. In the Tirol, fathers bless their 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.

Mother: Down the chimney…

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.

Children (singing): Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

This home has housed widows and seniors for over 200 years, and today the kindergartners 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 kindergartners.

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 the 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 firewood 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 if you've come in from the cold. For [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.
All: Cheers!

As the sun sets, we've got our tree, and enjoy a fairy-tale ride home to Gimmelwald.

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'.