Top 10 alternative festivals

Steve Jack, 03 May, 2019
Steve Jack takes a look at some of Europe’s lesser-known festivals... favourite (but oft-forgotten) celebrations that have the potential to enhance – rather than dominate – your holiday.

I’ve long imagined what’s it’s like to be at one of the ‘grand showpiece’ European festivals. The Palio di Siena, for example, where the Piazza del Campo fills to overflowing with excitable spectators cheering on the most rumbustious of horse races; or Seville’s Semana Santa and Feria de Abril (Holy Week and April Fair), which turn the Andalucian capital into an almost continuous riot of colour during spring.

I don’t doubt that they’re tremendous fun, and an experience never to be forgotten, but I’m getting to the time of life when I’d rather not be – almost literally – swept off my feet while hunting for overpriced rooms or a rare free seat in a bar. Nowadays, if I’m to be a festival-goer at all, I want something a little more local, a little less crowded, and – dare I say it – a little more comfortable. So, while not exactly quiet, here are some suggestions for festivities that might well make your day, without sweeping you away!
1. Rocamadour Balloon Festival
Dordogne, France
During the final weekend of September, the skies above the gravity-defying pilgrims’ town of Rocamadour – itself one of the most famous sights in France – are filled with colour, as well as the rasping breath of helium burners, as hot-air balloons from all over Europe drift skywards in front of this UNESCO-protected site. Named after the French engineers who, way back in 1793, made the world’s first successful flight, the Montgolfiades de Rocamadour is a two-day celebration that enchants all who come to see it, and spreads among them an infectious spirit of adventure. This really is the most glorious of settings in which to watch these delightful dirigibles take flight.

Watch them fly: visit this spectacular corner of the Dordogne on a week-long walking holiday, Paths to Rocamadour (or the longer version, Long Trail to Rocamadour); or on a cycling holiday through The Dordogne Valley.
2. Cous Cous Fest - San Vito Lo Capo
Sicily, Italy
Who knew there was an entire 10-day festival dedicated to steamed balls of durum wheat? Now in its 21st year, Sicily’s Cous Cous Fest is not just grains and granules, though; it doubles as the International Cultural Integration Festival, and the streets of this beautifully located seaside town sway to a decidedly multi-ethnic beat during late-September each year. The appeal of couscous lies in its diverse uses, and among this year’s participants will be chefs from Italy, Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, France, Israel, Morocco, Palestine, Senegal, the United States and Tunisia; while the accompanying music and dancing is bound to make the place pulse. (Sorry – a terrible pun that I just couldn’t resist!)

Get a flavour: San Vito Lo Capo can be visited on a touring holiday by car, Western Sicily's Temples & Coast.
3. 62nd Cows' Ball
Bohinj, Slovenia
If I was impressed at the longevity of the Cous Cous Fest, I can only marvel at the Cows’ Ball in Bohinj, which will celebrate its 62nd birthday in mid-September. What better way to spend a Sunday than to take a walk to the 60-metre-high Slap Savica waterfall, then join in with time-honoured festivities welcoming cows back to the valley floor? Having spent the spring and summer grazing Slovenia’s Julian Alps, these venerable beasts return to be garlanded with flowers, their herdsmen bearing basenga on their shoulders – everything they need to sustain themselves back in the lowlands. Expect much music and merriment, plus a plentiful supply of local cheese.

Honour the beasts: Lake Bohinj is a highlight of the walking holiday amid The Lakes & Julian Alps of Slovenia.
4. Begur 'Indians Fair'
Catalonia, Spain
Fira d’Indians, held in early September by the unspoiled northern Costa Brava, celebrates the unbreakable bond that exists between Begur and Cuba. It remembers those townsfolk who set sail to the Caribbean during the 19th century in search of riches. Many of those who returned – the so-called Americanos – built flamboyant casas Indianos as a way of recreating their Cuban lifestyles; and these houses, several of which still grace the streets of Begur today, provide a rich cultural legacy. All of this comes memorably to life during the Indians’ Fair, with contagious Cuban rhythms, havanera songs, street shows and a wide variety of cultural activities. There are also traditional crafts and a market with a suitably exotic slant, the whole event providing a tantalising taste of the Americas.

Feel the rhythm: The striking town of Begur features on the Along the Catalan Coast walking holiday, plus the shorter version, A Taste of the Catalan Coast.
5. Pickering 1940s Wartime Weekend
Yorkshire, England
Held just up the road from our offices is a festival that really brings our charming corner of North Yorkshire to life during the darkening days of mid-October. This is an event which – I must confess – I am yet to experience, although folk around here absolutely love it! Many of them, plus an enthusiastic throng of visitors, really go to town, and this inviting spot on the edge of the North York Moors is transformed into something resembling an epic wartime film set. Authentic costumes are worn, vintage cars are driven, and nostalgia abounds as this bygone period is faithfully recreated through singing, dancing, parades, re-enactments and an all-pervasive, boundless enthusiasm. Perhaps this is my year to visit...
6. Le Grand Pardon
Brittany, France
Brittany is a deeply traditional region with a strong Celtic culture. An important feature of the religious calendar here is the pardon, celebrated at numerous churches and cathedrals throughout the area, when people have a chance to ask for forgiveness, usually dressed in traditional costume carrying banners in honour of the local saint. In the bustling coastal town of Perros-Guirec, this begins with an evening torch-lit procession to the chapel known as ‘Our Lady of the Light’, whose lights once guided sailors on a sinking ship back into shore. The following day (usually 15 August) sees a church mass in the morning, then a second procession during the afternoon, with villagers carrying miniature boats to the chapel to be blessed.
7. Lange Tafel
Graz, Austria
For one day in late August, the historic centre of Austria’s second city is transformed into a giant open-air restaurant. Imagine sitting down at an inviting-looking dining table to enjoy a delicious dinner and matching wines with only another 700 guests for company! Beginning at the atmospheric Landhaushof – an ornate, 16th-century Renaissance palace – with a guided beer-and-wine tasting and amuse-bouche appetisers, diners are then shown to the Lange Tafel itself – actually several ‘long tables’, where five courses are served to the accompaniment of lively musical entertainment. While the Austrians are renowned for their hospitality, this is something else!

Wine & dine: Graz is the second city on the On the Trail of the Habsburgs journey by rail, and you stay in a  former 14th-century palace, now a 4-star hotel.
8. Alphornblasen
Bavaria, Germany
On four evenings during July and August, a gathering of alpine horn players takes place high above the town of Bischofswiesen in south-east Germany’s Berchtesgadener Land. Captivated by views of the surrounding massifs of Watzmann, Hoher Göll and Schlafende Hexe, locals and visitors alike are equally entranced by the deep notes emanating from these magnificent musical instruments, with melodies floating high across the surrounding landscape. This might look and feel like a bit of a Bavarian cliché, but when the experience is as memorable as this, who cares?

Have a blast: Where Eagles Soar is a hotel-to-hotel walking holiday that explores the very best of Berchtesgadener Land, while the 3-night short break provides a rewarding taster.
9. Cangas de Onis Cheese Festival
Asturias, Spain
Inntravel’s Raquel Lamazares might be a Catalan who hails from Barcelona, but, as something of a cheese fiend, she’s left part of her heart in Asturias. For it’s here, amid the rugged mountains and lush foothills of the Picos de Europa that much of Spain’s most interesting – and flavoursome – cheese is produced. And in early October, the historic village of Cangas de Onis becomes a Mecca for cheese-lovers from far and wide. There are exhibitions and prizes, a fairground, music, sports and games. All in all, it’s a cheesily charming celebration of rural mountain culture.

Savour the flavour: Cangas de Onis can be visited using the included hire car on the single-centre walking holiday, Rugged Hills & Coast of Asturias, based at the peerless Posada del Valle.
10. Wine festivals galore
How could we possibly compile a list of alternative festivals without paying homage to the noble grape? In truth, the wondrous wine celebrations, both large and small, that are held in various Inntravel holiday destinations across Europe – particularly during the grape harvest – could form a ‘top 50’ all of their own, but there are a couple worth mentioning here:
Törggelen festivities in the northern Italian region of South Tyrol each year launch the area’s ’new wine’, which is accompanied by regional foodstuffs such as speck, dumplings and chestnuts.
• The impossibly pretty village of Bergheim in Alsace is the perfect venue for the summertime Fête du Gewurztraminer, celebrating the region’s most characteristic and complex varietal. Inntravel's chosen hotel, the welcoming Cour du Balli, is owned by a pre-eminent producer and is a great place to stay.
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