By Dylan Lowe
Perhaps we’ve been getting festivals all wrong.
When most people think of festivals, they picture fields filled with tents and mud-wrestling youths, staging some sort of alcohol-and-narcotics-fueled chaos. But while there are some festivals that are indeed like that — ahem, Coachella — there are others that are so much more.
Historically speaking, festivals are all about celebrating community, culture, and traditions. And there are actually lots of gatherings in Europe that still embody that celebratory spirit of community, featuring subjects beyond contemporary music stars and celebrities. Try to visit one of these European culture fests this summer — you won’t regret it.
1. Rotterdam Unlimited, Holland
A carnival dancer leading a band of drummers. (Photo: Dylan Lowe/The Travelling Editor)
In July, Rotterdam, the financial heartland of Holland, casts away its inhibitions for one weekend and one weekend only in its own version of a street carnival, Rotterdam Unlimited. The streets erupt with colors, sounds, rhythms, and more. It’s wild.
The festival kicks off with the Battle of Drums, when local bands march through town, outmatching each other in volume and euphoria. But the epicness truly begins the next day, when the streets become flooded with sensory overload.
For the Dutch, Rotterdam Unlimited isn’t just an excuse to party, though. It’s a nod to its Caribbean roots. The celebration recognizes Holland’s connection with its former Caribbean colony, Suriname.
Dates: July 21—25, 2015
2. Mercatino del Gusto, Italy
Aldo Moro Square, Maglie during Mercatino del Gusto (Photo: Dylan Lowe/The Travelling Editor)
A food festival in Southern Italy, Mercatino del Gusto really is as tasty as it sounds. But it’s even more than that: In the small township of Maglie in Puglia, where it takes place, all five of your senses will be thrilled by the best local ingredients the region has to offer — namely because they’re also prepared and presented in an oh-so-Italian way.
The festival transforms the limestone-tiled town into a giant outdoor food market, with quaintly-labeled sections showcasing their specialities, including “Pasta Experience,” “Coffee Corner,” “Wine Passion,” and “Plaza of Gelato.”
Stepping into the heart of the festival, which is dubbed “The Street Food Path,” allow yourself to be enveloped by the clatters of crockery, aromas, and heat of grilling meat. This festival just may be the finest gastronomy and hospitality offered in Puglia.
Dates: August 1—5, 2015
3. Bregenz Opera Festival in Austria
Opera stage on Lake Constance, Bregenz (Photo: Michael Turtle/Time Travel Turtle)
Question for you: How often can you say you’ve just watched opera on a floating stage in a pristine Austrian lake?
Bragging rights aside, the Bregenz Festival strips back operatic snobbery and brings it back to the basics: flamboyant sets and costumes, energized theatrics, lyrical storytelling, and entertainment in its purest form.
It features classic plays like The Magic Flute, but also other smaller side acts, like family opera, orchestral performances, and art exhibitions. It’s the place to either become enamored by the beautiful works of musical theatre, or rediscover your appreciation for them.
Dates: July 22 — August 23, 2015
4. Soča Outdoor Festival in Slovenia
A competitive mountain biker making a jump. (Photo: Soča Outdoor Festival)
Soča Outdoor Festival in Slovenia can get your heart racing just by listing the activities it offers. Hiking. Rafting. Kayaking. Cycling. Horse riding. Rock climbing. Skydiving. Zip lining. Paragliding. Mountain biking. Wow.
And in case you’re still on an adrenaline high by nightfall, Soča Outdoor Festival will continue to quicken your pulse with unforgettable evening parties.
Dates: June 25th — July 5th, 2015
5. Tong Tong Fair, The Hague, Holland
A Balinese singer performing on the Grand Pasar stage. (Photo: Dylan Lowe/The Travelling Editor)
Holland is very much a country of mixed heritages. Dutch colonists once occupied modern Indonesia, which eventually resulted in a mixed, “Eurasian” culture. And nowhere is this mix more prevalent than the Tong Tong Fair, which celebrates the country’s legacy of cross-pollination.
The festival, which its organizers say is “a piece of Asia brought to Europe,” features a fast-food pavilion, a dimly-lit Asian market, and performances by Balinese singers, Javanese fan dancers, and more.
Dates: May 27th — June 7th, 2015.
6. Notte delle Luci in Scorrano, Italy
The light displays — luminarie — during Notte delle Lucci. (Photo: Victoria Watt/Bridges and Balloons)
What began as a tribute to Scorrano, Italy’s patron saint, Santa Domenica, has morphed into one of the most unique and psychedelic festivities in the world.
Notte delle Lcci — which means night of light — is a beautiful five-day festival you will not want to miss. There’s food, there’s dancing, and, most importantly, the light performance is choreographed to the beat of songs.
The festival’s history is just as amazing as the show itself. In 1600, the small town of Scorrano was saved from the plague by Santa Domenica, and so, every year on her feast day, July 5th, the townsfolk lit a candle. The tradition expanded over time, and soon, the candles turned into huge light structure, called luminarie.
Dates: July 4—9, 2015
7. Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland
A movie screening inside at Midnight Sun Film Festival. (Photo: Hejorama)
Because Finland is so far north, the summer sun barely sleeps. And so, with little to separate day and night, the small Finnish town of Sodankylä brings its local community and foreign visitors together for a daylong celebration, the Midnight Sun Film Festival, to celebrate one thing: movies.
Shown in tents, schools, and cinemas, the reels roll nonstop for a full 24 hours. Cinephiles have been flocking to the remote town since 1986, not only for the festival’s programme of 24-hour screenings, but also for the workshops and panel discussions presented by prestigious filmmakers revealing their secrets.
When you’re not catching a film, hang out by campfires with you fellow festival-goers, bonding over your shared passion.
Dates: June 10th — June 14th, 2015.
8. Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival in Ireland
Oysters and a pint of Guinness. (Photo: Kashyap Bhattacharya/Budget Traveller)
Sometimes it’s better to do fewer things well than to do many things half-heartedly — and that’s especially true in the restaurant business.
So true, in fact, that Galway, Ireland, the country’s foodie capital, is acting on this wisdom by hosting the Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival. The festival serves tons of oysters — you can get a half dozen for €12 — and also features other forms of entertainment. For example, a “festival queen” named Oyster Pearl presents the Mayor of Galway with the very first oysters of the season, and there is also an oyster-opening competition.
Dates: September 24th — September 28th, 2015
9. Sastamala Gregoriana in Finland
A solo recorder performing with a Baroque ensemble. (Photo: Dylan Lowe/The Travelling Editor)
A hidden gem in Finland, the town of Sastamala is known for two things: its status as the birthplace of Finnish publishing, and its annual “old music” festival, Sastamala Gregoriana.
Sastamala Gregoriana hosts recitals of music dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This is not where you come if you want to revisit recognizable melodies, but if you want to hear unfamiliar tunes and instruments, this is the place for you. You don’t even need to have an existing appreciation for classical music to be enchanted by this raw celebration of music itself.
Dates: July 18th — 25th, 2015