Rudy Maxa is a senior writer with National Geographic Traveler and host of a 91-episode series on the world’s great destinations on public television as well as a weekend travel radio show, both called “Rudy Maxa’s World.” Travelers heading to a new destination are often surprised and delighted when they encounter a festival. Anything that allows a visitor to easily rub shoulders with locals, especially in foreign countries, is exciting and memorable. Festivals offer that opportunity. So why not plan your travel to coincide with a festival instead of relying on the luck of timing?
The big ones are well known: Carnival in Rio (Feb. 28-Mar. 4); Munich’s Oktoberfest (end of Sept. thru first weekend of Oct.); the splendid Ice Festival in Harbin, China (Jan. 5-Feb. 5); Carnival in Venice (Feb. 14-Mar. 4); Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Mar. 4); Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Aug 1-25); and Nevada’s Burning Man (Aug. 25-Sept. 1).
But there are tens of thousands of smaller festivals that don’t require expensive tickets, elaborate costumes, or pricey hotel rooms.
Some are just downright weird. Spain, for example, is well known for its riot of tomato throwing, La Tomatina (last Wednesday in Aug.,) and Pomplona’s Running of the Bulls (Jul. 6-14). There’s also the bizarre festival where townsmen dressed in devils costumes leap over recently born babies in Castrillo de Mucria. In other towns, residents surviving an accident or serious illness give thanks by being paraded through town in open coffins. Elsewhere in Spain, there’s a rodent throwing festival, walking-on-fire festival, and one that features the burning of a papier-mâché sardine.
My favorite festivals are those that revolve around a food or drink unique to a location. While I wasn’t nuts about the lard festival I attended once in Colonnato, Italy, – and neither was my cholesterol level – it was one heck of a party. My tastes run more toward maple syrup festivals – there are many in the US, just search “maple syrup festivals” – or even the garlic fest in Gilroy, CA, the last weekend in July. You’re not a well-rounded gourmand if you haven’t sampled garlic ice cream!
Cheese lovers can find cheese fests, and wine lovers can find celebrations of wine as well. There are even festivals in the U.S. and Europe for musical types who appreciate the organ. In fact, whatever special interest you might have, there’s probably a festival celebrating it somewhere in the world. And that’s where the Internet is your best friend. Type in your passion —chess, hot-air ballooning, opera, or oysters — and tag it with the word “festival.” Viola, the world is, well, your oyster.
It’s a great way to break that invisible barrier that so often separates locals and visitors.