Festivals aren’t only music and mud y’know. When I delved headfirst into the #mustlovefestivals project, I discovered festivals I never could have imagined existed. Literary festivals. Arty festivals. Animal-throwing festivals. The list of unusual festivals around the world went on and on and on.
Some I tried myself, only to vow never to return again (the rotten tomato throwing Tomatina, for one.)
Well, let me make a start by introducing you right here, right now to seven of my favourite unusual festivals from around the world. No hippy flower shirts required.
It’s not every day that a quiet walk through hot narrow streets leaves you tumbling into your own Alice in Wonderland world. With giant playing cards falling from the sky, rabbits in hats and towering blue caterpillars looming overhead, it takes the vision of Alice herself to help make the madness make sense.
This is the Festival Gracia, or Festa de Gracia, depending on which language you plump for. It’s held every August in Barcelona in Gracia, a bohemian barrio that once stood separate from the city but which now links up quite nicely via the famous Passeig de Gracia.
Residents and neighbours work together all year to produce these imaginative street art displays – and then crowds come from dawn until, well, the next dawn to admire and party away.
Kamakura. It’s one of those words I’d never heard until I went to Yokote in north Japan.
Snow was falling as I arrived in the city, 260 miles from Tokyo. Softly at first, like a scene from a story book, before whipping itself into airborne swirls that revealed a thousand miniature igloos sprouting up from the school grounds. Among the bright white and inky darkness, I watched Yokote throw itself into its kamakura matsuri – a two day festival studded with snowflakes, sake and most of all – igloos.
In a city full of literary history, pursuits, and festivals, Dublin excels itself with Bloomsday. Held every 16th June since 1954, Dubliners celebrate arguably the greatest work from arguably one of their most talented authors by retracing many of the steps and the scenes from the book.
By the end of the day, we’ve taken in the Guinness-lit stone of central Dublin, the waves around the Martello Tower where Joyce himself once lived and the heather-tinged cliffs in Howth, the seaside town where Molly said yes (though, to be truthful, we snuck there the day before as well as the sprawling Glasnevin Cemetery that also features in the book.)
But it’s the plan for the evening that for me held the biggest draw.
There are moments in life that you never see coming: moments when clothes, colours, flavours, words, and maple syrup pancakes combine in a kaleidoscope of surprise and deep-fried sandwiches.
The Calgary Stampede takes those moments then flings them into a dirt-stomping, buckle-shining extravaganza of week-long events that left me gasping for breath after just two days.
Dubbed “the greatest outdoor show on earth” by some locals, and the “trampede” by others, one thing’s for sure: Canada’s biggest rodeo is no place to go if you’re looking for a quiet life.
Beyond the candlelight, the festival proceeds like many others. A stage speckled with spotlights forms a focus for the fun while at the edges, stall sell candyfloss, burgers, and palate-scraping cola sweets.
Children skip and dance as though in a 1950s filmset. Grannies natter and the young n cool hang out on stone steps. The night wears on and the crowd thickens, the music pulses.
It’s a kaleidoscope view of the islands themselves. At once beautiful, on deeper viewing complex, with shifting patterns of commerce and artistry, warmth and rigid rules, children, foreigners, locals, music, sweetness, salt…and reptiles.
A single trumpet pierces the air. The church bells chime. And a woman in a blooming white lace blouse sloshes a tankard down next to the bowl of covered pretzels. The foam spills over the edge, the bubbles slide into glass and the sound of psychedelic rock swells across the parasols, between the fluttering leaves and down to the table where I am sitting writing this.
I am at the Bardentreffen festival in Nuremberg, and what a beautiful, bewildering affair it is
Bardentreffen’s direct translation means “the meeting of the Bards” but it’s as far from a medieval flute-and-horn playing jig as a sense of humour is to airport security.
I was in western Canada covering five festivals for the wonderful mustlovefestivals project. Rodeo fascinated me; Vancouver I longed to see.
And Winnipeg, well, it just has too amusing a name to miss.
But Edmonton? And street performers? It was honest work, it was intriguing work. It was a wild card.