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5 Colorful European Festivals

By Monica Poling

Despite Europe’s vast diversity in culture, people and history, there’s one thing that unites all Europeans: They love to celebrate. Countless festivals around the continent commemorate local food, culture, history, music and the very fabric of being European. Here are five colorful festivals that offer unforgettable experiences.

Carnevale di Venezia
Jan. 31-Feb. 17, 2015; Venice, Italy

Sure, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro might be the most famous locations for their let-it-all-hang-out, Mardi Gras celebrations, but Italy also celebrates Carnival in grand, uninhibited style. Festivals are staged around the nation, with the most famous being Venice’s elaborate Carnevale di Venezia (Venice Carnival), which takes place every year in the weeks leading up to Lent. 

Festivities are plentiful and include a variety of balls, feasts, wine tastings and guided walking tours. The common threads connecting these events are the glamorous costumes and elaborate masks worn by revelers in order to adopt new personas. The festival’s main event is the Gran Teatro of Piazza San Marco, where costumed participants parade through the streets while enjoying live music and theater performances. 

Hamburg Port Festival
May 8-10, 2015; Hamburg, Germany

While Oktoberfest is surely Germany’s best-known festival, plenty of other events celebrate German culture and are less touristy, more authentic experiences. Every year at the Hamburg Port Festival, for example, northern Germans raise their beer glasses to honor the birthday of the Port of Hamburg, which celebrated its 825th anniversary in 2014. 

The weekend-long celebration, considered the largest harbor festival in the world, combines seafood, tall ships and German music. The port, which attracts more than 70,000 visitors every week to its popular Fischsmarkt (Fish Market), swells to nearly 1 million visitors during the port weekend. Events are held throughout the city, but the most popular activities are dragon boat races on the Elbe River, a unique tug boat ballet and a spectacular fireworks finale. During the week, guests can also tour the many tall ships visiting Hamburg during this time.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Aug. 7-31, 2015; Edinburgh, Scotland 

Considered the largest arts festival in the word, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe unfolds throughout Scotland’s capital for three weeks every summer. Last year, the festival featured more than 3,000 shows — and nearly 50,000 performances — encompassing comedy, theater, dance, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, music, musicals and opera. Don’t let the name fool you; this celebration isn’t just about edgy or alternative arts. It celebrates the independent nature of artists themselves. 

The festival dates back to 1947, when eight uninvited theater groups staged performances on the “fringes” of the newly minted Edinburgh International Festival. Not sure this festival is right for you? No worry, Edinburgh hosts seven major festivals every August, including Edinburgh International Festival, Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival
Sept. 24-27, 2015; Galway, Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day may be Ireland’s most-popular celebration, but clients who have “been there, done that” might consider attending the Galway Seafood & Oyster Festival, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year and is considered the oldest oyster festival in the world. Called one of Europe’s “Seven Best Festivals” by Britain’s Automobile Association (AA), the festival was originally organized by the Great Southern Hotel (now Hotel Meyrick) in September 1954. 

While only 34 people attended the first event, the celebration now attracts more than 20,000 visitors who travel Galway’s “seafood trail” in search of the city’s famed oysters. Festivities include entertainment, street parades and the highly competitive World Oyster Opening Championship, where entrants from around the world compete to be the fastest oyster shucker.

La Tomatina Festival
Aug. 26, 2015; Bunol, Spain

No doubt, the Spaniards like their festivals packed with a little extra adrenaline. But if running with the bulls at the Fiesta de San Fermin isn’t quite the right fit for your clients, they might consider attending Spain’s La Tomatina Festival, also known as the “World’s Largest Food Fight.” Held near Valencia, thousands of people make their way to the tiny town of Bunol, population 9,000, to hurl ripe tomatoes at one another. The actual tomato fight lasts exactly one hour, after which fire trucks are used to hose down the streets, using water from a Roman aqueduct. 

While the tomato fight once attracted up to 50,000 people, festival organizers now limit participation to 20,000, so interested clients should plan to purchase tickets early. The week-long festival also features music, parades, dancing and fireworks, as well as a variety of locally inspired activities, such as a paella cooking contest.

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