Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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In honor of Easter week, I’m sharing daily clips from Rick Steves’ European Easter, my one-hour public television special that’s airing now nationwide (check your local listings) and streaming online. (And tomorrow I’ll be letting my Facebook fans know how they can get a DVD of the Easter show for only $2, so be sure to like “Rick Steves” on Facebook.)
Today we continue the story of Sevilla’s dramatic Semana Santa processions. Locals shuffle past their beloved floats, flamenco singers are overcome with emotion, and evocative processions trudge through the city streets — showered by flower petals.
Want to see more? Watch previous clips and take a peek behind the scenes of my Easter special.
In honor of Easter week, I’m sharing daily clips from Rick Steves’ European Easter, my one-hour public television special that’s airing now nationwide (check your local listings) and streaming online. (Also, on Wednesday, April 12, I’ll be letting my Facebook fans know how they can get a DVD of the Easter show for only $2, so be sure to like “Rick Steves” on Facebook.)
Today’s clip tells the Easter story — Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection — illustrated by great European artwork.
Happy Palm Sunday. In honor of Easter week, I’m sharing daily clips from Rick Steves’ European Easter, my one-hour public television special that’s airing now nationwide (check your local listings) and streaming online. (Also, on Wednesday, April 12, I’ll be letting my Facebook fans know how they can get a DVD of the Easter show for only $2, so be sure to like “Rick Steves” on Facebook.)
In today’s clip, we’ll experience one of Europe’s most bombastic Holy Week celebrations: the processions of Sevilla’s Semana Santa. Beginning on Palm Sunday, neighborhood congregations around Sevilla adorn their floats with flowers and candles, as “costaleros” prepare to carry those floats through the streets on their backs, amid a parade of cloaked penitents.
For the next week, to celebrate Easter with an international flair, I’ll be sharing daily clips from Rick Steves’ European Easter, my one-hour public television special that’s airing now nationwide (check your local listings) and streaming online. (Also, on Wednesday, April 12, I’ll be letting my Facebook fans know how they can get a DVD of the Easter show for only $2, so be sure to like “Rick Steves” on Facebook.)
In today’s clip, we see how traditional corners of Europe — from Italy’s Le Marche to Slovenia’s Lake Bled — prepare for their own local versions of the Easter feast. And we’ll meet an adorable band of Italian preschoolers bringing Easter joy to a retirement home.
Meeting people is what distinguishes a good travel experience. Whether I’m leading a tour, writing a guidebook, or making a TV show, if I’m not connecting people to people…I’m not feeling good about my work. In lands with the most interesting demographic weave, I love to produce a montage of face shots. When I request this, Simon, my producer, always says, “Okay, but you need to give us some time to do it well.” We make the time in our busy schedule, and my crew always comes up with a segment that just sparkles with humanity. We enjoyed our time filming in Romania last summer and, to a great extent, it was because of the Romanian people. Enjoy this short visit to Romania — via the faces of that fascinating land.
(Want to watch more? The complete Romania show is streaming online for free.)
We are in the golden age of private rooms for rent and sofas to crash on. In fact, services like Airbnb are changing the accommodations landscape all over the world. What are the best services and how do you enjoy the best values for these popular, online booking agencies in Europe?
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my Facebook community to help me round out my upcoming book about European festivals with some of their own favorite festivals. Many of them used vivid writing and photos to share an enticing array of parties.
Here are the best 30, listed in calendar order. Each listing includes a festival website and/or a YouTube search tip so you can get a better sense of the fun. (We’ll include the best of the photos in the print edition.) I hope that this collection will translate into more festive travels on your next European trip.
Thanks to all our guest travel writers. Each of you will get an autographed copy of the “Rick Steves European Festivals” book hot off the press this fall, when the companion public television special airs across the USA. Now, enjoy this opportunity to imagine joining in on all this Euro-festival fun.
Background photo: Jennifer Martin
February. Battle of the Oranges. Ivrea, Italy.
Every February, the northern Italian town of Ivrea hosts the Battle of the Oranges (Battaglia delle Arance), drawing thousands of visitors to its old-town center—some to observe behind safety nets, others in the fray dodging flying oranges amid horse-drawn carriages and piles of horse manure. Just a short drive from Milan, Ivrea makes an easy day-trip to see this fun, chaotic festival. Watch as “soldiers” in horse-drawn carriages and “peasants” on the ground pelt each other with oranges–nearly 500 tons over a three-day period. For around €5, you can purchase a red-stocking cap to mark yourself as a non-combatant, which means that while you may still get hit with a stray fruit here and there, no one (at least in theory) should be aiming directly at you. Note that if you want to participate in the battle, you must be part of a registered team. (storicocarnevaleivrea.it, YouTube search: Oranges Ivrea. Thanks to Hyla Melloy Stuttgart of Germany.)
March 15-19. Las Fallas Festival. Valencia, Spain.
Celebrated annually in March, Las Fallas in Valencia honors the coming of Spring and sparks a unique attack on the senses. Spectacular displays of fireworks occur daily, with a Valencian twist: You will FEEL the rumble reverberating through your body. Parades with brass bands, traditional costumes, and firecrackers fill the city, culminating in street parties for everyone to enjoy. Aside from the incredible cuisine, from perfect paellas to mouthwatering churros, a highlight is the pilgrimage where more than 50,000 people offer flowers to the Virgin Mary. The festival’s name comes from the hundreds of giant statues–sometimes satirical and always astonishing–that are erected across the city as a competition between neighborhoods. It’s a beautiful irony to watch them burn brightly in an epic finale, to which you’re so close you can feel the flames. (http://fallespatrimonicomu.info/en/, YouTube search: Fallas Valencia. Thanks to Kerrie Simpson of Manchester, UK.)
March. St. Patrick’s Festival. Dublin, Ireland.
Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities are highlighted by a giant parade. All along the two-mile parade route, revelers sport an assortment of goofy hats and festive face paint. Delicate little sprigs of live shamrock clover are pinned to lapels and hats everywhere.
The parade features a quirky conveyor belt of visual and audio stimuli, including school marching bands, giant puppets spidering along the street on long poles, crosier-staff-bearing St. Patricks in flowing green robes anointing the crowds with mock blessings, and colorful floats blowing Lawrence Welk bubbles and swirls of cloudlike foam into the air.
The revelry continues long after the parade ends. Bands on outdoor stages churn out lively rhythms laced with fiddle, banjo, and flute. Irish dance troupes featuring lasses in short skirts perform a precision swirl of set dancing as locals break into their own ragged impromptu dance steps, locking elbows and kicking up their heels. (stpatricksfestival.ie, YouTube search: St. Patrick’s Festival Dublin. Thanks to Pat O’Connor, co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook, of Edmonds, WA.)
April 27. Koningsdag. Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Every April 27, the Dutch celebrate their bright orange holiday of Koningsdag, or King’s Day, in celebration of the birthday of their monarch, Willem-Alexander.
The Dutch have a tradition of Oranjegeket (going orange crazy), because orange is their proud and loud national color. Never is this more apparent than in the clothes, wigs, big hats, and bright feather boas prominent throughout the partying, wandering masses on Koningsdag.
While Koningsdag is a nationwide holiday, it’s estimated that a million Dutch converge on the capital city of Amsterdam for parties, bands, flea markets, and most significantly, the parade of brightly-colored boats cruising up and down the city’s famed canals, playing loud music and showing off before the jolly masses on the quaysides.
So grab a beer or two, dip your fries in mayo, and join the orange crowd in Amsterdam this April. (YouTube search: Koningsdag Amsterdam. Thanks to Steven McIntire of Alameda, CA.)
April 30. Beltane Fire Festival. Edinburgh, Scotland.
Wind your way up Edinburgh’s iconic Calton Hill, guided by the flickering light of torches and the sounds of revelry. What greets you at the top is the Beltane Fire Festival, and a night you’ll never forget. Taking place each year on April 30, this ancient-Celtic-inspired festival has run since the 1980s, and tells the story of the awakening of the May Queen and the rebirth of the Green Man. Expect to see half-naked, painted bodies dance and perform in a procession across the top of the hill. As they cheer and shout, watch out for the twirling of flames and torches all around you. The culmination of the festivities ends with a roaring bonfire, whose warmth will leave you yearning for the approaching summer that the festival beckons. (https://beltane.org, YouTube search: Beltane Festival. Thanks to Emily Gwiazda of Caledon, Ontario.)
April/May. Baumblütenfest. Werder, Germany.
When I heard about the Fruit Wine Festival outside of Berlin, I couldn’t wait to hear more. Then I heard more. Rowdy trains full of drunk teens–all in pursuit of locally produced fruit wines. But Baumblütenfest is worth the one-hour trip. That chaotic train ride transports you from the capital city to the countryside. Walking with hordes from the station, you’re struck by the tranquility, with greenery stretching to the Havel River. The stillness is broken by the vendors’ stands. Plastic cups soon litter the streets. Goofy hats and charmless knick-knacks are for sale. Ignore that. You’re here for the wine.
Stachelbeere (gooseberry) and Johannisbeere (currant) are transformed by crazy homemade contraptions into wine. Continue past the crowds and rides, bringing your bottle to the edge of the island. Sit in the grass. Gaze at the water. Drink up.
Baumblütenfest is a mouthful, but it gets easier to say as the fruit wine flows. (werder-havel.de, YouTube search: Baumblütenfest. Thanks to Erin “ebe” Porter of Berlin, Germany.)
Late Spring. Vogalonga. Venice, Italy.
In 1973, in protest against the mechanized boats harming the lagoon habitat and the historic buildings of Venice and the Veneto, a group of friends took up arms–in the form of oars–and created a non-competitive race, using traditional Venetian forward-rowing boats. The protest festival continues 40 years on. These days, time-honored, flat-bottom, small boats like the sandolo, macareta, and s’ciopon are joined by modern-day kayaks as well as larger vessels like the peata, which holds about 16 rowers. At the sound of a shotgun, local and worldwide rowing enthusiasts alike make their way through a 30 km- (19 mile-) course through the shallow canals of the lagoon. As they oar their way along the Venetian waterways, wide-eyed onlookers perched on banks and bridges spiritedly cheer for the colorful aquatic parade of thousands of human-powered watercraft. (vogalonga.com, YouTube search: Vogalonga Venice. Thanks to Trish Feaster of Edmonds, WA.)
May-June. Infiorata Festivals. Italy
Leave it to the Italians to take something Mother Nature has perfected and make it even more breathtaking. That’s exactly what happens every May and June at the Infiorata Festival–the Festival of Flowers. Vibrant blooms are harvested and used in fresh, dried, natural, and dyed forms to create mosaic masterpieces all over Italy. The sweet fragrance of the pillowy petals carpet the path for religious processions all the way to the altar.
Each of the hundreds of Infiorata Festivals has a unique identity, giving travelers a window into what matters most in each region. The one thing they all have in common is that the religious scenes are literally swept away within hours of completion, leaving every witness with the knowledge that beauty comes from the creative act, not the completed product. Because it is fleeting, this festival leaves a lasting impression on those who experience its glory. (YouTube search: Infiorata. Thanks to Colleen Mariotti of Bainbridge Island, WA.)
June. Vienna Pride. Vienna, Austria.
Of all of its magnificent balls, Vienna’s most fabulous by far is Europe’s largest AIDS benefit event: the annual Life Ball, held on Rathausplatz. Since 1992, this enthralling celebration has drawn dozens of celebrities to the Austrian capital to raise funding and awareness for AIDS/HIV research, treatment, and prevention programs. But what makes this event particularly spectacular year after year is its unbridled celebration of life, thrillingly evident in the competition of glittering, feathered, sequined costumes and its determinedly inclusive atmosphere.
The glad rags come off at the end of Pride Week as Vienna’s annual Regenbogenparade (Rainbow Parade) closes out the festivities with a joyous, colorful—and scantily clad—march around the capital’s downtown Ringstrasse. This is an opportunity to both acknowledge the hard-won victories of a centuries-long struggle for LGBTQ rights and to reconvene under the banner of the ongoing fight for equality. In years past, Pride Village has even hosted a ‘Katerfrühstück’ (hangover breakfast) the following morning, including the crowning of this year’s Dirndl Königin (Dirndl Queen) and Lederhosen König (Lederhosen King). (http://viennapride.at, YouTube search: Vienna Pride. Thanks to Gretl Satorius of Vienna, Austria.)
June. Der Meistertrunk. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.
Georg Nusch, mayor of 17th-century Rothenburg, purportedly drained over three liters of wine in one incredible gulp, after an invading general promised to spare the town if the mayor could down the drink. Nusch not only saved Rothenburg from destruction, he gave birth to the legend known as Der Meistertrunk (The Master Draught), celebrated each year in early June. The four-day festival takes tiny Rothenburg, already one of Germany’s most well-preserved medieval towns, back to 1631. Hundreds of locals don dramatic period costumes as soldiers, merchants, and townsfolk to recreate the events leading up to Nusch’s dizzying feat. The celebration takes place in and outside of Rothenburg’s medieval walls with an open-air play; military parades featuring pounding drums, battle songs, and intimidating weaponry; military camps with crackling fires, horse-drawn carts; and food, drink, and live modern music at night. (http://en.meistertrunk.de, YouTube search: Der Meistertrunk. Thanks to Nick Medina of Chicago, IL.)
June. DecorAcción. Madrid, Spain.
Filled with color, texture and creativity–from the beautiful to the funky–Madrid’s DecorAcción celebrates art, design, and decoration.
Each June, this street festival lights up the Barrio de las Letras neighborhood with amazing art installations on the facades of building after building, while pop-up shops selling antiques and vintage fare line the streets. Whimsically decorated residential balconies and colorful pennants hang over the streets, creating a canopy that expands the festival to the sky.
Locals and visitors can take workshops on topics such as creating a personal tablescape, Japanese writing, and trends in floral arranging. Wander into neighborhood restaurants to check out the decorated patios for a total dining experience.
The festival is a full-on, five-sense feast for the creative mind, vintage shopper, and the traveler looking for a unique, easy to access, local experience. (http://decoraccion.nuevo-estilo.es, YouTube search: DecorAcción. Thanks to Shawn Elizabeth Personke of Chelsea, MI.)
June 16. Bloomsday Festival. Dublin, Ireland.
Even those unfamiliar with James Joyce will delight in the “wacky” sports, eccentric costumes, and tasty treats of Dublin’s Bloomsday Festival. The festival honors author James Joyce and Leopold Bloom, the lead character in Joyce’s novel, Ulysses.
Throughout the streets of Dublin, actors recite dramatic and silly readings from Ulysses, often prompting cheers and shouts from the crowd. You can also partake in the Joycean pub crawl if that strikes your fancy. Or you can crawl into bed! “Molly’s” bed (named for Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife) is a full-size bed in the middle of the street where festival-goers can take a photo, or perhaps a nap.
While any attire is just fine, try to find a local charity shop (thrift shop) and support an Irish charity while picking up a feathered hat, fancy pearls, or other Edwardian garb to immerse yourself in the festivities. (bloomsdayfestival.ie, YouTube search: Bloomsday Dublin. Thanks to Claire Pfarr of Pittsburgh, PA.)
June 21. Fête de la Musique. Paris, France.
My favorite European festival happens in Paris every year on the evening of the summer solstice, June 21. It’s called “Fête de la Musique” or Festival of Music. It started in Paris in 1982 and is now celebrated in many cities in Europe as Worldwide Music Day. All over Paris, streets are closed to traffic and pedestrians wander around freely, listening to live music and enjoying street food sold from carts. Some indoor venues are open for special concerts. Most, if not all, are free to the public. Many bars and restaurants have special menus. Even the public transport system gets into the act: RATP sells a special discounted ticket that is good all night, and the Métro, bus, and RER lines continue service until the wee hours. It’s a lot of fun if you happen to be in Paris that day! (fetedelamusique.de/en, YouTube search: Fête de la Musique Paris. Thanks to John M of Milwaukee, WI.)
June 23. Festa de São João do Porto. Porto, Portugal.
Not well known beyond Portugal, Oporto stages an annual festival which is second to none! The celebration on June 23 honors their most revered saint, St. John the Baptist. Dating back six centuries, the festival blends Christianity with old pagan rites: grilled sardines, lots of port and wine, balloon lanterns, midnight fireworks, and jumping over bonfires. Street musicians fill the streets on the Douro riverfront. Don’t be surprised if a stalk of leeks or a clove of garlic suddenly thwacks you on the head. It’s just the locals’ way of wishing you good luck. Better yet, they bonk people on their heads with soft plastic hammers that beep — that’s the coolest! No one is immune from the bonking, from babies in strollers to the elderly with walkers. If you dare…go for the beeping hammer lines. It is great “beeping” fun! (YouTube search: Festa de São João Porto. Thanks to Randy Ratzlaff of Terrell, TX.)
June 23. Noche de San Juan. A Coruña, Spain.
San Juan (Saint John) is a festival celebrated on June 23 throughout different parts of Spain, but it’s best in the autonomous community of Galicia. At night, residents light hundreds of bonfires on the beaches to ward off evil and witches. You can walk through the old city of A Coruña to see streets lined with large grills fuming smoke and releasing the savory scent of grilled sardines. Families and friends enjoy cañas (beers) and endless amounts of sardines from plastic plates. When the sun sets, the lighting of the fires begins and the entire city is overrun with a thick fog of smoke and ashes. Before the night is over, for good luck, you must jump over the bonfire seven times and scream “Meigas fora!” (Witches off!) (hoguerassanjuan.com, YouTube search: San Juan A Coruña. Thanks to Angelo Ramos of A Coruña, Spain.)
Late June-late September. Lumières à Beaune. Beaune, France.
While Beaune might be best known for the taste of its Burgundian cuisine and delectable wines from nearby vineyards, summer visitors know that a late-evening walk through the town excites another sense: sight. Dotted throughout the walled French city are historic buildings whose facades become nightly canvases for dazzling digital light shows. With state-of-the-art animations and projections, each venue tells a different visual story from Beaune’s and France’s past, highlighting famous citizens, the humble lives of ordinary people, and intricate landscapes and architecture. Residents and visitors of all ages share in this communal experience as they go from one location to the next, delighting in this rich, kaleidoscopic spectacle. (YouTube search: Lumières Beaune. Thanks to Trish Feaster of Edmonds, WA.)
July. Disfida degli Arcieri di Terra e di Corte. Fivizzano, Italy.
Every July, nestled in the lush hills of northern Tuscany, the sleepy walled town of Fivizzano travels back in time. A medieval archery competition, “Disfida degli Arcieri di Terra e di Corte” (Challenge of the Archers between the Countryside and Court), has taken place on the same square, Piazza Medicea, for 500 years. Attracting thousands of witnesses to this fun, fierce rivalry between neighborhoods and nearby villages, the festival is an elaborate and boisterous affair as locals show off their proud tradition. The weekend begins by setting the scene with a medieval food market, games, music, and animals. Sunday’s sunset introduces each rival group–the costumed marchers with drums and impressive banners parade beautifully through the streets. As the warm cobblestones cool, the archery competition starts, fervent and engaging; a hush falls over the audience at every mark taken. Stunning performances such as flag throwing and fire dancing are interspersed throughout. If you’re lucky, you’ll join a great party by following the victors to their favorite bar. (YouTube search: Disfida Fivizzano. Thanks to Ella Weehuizen of Russell, New Zealand.)
July. Festa del Redentore. Venice, Italy.
Just follow the crowds and you’ll be in a perfect spot for the Redentore Festival’s fireworks in Venice, held on the third Saturday in July to give thanks for the end of the plague in 1576. The highlight is a spectacular show of fireworks that lights up the sky over the Grand Canal and the Il Redentore church on the island of Giudecca. Go out early to find a place to sit. The locals will show you where, and stop when they stop. Snack on pizza and a bottled bellini while waiting for the fireworks that happen about 9 p.m. On the days before and after the fireworks, you can literally walk on water on a temporary pontoon bridge that connects the area near St. Mark’s Square to the island of Giudecca. (YouTube search: Redentore Venice. Thanks to Tiffani Sherman of Dunedin, Florida.)
July. Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.
Berlin, London, Cannes…Karlovy Vary? Film festivals in Europe are fun and exciting–and they increase your awareness of the world! My favorite is held in July in the beautiful, historic city of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. Over the course of nine days, more than 150 international movies are presented, including dozens of world premieres! Often, the actors and directors attend the screenings and speak to the audience at the conclusion, adding to people’s enjoyment and understanding of the films. In addition to the films, all of which are in English or subtitled, there are celebrations along the river, on the red carpet, and throughout the city. The Czechs really love their cinema and the KVIFF is wonderful, especially the cheap ticket prices (about $4), lodging, and tasty food! (kviff.com/en/homepage, YouTube search: Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Thanks to Melanie Sims Leon of Hohenfels, Germany.)
July. Gărâna Jazz Festival. Gărâna, Romania.
The Gărâna Jazz Festival in Romania has all the ingredients of a hidden gem. Held high up in the Carpathian Mountains outside the town of Gărâna, this four-day festival in the woods brings together a genre-bending mix of jazz musicians from around the world. You’ll hear everything from traditional trumpet and sax acts, to symphonic ensembles pushing the envelope of their tradition, to DJs giving it the electronic spin. From unknowns to Oscar winners, all the acts are impressive, and the audience, clued into the privilege of being there, are definitely into them. Up to 10,000 people attend each year, but it doesn’t feel crowded–there’s plenty of space to sit on the cozy wooden benches, carved from the trees the local timber industry sustainably produces. And for those brisk mountains nights, the delicious soups and delicacies the chefs are serving morning to night are simply divine. (garana-jazz.ro, YouTube search: Gărâna Jazz Festival. Thanks to Matthew Paffhouse of McBain, MI.)
July. Ludwigsburg Festival Classic Open Air & Fireworks. Ludwigsburg, Germany.
Imagine watching shimmers of fireworks bounce off a lakeside palace while a live orchestra plays in the background. That’s exactly what you’ll find every July at the Ludwigsburg Festival, held at Seeschloss Monrepos, 45 minutes from Stuttgart, Germany. The best seating is on the hillside of the lawn–if you’re quick enough to claim a spot for yourself. Some sit on blankets; some turn this into the celebration of the year and bring folding tables, linens, flowers, champagne, and candelabras. Families can bring outdoor toys, and many people bring wine, fresh bread, and cheese; German sausage, beer, and wine is available for purchase. The orchestra often plays popular movie theme songs to add humor, making the evening light and fun. A hotel on the property allows you to turn this affair into a weekend getaway. Fair warning: This may certainly become the event you plan your future vacations around. (YouTube search: Ludwigsburg fireworks. Thanks to Jennifer Martin of Port Townsend, WA.)
Last week of July. Cosmo Jazz Festival. Chamonix, France.
If you want to combine your love of music with the thrill of the great outdoors, make your way to Chamonix during the last week of July. Musicians from all corners of the globe share their talents en plein air at venues in the chic valley town of Chamonix and at altitudes with dizzying French alpine and glacial panoramas. And impromptu performances can happen when and where you least expect it–along a hiking trail, atop a boulder, or even in a cable car thousands of feet above the valley floor. From midday until late into the night, you’ll hear and feel this unforgettable mixture of melody and Mother Nature, where the hills really are alive with the sound of music. (cosmojazzfestival.com/en, YouTube search: Jazz Festival Chamonix. Thanks to Trish Feaster of Edmonds, WA.)
Last weekend of July. Sighişoara Medieval Festival. Sighişoara, Romania.
Romania’s Sighişoara Medieval Festival is a must-see destination for anyone harboring a penchant for medieval parties in historically spooky towns. Great for kids and adults of all ages, the festivities include costumed parades through winding cobblestone streets, live theater performances, dancing, concerts, and hands-on activities. After lunch at one of the food carts or restaurants, try your hand at archery or visit the blacksmith’s tower. Follow the sounds of the lute player to imprisoned witches and jailed law-breakers serving their sentences. If you feel left out in plain street clothes, don’t worry; simply rent a costume and join in the festivities. Cap off your experience with a tour of the house where Dracula was born, conveniently located in the middle of the festival. Sighisoara is easily accessible by train, and the festival is held in the center of the old town. (YouTube search: Sighişoara Festival. Thanks to Jennifer Martin of Port Townsend, WA.)
August. Festa Major de Gràcia. Barcelona, Spain.
If you find yourself in Barcelona during mid-August, check out one of the world’s most colorful and energetic week-long block parties. For nearly 200 years, the Festa Major de Gràcia has attracted those interested in seeing which neighborhood street will win the annual prize as “best decorated.” The elaborate, immense, and colorful scenes constructed by the locals must be seen to be believed. Some can even be experienced, as is the case with this walk-through underwater artistic explosion from 2013 (pictured below). Modestly priced food and drink, free live music, and large, enthusiastic crowds round out this unforgettable local experience. (www.festamajordegracia.cat, YouTube search: Festa Major de Gràcia. Thanks to John Meglino of Brooklyn, NY.)
August. Villacher Kirchtag. Villach, Austria.
Villach’s Kirchtag festival is a mix between Munich’s Oktoberfest and traditional May Day celebrations in the US. The town of Villach has an idyllic setting on the River Drau, with a hilltop castle, Burg Landskron, overlooking the picturesque valley. A nice walk up to the castle, which has a view restaurant at the top, allows for a pleasant respite from the activity of the festival.
During the week-long festival, Villach welcomes an estimated 400,000 visitors, many wearing traditional lederhosen and dirndl. It’s a celebration for all ages, with amusement park rides intermixed with beer, food, and souvenir tents. Each restaurant sets up their own tent with an accompanying oompah band, and night-time brings DJs to the Kaiser-Josef-Platz for the Kirchtag Disco, where the young gather each night.
The Kirchtag festival, smaller than Munich’s big bash, welcomes tourists who want an Oktoberfest experience, but maybe have a tighter budget. (villacherkirchtag.at, YouTube search: Kirchtag Villach. Thanks to Bob Grant of Bellmawr, NJ)
Autumn. Prague International Jazz Festival. Prague, Czech Republic
Jazz lovers, it’s time to plan a trip to Prague! The Old Town Square boasts free open-air concerts one weekend every year in July. Whether you enjoy classic jazz, swing, or blues–or a hybrid of the three–it’s absolutely one of the best laid-back jazz parties Europe can offer. Food and drink vendors line the stage, so grab a beer, a hot pastry lovingly spun over flame and sprinkled with sugar, grilled chicken or sausage, and enjoy the numerous performers–a great mix of both instrumentalists and vocalists. If you get up to dance, chances are you’ll find many willing to join you. Located near the historical astronomical clock and St. Nicholas Church, it’s easy to find and a great way to mix sightseeing and entertainment. (http://jazzfestivalpraha.com/en, YouTube search: Prague Jazz Festival. Thanks to Jennifer Martin of Port Townsend, WA.)
October. Almabtrieb Festival. Mayrhofen, Austria.
For Austrians, this event is a normal part of alpine life, but for others, it’s a beautiful, other-worldly celebration that many flock to see from around the world. It’s known as the Almabtrieb, or Cows Come Home, and the largest festival is held in Mayrhofen, Austria, located in the Tirol region of the Alps. Some 180,000 steer, horses, sheep, and goats make their way down from the alps where they’ve spent the summer grazing the lush fields. In this region, many animals are decorated with stunning flower crowns and colorful garlands and wear hand-painted bells. You can hear the bells as the shepherds herd the animals down to their stables. This free event is absolutely one celebration not to be missed! (YouTube search: Almabtrieb Mayrhofen. Thanks to Megan Haigood of Stuttgart, Germany.)
October. Eurochocolate Festival. Perugia, Italy.
Imagine the quaint streets of a pristine medieval Italian town lined with hundreds of vendors selling chocolate. Every October, Perugia–the home of Baci Chocolates–turns into a sweet tooth’s paradise during the largest chocolate festival in Europe. From chocolate made by old Italian men, to the world’s largest chocolate bar at the end of a GIANT selfie stick, Eurochocolate gives you a unique view on modern Italian culture. A festival that turns only 24 this year, Eurochocolate is a spectacular way to gorge on a gift from the heavens. Tickets for a “Chocopass” are relatively inexpensive (some are around €6), and come with a heaping of free chocolate, chocolate-inspired things, and other goodies. Don’t trip on the cobblestones as you make your way to the city’s spectacular panoramic viewpoint, munching on all the chocolate goodies—both domestic and international–the festival has to offer. (YouTube search: Eurochocolate Perugia. Thanks to Sydney Zaruba of Saint Augustine, FL.)
December. Fête de l’Escalade. Geneva, Switzerland.
The Fête de l’Escalade is a weekend-long celebration, held in mid-December in Geneva, to commemorate the night in 1602 when the scrappy townsfolk defeated the army of the Duke of Savoy, who wanted to capture the then-independent and wealthy city-state. On Saturday, to re-create parts of the middle-of-the-night battle, there are tours of secret passageways in the Old Town, mock sword fights, and cannon-firing demonstrations. The festival culminates with a big parade on Sunday night, with scores of men dressed as soldiers of the Savoy, wearing helmets and some riding on horseback. The way is lit by torches of real fire. The parade ends in the square in front of the cathedral, where an enormous bonfire is lit. And what Swiss festival is complete without chocolate? The symbol is a chocolate soup pot, a weapon of the battle’s heroine. Every family buys one to smash and eat at home. (www.1602.ch, YouTube search: Fête de l’Escalade. Thanks to Stephen H. Padre of Washington, D.C.)
Mehlika Seval, mother, guide, friend, passionate advocate for a modern secular Turkey, died on March 27. Meli had a bigger impact on me than any guide I’ve ever worked with.
I met Meli on a day-long bus tour she was leading from Kusadasi. Seeing beach balls on the bus, she started by saying, “This is a demanding and educational tour, and I aim to give you a better understanding of our history and culture. I’m going back to the station so those interested in lying on the beach can take a different bus.” By the end of that day, watching Meli whirling gracefully through rustic villages, excavation sites, and lush countryside — introducing us to farmers at work, exotic taste-treats, and ancient statues as if they were alive today — I was only thinking one thing: I must connect this woman with Americans wanting to experience Turkey.
We agreed to co-lead tours, and a year later (still barely knowing Meli), I met her at the Istanbul airport with 20 eager travelers. I was a bit nervous — this was in pre-Internet days, and organized group travel in Turkey was dicey. But it turned out to be the beginning of a ten-year partnership in celebrating Turkish culture by getting American travelers out of their comfort zones. We discovered that the stimulation was perfect for nurturing a broader perspective. Meli co-hosted four TV shows on Turkey with me. (Our Eastern Turkey show, one of the most demanding and rewarding I’ve ever produced, is still in circulation.)
Meli was a passionate Turk in the modern, Atatürk sense. She had a hard-to-fully-appreciate admiration and love of Atatürk, who established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and remains the beloved father of modern Turkey. Meli’s father died during a moment of silence remembering Atatürk. As a young girl, Meli worried that she’d never be able to love another man because of her love of Atatürk. If there’s any blessing in Meli’s sickness and death, it’s that it came in time to deliver her from being aware of how the current president of Turkey is the anti-Atatürk. Knowing Meli, her reaction to his post-coup consolidation of power would have probably landed her in jail.
Meli danced at every chance she had. She was a mean backgammon player. She cared for her bus drivers as if they were family. She treasured her children, Asli and Ahmet. Meli fought for civil liberties and was a breathtaking example of a woman standing tall in a society thoroughly dominated by men. She spoke boldly against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in her land. She traveled far and wide for many years across the United States, teaching at whatever schools would host her. Meli seemed happiest when on her tour bus. She seemed to live on her bus, meeting a steady parade of American groups, as she was clearly on a mission: to share her culture in all its fascinating glory…yesterday and today.
Meli’s teaching charisma blossomed at ancient sites (she wrote a beautiful tourist guidebook to her favorite, Ephesus) and in Turkey’s far east, where the ethnographic festival of Turkey is most vivid.
Anatolia, the land of mothers, has lost one of its finest. But Meli’s impact will live on in the generations of guides she inspired and travelers who she introduced so artfully to her beloved culture. Thank you, Meli. Bless you, Meli. And guide on.
Rick Steves and countless other travelers whom you inspired
I like to offer tips for travelers with various backgrounds and interests. But one topic I obviously can’t discuss from personal experience is what it’s like for black travelers in Europe. I’d love to host a sharing of experiences that black travelers are having in today’s Europe — particularly with the tragic rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries. Are there places or situations where you feel especially comfortable…or uncomfortable? What helpful trip-planning resources or advice can you share? Are things changing? And in general, do you feel that the color of your skin affects the interactions you have in Europe these days? Thanks for sharing your experiences — and be sure to check out the conversation on my Facebook page as well.
I am at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre at a WGBH event, midway through an exciting eight-cities-in-eight-days lecture tour — and every night we have a sold-out house. It feels great to be connecting with travelers so enthusiastic about their travels. I’m also appreciating the wonderful early 20th-century theaters that caring communities have saved and are now enjoying. So far, I’ve been to the Keswick Theatre in Philadelphia, the Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the classic old Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Wilbur in Boston. Coming up: Houston, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Florida, and then home to Seattle.
Many of the events are fundraisers for public television. In the face of a government that is opposed to anything with the word “public” in it, I’ve witnessed a powerful energy for this important community resource. Yes! It is worth $1.35 per citizen in tax revenue for a great nation like ours to have one oasis on the media dial that is non-commercial. Thanks to public broadcasting on radio and TV, our communities can enjoy programming that assumes an attention span, respects our intellect, and is driven not by a passion for keeping advertisers happy, but by a passion for educating and inspiring us to embrace life and celebrate diversity. Please, raise your voice for a smarter and less fearful society… raise your voice for public broadcasting.