The Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II followed by the London Summer Olympics makes for a pageantry-filled year in the UK illustrating celebrations and festivals, pomp and ceremony are more evident than usual in Europe this year, despite gloomy economic news.
There are thousands of festivals, from weird to wonder-filled. And with our strong dollar, it’s all about bargains. Turn the page and join the party.
Carry On In CarcassonneFrance is a land of many faces, from the sophistication of Paris to the wild, storm-lashed Brittany coast. There’s so much to see, it’s tempting to cram too much into one trip. Take time to discover one or two areas and, ideally, bookend your vacation with a couple of nights in Paris.
Last summer we discovered Languedoc-Roussillon, staying in the medieval village of Caunes Minervois. From there, rental-car day trips took us to CARCASSONNE (glorious), to Mediterranean beaches, to the Canal du Midi, and to local wineries with vineyards hemmed by fields of sunflowers.
Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site, dates to the 6th century BC. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, and a stroll around its ramparts yields amazing views. The Festival of Carcassonne draws thousands. Almost 120 shows – opera, theatre, jazz, classical and more – run from mid-June to mid-August on 10 stages, one of which is a Roman Theatre. Many offer free admission.
New on France’s events calendar is Festival International de la Gastronomie, launched last year in Mougins, another medieval village seven kilometres from Cannes. Mougins is renowned for having the most Michelin-rated restaurants of any region in the country. It was home to Picasso in his later years, and has an excellent Picasso museum. The three-day September festival features demos, dining, and all things gastronomic. (Dates from www.lesetoilesdemougins.com.)
Shutterstock/Nickolay VinokurovAlso new is the Jean Cocteau museum in Menton on the Cote d’Azur. The 8,840-square-metre, eight-year-long project was built to house Cocteau’s cubist-influenced art. Better known for his literature, Cocteau would love the vast structure which, from above, looks like a spider with black leg-like pillars sprawling over the building. www.franceguide.com
Luther Makes His MarkPrussian king Frederick the Great, a military wunderkind, is now known as an “enlightened despot.” The 300th anniversary of his birth is celebrated between April 28 and October 28 in Potsdam at his New Palace in exhibitions like Friederisiko (Frederick’s Risk).
Predating him by half a millennium is the church of St Thomas in Leipzig, where the St Thomas Boys’ Choir commemorates the building’s 800th anniversary in a year-long program of events and concerts (www.thomana2012.com). Johann Sebastian Bach was cantor here from 1723 until 1750.
It all blends harmoniously with The Year of Reformation and Music theme, part of the MARTIN LUTHER decade ending in 2017 celebrating 500 years since Luther’s world-changing act of defiance. It was October 31, 1517 when the monk nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, triggering the Protestant Reformation. Singing in church was part of the change. Before Luther, only monks raised their voices in praise.
Enter the Handel Festival featuring select operas (May 31 to June 10 in Halle) and an international festival of world religious music, Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth) in Lutherstadt Wittenberg from June 14 to July 22.
It’s in Luther Country that the Old Synagogue in Erfurt, lost for centuries and discovered a decade ago, was named “Europe’s best new tourism attraction” by the British Guild of Travel Writers. It casts light on daily life 650 years ago.
Documenta13 (June 9 to September 16) is one of Germany’s top art exhibitions. Staged in Kassel every five years, Documenta focuses on modern art from around the world (www.d13.documenta.de).
It seems odd to call an airport an “attraction” but that’s how the Germans view their state-of-the-art Brandenburg International Airport in Berlin. www.germany.travel
Heaven For History FansSun seekers flock to its beaches and winter sports aficionados head to Mt Mainalo in the Peloponnese. Its popularity is due to its proximity to Athens and picturesque mountain villages.
If you plan to travel with school-age children in July and August – high season – you’ll find the weather hot and the country hopping. Book your trips early – especially ferries and hotels. August is the month that self-respecting Athenians go on vacation, and competition for transport and accommodation is fierce.
Shoulder months see comfortable temperatures, and beaches and resorts on islands like Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini are at their best.
Everybody knows about the Acropolis, the Agora, the Oracle of Delphi and other world-renowned sites in and near Athens but here are a few lesser-known attractions.
Near ancient Sparta, Mystras exhibits ruins of a different kind. It served as the Peloponnese capital in the 14th and 15th century BC, was inhabited through the Ottoman period, but abandoned in 1832.
In the northwest of Kefalonia, Myrtos Beach is famous for its colour, the ocean’s blue and turquoise contrasting dramatically with smooth, white, marble pebbles on the beach. Steep mountains form a picturesque backdrop and no doubt helped the place earn its 12-time nomination as the best beach in Greece.
Crete boasts the must-see KNOSSOS PALACE (of the Minoan civilization) as well as the Samaria Gorge, a 16-kilometre-long canyon and National Park. Walking the gorge takes between four and seven hours, passing through ancient cypress and pine forests. Tours can be arranged for all or part of the walk, starting in Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea. www.visitgreece.gr
Medieval SoccerThe Italians love their soccer. Even the police will toast a winning team, drinking wine poured by ecstatic fans. So imagine the pandemonium in June when Calcio Fiorentino revives a 16th-century soccer match in medieval costume in Florence. (www.firenzeturismo.it)
May is special in Naples where the Maggio dei Monumenti (May of Monuments) takes place every weekend through the month. Originally it was about free admission to museums, castles, and stately homes but the event proved so successful that more has been added, with exhibits and fairs, music festivals, cinema screenings, stage performances and horse races.
Film – that great Italian industry – has many festivals around the nation, but the one in Taormina on the island of Sicily is fast gaining international respect, held from May 16 to May 27.
May is a holy month throughout Roman Catholic countries, and among the religious celebrations in Italy is the colourful Race of the Candles (Festa dei Ceri) in Gubbio (Umbria) on May 15. Locals walk in traditional dress carrying tall shrines to the church on top of Mount Ingino. In the same town on the last Sunday in May, the Palio dei Balestrieri (Palio of the Archers) pits contestants from neighbouring villages in a medieval crossbow competition. In costume of course.
In northern Italy on the second weekend of September in even-numbered years only, the walled town of MAROSTICA converts its marbled central square into a huge chessboard, where human figures play out historic championship games. With some 500 characters, sumptuous costumes and colourful banners, the two-hour spectacle (watched by about 4,000 people) is held over three days. www.italia.it
A Capital Of CultureGuimaraes in Northern Portugal is a European Capital of Culture this year. The colourful town centre hemmed with restaurants, cafes and the iron balconies of old houses (a favourite spot for locals to watch the lively action) is reached from labyrinthine streets.
Dominating the surrounding hills is the imposing, 12th-century Santa Marinha convent, now a luxurious pousada. Nearby is Penha Park, part of a National Ecological Reserve rising 500 metres above the town, a much loved green space with diverse flora and fauna, caves, shrines and hiking trails.
Rich nightlife, student activity, and a wealth of new places to stay and visit make Braga the 2012 YOUTH CAPITAL OF EUROPE. Here, too, is Portugal’s oldest cathedral.
It’s no surprise that the island of Madeira, renowned for impossibly vibrant plant growth, has a world-class Flower Festival each April in Funchal, the capital. (April 21 and 22.) In September, Madeira honours Christopher Columbus, who lived on the archipelago for several years. Music, exhibitions, and a historical parade run week-long.
On the Azorean archipelago (mid-Atlantic between Canada and Portugal) The Sanjoaninas take place each June on Terceira. The celebrations date to the 16th century, and include bull runs and bullfights, parades and sport events.
Each August on the island of Santa Maria, August Tide (Mare de Agosto) – a major international music festival – brings leading names from world music to perform. Check www.maredeagosto.com for dates.
Lisbon’s Coach Museum is the most visited museum in Portugal, and by the end of 2012, new premises will be added. The coach collection is the world’s largest. www.visitportugal.com
Tourismo de Portugal
Toss A TomatoThe Spanish love any excuse for a party, and this year the excuse is La Pepa, the nickname for a set of ponderous documents that created Europe’s first Liberal Constitution in 1812. The party runs all year in Cadiz, Andalusia, with concerts, food tastings, historical re-enactments, dancing, maritime displays, and shows – a full calendar, in fact. (Cadiz is also the Ibero-American Capital of Culture this year.)
The release of Martin Sheen’s The Way will likely boost the already large number of walkers along the 800-kilometre ROUTE OF SAINT JAMES, from the Pyrenees in the east to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Santiago is about more than Saint James, however, even though the saint’s bones are said to be housed in the great cathedral. It’s about a colourful carnival held each year just before Lent (the weekend starting February 8 in 2013) and celebrations on the saint’s feast day (July 25) with a not-to-be-missed fireworks show the evening before. It’s about the markets, galleries, and lively café culture befitting a university town.
Spain has several bull-running festivals but none as well known as the week-long event in San Fermin, Pamplona, beginning the second week in July. It’s round-the-clock non-stop fiesta from the official firecracker launch to the finale song sung by all, Pobre de Mi (Poor Me). Pamplona, on the fertile plain of the river Arga, is one of Spain’s greenest cities.
It’s a crazy festival, but so is Tomatino in Bunol, Valencia. During August trucks are loaded with over-ripe tomatoes for the throwing (don’t wear good clothes). www.spain.info/en
Jumpin’ For The JubileeThere’ll be coins, there’ll be mugs, there’ll be souvenirs tasteful and tacky. There’ll be fireworks and dancing in the streets. Londoners are running around like dogs chasing their collective tail because this year sees the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne) AND the summer Olympics in the capital.
The sensational summer starts with Jubilee celebrations held June 2 to 6. The focus is on the River Thames, where – on June 3 – a magnificent, 64-metre-long royal barge will carry the Queen and Prince Phillip at the head of a flotilla of 1,200 vessels from around the globe. Such pomp and ceremony hasn’t been seen for centuries and more than a million spectators are expected.
No sooner will London recoup from these celebrations than it jumps into the Olympic Summer Games (July 27 to August 12) and the Paralympic Games (August 29 to September 9). That involves more treats for Royal watchers, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate nee Middleton) and Prince Harry as Olympic Ambassadors.
No visit would be complete without a Shakespeare play and this year you can choose your language, as London’s Globe Theatre stages all 38 plays, each in a different tongue. The six-week season starts on the Bard’s birthday (April 23). You can watch Henry VIII in Spanish, The Tempest in Arabic, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu. It’s part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Games. Performances (in English) will also be held in Stratford-upon-Avon (Will’s birthplace), at the Eisteddfod in Wales, and the Edinburgh Festival, among other venues.
Walkers celebrate the completed Wales Coast Path opening in May, hemming the principality’s coastline – a distance of 1,386 kilometres. The Isle of Anglesey is another beauty spot, with quaint farmhouses, storybook castles, and picturesque inns and B&Bs. Oh yes, it’s also home to William and Catherine.
Yorkshire was recently voted Britain’s Happiest Place to Live. Why? Gorgeous natural beauty, historic York with its annual Viking Festival in February, and photogenic ABBEY RUINS (and the locals of course) are a few reasons.
We haven’t mentioned the many attractions in Scotland or the long list of haunted houses and mansions (of which the nation is perversely proud). But you can find out all the information you need from www.visitbritain.com.