Quirky customs and tantalising traditions

Article published on July 24, 2006
From the magazine
Article published on July 24, 2006
The breeze is warm, school is over and festivals mushroom all over Europe. But the traditional joys of warm beer, rock get-togethers and muddy camping sites are making way for some more exotic fayres. Discover some of the strange and unheard of festivals that will rock Europe during the coming month. Get ready to pack your bags!

Finland airs its rock talent

Want to become a rock star but haven’t the faintest idea how to string two notes together? No problem! Go to the 11th International Air Guitar Championship in Oulu, Finland, from 7th to 8th September. There visitors imitate the greatest rock stars without their instruments but with all the adrenalin of the rock concert. So whatever your nationality or musical talent, you can become a super star. “Like the Bee Gees,’ explains Side Burn representing France in Oulu, ‘air guitar is universal.” His winning secret is: “My side burns bring me rhythm and technique in every situation, even in the more tricky moments.”

Catalonia: building together

Human towers reach for the sky amid the rush and buzz of the crowd. The castellers sway under the scorching sun, each man holding the legs of another, their faces contracting under the effort. Here teams of Catalans get together to perform these great deeds of strength and balance. One group of men form the base while another climbs on top of them. Then the horn sounds and the most agile climb the shoulders of the more hefty among them. It requires tremendous concentration to prevent the castle from shaking. High above the ground children scramble up to form the top of the tower. Finally the youngest child, the anxeneta, conquers the summit and raises a hand. The human pyramid is complete and applause erupts in the square.

The castellers are a rural tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. Today all the big Catalan towns have their teams of castellers who compete against each other to build the highest ‘castle.’ Tradition says that to be a good casteller one has to have strength, balance, courage and good sense.

Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain, 30th August, and Regent Street Festival, London, UK, 3rd September

Italy: a fowl concert

For more than seven years, the festival of birds or La Sagra dei Osei, welcomes bird song amateurs for a most extraordinary event. In the gardens and alleyways of Sacile in Italy, a bird competition takes place every year. As early as five o’clock in the morning, the blackbird is in the starting block. He signals the start of the competition with his morning song. He is closely followed by the thrush, who chirps and warbles along. The canaries then take their turn with a high-pitched overture. And finally the bulk of the competitors join in… hundreds of calling birds challenging each other with outbursts of tweeting.

Thousands of visitors gather here to hear their morning recital. Meanwhile experts walk the paths with grave faces attentive to the performance and each and every one. But beware you are not beguiled by the soft bird song - for some are deceptive. Indeed the town also organises another competition, la Gare del chioccolo, which rewards whistling amateurs best able to imitate bird songs.

Sacile, Italy, from 18th to 20th August

Summer takes her leave in Lithuania

At the end of August, Lithuanians celebrate Zoline, a traditional pagan farewell to the summer in honour of the elderly. The festival marks the close of a season of labour in the fields, the beginning autumn and harvest time. During this festival, villagers head for the church carrying great bouquets of flowers, herbs and baskets of fruit and vegetables. After mass they meet in families around a large table to eat a meal prepared from the consecrated food. The bread – symbolic of family union – remains the most important part of the meal. According to popular belief, the Zoline protects the family against illness, unites it and is a token to the dead until the following summer. According to the tradition, animals are also included in the festivities and are served up an ample ration of consecrated hay.

Poland: the great family of the mountaineers

From August 18 to 26, the town Zakopane hosts the 38th International Festival of mountain folklore. Mountaineers from all over the world (Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, Spain and even Peru) come to recite songs and traditional poems. They compete against one another, testing their abilities to drive carts, break horses in, sing traditional songs, and prove they are true mountaineers. Visitors can participate in dance workshops, visit exhibitions organised by local artists and go on hikes in the mountains to almost inaccessible beauty spots. For the less adventurous, you can admire a genuine mountain wedding. This festival shows that mountain culture is truly transnational and an important part of European culture.

Nicholas Baker (Finland), Mariona Vivar (Catalonia) and Anna Castellari (Sacile, Italy) contributed to this article.

Copyright: Fabulous Fab (Air Guitar), Josep Santacreu (Castellers), association Pro Sacile (Sagra dei Osei), Janina Danieliene (Zoline), Biuro Promocji Zakopanego (Zakopane)