Naively I thought it was all just for me, when visiting Crete last year, our neighbours greeted us with a garland of flowers. But a quick look at my phrasebook and I realised that they were saying ‘Happy Easter’. Greek Orthodox Easter usually falls a few weeks later than back home. In Crete, villagers head into the mountains, gather wild flowers, and make them into posies and garlands for friends and family. I can’t recommend the picking wild flowers bit, however it beats the rush to the chocolate aisle in Tesco, which is more the local tradition in my part of the world.
Traditional festivals are a great way of totally submerging yourself in a destination’s cultural heritage. Gaining a greater understanding of your hosts’ culture is as much a part of being a responsible traveller as contributing to their economy, or protecting its landscape. I’m not talking the Rio Carnival or Mardi Gras here, but smaller authentic festivities which are not marketed as huge tourist events.
If you want an excuse to visit Gozo, just a twenty minute ferry journey off the coast of Malta, aim for the ancient festival L-Imnarja (27 and 28 June), to commemorate St.Peter and St. Paul. Its roots are still very firmly in the soil, a time for farmers to celebrate their hard work throughout the year with wine, song, and – rabbit (the traditional food). Local men clear hangovers on the last day by riding through the town on horseback. Combine festivities with a walking holiday provided by responsible tour operator www.hfholidays.co.uk.
Walkers must like wackiness. Upland Escapes takes you to some of the most wonderfully obscure happenings on their walking breaks. Such as the Feast of Snake Charmers in Abruzzo, Italy, on 7 May, a thank-you to St. Dominic who was as nifty with Abruzzan snakes as St. Patrick was with Irish ones. Join snake charmers and thousands of pilgrims as they climb to the isolated village of Cocullo to party. Or on 3 October you can join the local people of Couserans in the French Pyrenees, who still carry out the tradition of transhumance. This is not some odd religion, but the seasonal movement of people and their livestock to find pasture. At the Transhumance Festival you can follow a procession back down the mountain for winter, celebrating into the night with food, traditional music, and a chance to buy goodies from many regional producers (www.uplandescapes.com).
You can follow the cows back down the Slovenian mountains too, in the annual Cow Ball or Kravji Bal, on 20 September, which attracts thousands of locals to the town of Bohinj to eat, drink and be dairy. September is a good month in Slovenia, with the National Costume Festival in Kamnik at the foot of the Kamniske Alps on the second weekend of the month, or catch the Festival of the Old Vine in Maribor, 25 and 26 September. Home to a 400 year old vine, and centre of three wine-growing routes, the juices flow from morning ‘til night at this one. (www.justslovenia.co.uk).
Wood sculpting is an ancient tradition in Italy’s Dolomites, and is celebrated annually, this year on 4-6 September, in Ortisei. Here, local sculptors have established a prestigious event to sustain this local talent and, in particular, to promote some of the extraordinary work of the region’s young sculptors (www.unika.org). Combine with a walking holiday with responsible travel company www.inntravel.co.uk.
There are too many to mention here, but fest freaks can culture surf for hours on new website www.joobili.com, which tells you what to look out for, and when.
(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 4 April, 2009)