The best of the rest (1)
Where? Serres and Thessalonkiki, Greece
When? May 21-23
How long? 3 days
Every year on the feast days of Saint Constantine and Saint Eleni (his mother), the villagers at Ayia Elleni near Serres, and Langada near Thessaloniki, dance across hot coals. The “fire dance” is of unknown origin. Legend has it dating back to Byzantine times, when locals risked their lives to save icons of the two saints from a burning church, emerging with the icons – and themselves – miraculously unscathed; though, given that these saints weren’t recognized before 1833, it seems more probable that the Anastenaria is a pagan ritual. A bonfire is lit during the day and at nightfall the participants (mainly women) take off their shoes, hold images of the two saints to their chests, and “dance” – in reality, more of a run – over red-hot coals without burning their feet, sometimes even kneeling to rub hot ash into their hands. During the first two days of Anastenaria, visitors are welcome to observe the ritual, indeed seating is provided for that very purpose, but the last day is a private one.
Where? Patras, Greece
How long? 3 weeks
As the birthplace of Dionysos, the ancient god of wine, Greece takes carnival excess to heart, and although the occasion is celebrated all over the country, the most energetic partying is done in Patras in the Peloponnese, Greece’s third-largest city. Traditionally, the first week is devoted to slaughtering fattened-up pigs; the second to feasting on meats of all kinds; and the third to scoffing belly-busting quantities of cheese. Everything reaches a peak on the Sunday before “Clean Monday”, which marks the start of Orthodox Lent, when up to fifty- thousand participants and three-hundred-thousand revellers join in as the Carnival King and Queen preside over bourboulia dances, in which women are hooded and masked in black to allow them to flirt anonymously.
Elsewhere in Greece, activities range from flinging bags of flour at everyone and everything (Galaxidi) to dressing up as goats (Skiros), but one of the oddest celebrations are the ritual “executions” in Messini; after the ceremony j on the morning of Ash Monday, locals and visitors step up to the gallows one by one to be “despatched” by the hooded “executioners”. Weird stuff.
Where? Avignon, France
How long? 3 weeks
Avignon’s immaculately preserved medieval buildings provide a magnificent backdrop for its prestigious festival (® www.festival-avignon.com), a feast of culture that draws performers and art enthusiasts from around the world. Non-commercial in outlook, and reliant on public subsidy, the festival is the annual shop-window on French cultural life, particularly contemporary performing arts, attracting some two-hundred-thousand visitors each year. At its best, it meets all expectations, with theatrical forays that are remarkable in both scale and artistic experimentation. At its worst, however, it can be downright pretentious – in 2005, theatre-goers shouted abuse at the performers, and critics savaged the organizers, accusing them of displaying contempt for mainstream audiences and making the event culturally irrelevant. Nonetheless, the sheer number of events means that it is impossible, even in a “bad” year, not to find something to suit every taste, and in any case some of the venues are fantastic, utilizing the town’s squares and spectacular architecture, not least the magnificent Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace). Look out, also, for the fringe Festival Off (<®www. avignon-off.org), which uses dozens of different venues for performances that range from the comic to the obscure.
Where? Basel, Switzerland
When? February or March
How long? 3 days
One of Europe’s better carnivals, Basel’s is known as Fasnacht, and starts, unusually, on the Monday after Mardi Gras – thought to be a snub by Protestant Basel to the Catholic idea of giving up things for Lent. These days, about 12,000 people take part in the festivities, and, this being Switzerland, everything is extremely well organized, with participants divided into so-called Cliques, presided over by an all-powerful Carnival Committee, though once Fasnacht approaches, the Swiss desire for order goes out of the window. On the Sunday night after Mardi Gras, celebrations kick off at the nearby town of Liestal, where a huge and spectacular bonfire parade known as Chienbesen fills the narrow medieval cobbled streets. After midnight, everyone heads back to Basel for the famous Morgestraich, a magical parade of huge lanterns through the city centre that begins at 4am sharp and continues through the day, with the various Cliques parading through the city in their giant cartoonish papier-mache masks and jester-like costumes to the accompaniment of fife-and- drum bands. The city’s squares fill up with impromptu guggemusig sessions of absurdly comical oompah music played on old, dented trumpets and trombones, and the partying continues in Basel’s bars and cafes until Wednesday night.