Europe 47 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (7)

Feast of St George

Where? Skiros, Greece

When? April 23

How long? 3 days

The English are far too reserved to make a fuss about their patron saint’s day, but the Greeks go absolutely mad for it. In Greece, St George – Ayios Yioryios – is the patron saint of shepherds, and he has also been adopted as the special protector of the tiny north Aegean island of Skiros, where the saint’s day celebrations last three days. They fire up with a bagpipe-led parade and service in St George’s honour, followed by the bizarre “Old Mens’ Race”, in which Skiros’ male geriatrics take each other on in a steep hillside scramble. The rest of the festival sees the island’s younger athletes in wrestling and other competitions, while the whole population helps out with heavy doses of dancing and feasting, joined by an ever- swelling number of visitors who boat in to take part.

Festa de Noantri

Where? Rome, Italy

When? July

How long? 8 days

As Romans begin their annual summer migration to the hills and seaside, the locals of the Trastevere district, just across the river from the ancient centre, are warming up for the Festa de Noantri, a religious procession commemorating a sixteenth-century group of fishermen on the Tiber who supposedly caught a statue of a Madonna in their nets. Amazed by its beauty, they took it to their local church, Sant’Agata, where it became an object of veneration. Nowadays, it’s just a neighbourhood party, the name deriving from “noi altri”, literally “we others”, a reference to the traditionally detached nature of Trastevere. On the first Saturday after 16 July, the statue of the Madonna is taken from Sant’Agata; carried by about ten men and led by the local bishop dressed in his finery, it is paraded through the packed and narrow streets to the church of San Crisogno, where it remains on display for eight days. In the days before and after this event are much less formal festivities – street theatre, dances and music – making it a great time to be in town.

Feria de Abril

Where? Seville, Spain When? April or May How long? 6 days

The Feria de Abril, or Spring Fair, is the kind of big, raunchy party that the Spanish do so well – a heady mix of tradition, drinking and dancing that’s held two weeks after the country’s more solemn but equally tiring Semana Santa (Holy Week) activities. Similar spring festivals are held around Andalucia, but none match Seville’s for the intensity of colour, pageant and sheer party energy.

In the months leading up to the feria, a vast area on the west bank of the Guadalquivir river – about a half-hour walk southwest of the city centre is taken over by a temporary mini-city of hundreds of casetas (brightly festooned tents), set up behind an elaborate portada, or gate. The only way to visit these is if accompanied by a local with an invite; otherwise, head for the handful of public “open” tents (casetas de los distritos municipales), which burst with good-natured festivity. The fun starts at midnight on the Monday, when the portada is lit up in all its glory and the party kicks off with all-night eating, drinking and – a stipulation for Seville – dancing. The following days all follow much the same pattern. Sevillanos in traditional Andalucian finery – short waistcoat and flat hat for the men, frilledand flouncy gypsy-style faralaes (flamenco dresses)  for women – parade around the fairground on horseback or in elegant horse-drawn carriages,  Locals generally stop working at 2pm during the week of the feria, and as the afternoon wears on, the focus shifts to the Plaza de Toros de Maestranza, north of the river, where the daily bullfights are some of the best of the season. In the early evening things quieten down – the calm before the nocturnal storm. Be aware that you pay a high price for generally mediocre food in the feria grounds so your best bet is to dine in town and do what the locals do: start the evening with a round or two of drinks in the city-centre bars before making the trip (walk or shuttle bus from Prado de San Sebastian) out to the grounds around midnight. Flere, you’ll see girls (and some men) dancing sevillanas (a dance similar to flamenco) in their bright polka-dotted farales. As you tank up on the sherry, you’ll soon find yourself dancing, too, although you should probably leave the sevillanas to the locals, who look like they’ve been dancing it since birth. The music blares out, saucy couples frolic in the shadows, and you are free to stagger from one party to another until dawn it’s impossible to sit on the sidelines, and even if you’re on your own, you won’t be for long.

The feria reaches a crescendo on Friday and Saturday nights, when the grounds are full to bursting, and the whole party comes to an end with a bang on Sunday night, with a deafening fireworks display.


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