Europe 55 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (15)

Vogel Gryff

Where? Basel, Switzerland

When? January

How long? 1 day

This is a very strange and very Swiss festival that dates back to the sixteenth century and involves the mascots of the three Basel neighbourhoods – a dancing lion, a tree­carrying bushman and the Vogel Gryff itself, a griffin that bears an uncanny resemblance to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. These three creatures first have to make their way down the Rhine on a makeshift raft before disembarking at Basel’s main bridge. They then lead the huge assembled crowd through the streets of the town in what is best described as conga-line dance meets pub-crawl, the pace of which doesn’t let up until well after midnight.

Wife-Carrying Championship

Where? Sonkajarvi, Finland

When? July

How long? 1 day

Apparently, it was once common practice in central Finland to steal women from neighbouring villages, and a local brigand used this, among other things, to test the manliness of his recruits. This gave birth to the peculiar but fiercely competitive Wife-Carrying Championship, whereby men attempt to be the fastest to carry a woman down a 250-metre-long track, wading through water and clambering over fences and other obstacles. You don’t have to be married to the woman you’re carrying, and neither do you have to be Finnish; in fact, couples come from far and wide to compete, and recent years have been dominated by the Estonians, winning in times of just under one minute. Other events take place at around the same time: there’s a Wife-Carrying Triathlon, and a team competition, in which groups of three men take turns to carry a long-suffering “wife”. There are some strict rules to be observed, most importantly that no wife should weigh under 49kg (if they do, they have to wear a heavy rucksack as a handicap). In some ways, the heavier the wife the better – the winners receive their passenger’s weight in beer.

Westmann Islands’ Festival

Where? Heimaey, Westmann Islands, Iceland

When? August

How long? 3 days

If you’re searching for an offbeat party destination, then the Westmann Islands’ Festival – RjodhatiS- Vestmannaeyjar – is just the ticket. Held on a three- mile wide volcanic outcrop off the south coast of Iceland, this music test (®www.eyjar.is/thjodhatid) has it all: smoking volcanoes, immense bonfires, tent- busting shagathons, enough booze to keep the entire Russian armed forces zonked out for a month, and some great music – even though, hailing as it does mainly from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes, you won’t necessarily be familiar with much of it.

The festival commemorates the signing of Iceland’s first constitution on July 1, 1874, which granted it semi-independence from Denmark. The story goes that foul weather prevented the Westmann islanders from reaching the celebrations on the mainland, so they held their own a few weeks later on the six- kilometre island of Heimaey, and the Rjodhatid was born. Vestiges of the traditional festival can be seen in the grassy crater of the extinct Herjolfsdalur volcano, where one hundred identical white tents, all owned by the locals, are laid out in a grid with wooden pallets serving as walkways between them. Each is immaculately appointed and contains heaters, carpeting, lights and a cosy Heimaey family.

It is likely to be cold, wet and miserable, so buckle down your tent and wrap up well. Some people just wear huge fishermen’s luminous orange oilskins, although most Icelandic partygoers turn up in very un-waterproof fancy dress – Hawaiian hula dancers, snowmen, superheroes and the like. More essential items, however, are plenty of warm clothes, booze (you can’t buy any alcohol on site, and Heimaey’s liquor store and pubs are extremely expensive) and, if you run out of booze, money – at around £10 for a beer in a bar you won’t be surprised that in 2006 Iceland was voted the world’s most expensive country.

After shelling out the hefty £80 ticket price for what amounts to three days of sitting in a wet field, everyone is understandably intent on making the most of it. The entertainment kicks off in earnest about 3pm on Friday, but things only really get going from midnight onwards, with music blasting out till 5am. Friday night at midnight sharp, a huge, volcano-sized, bonfire is lit on a small hill at the edge of the camp, the heat from which warms the whole place for the next three or four hours and makes the party a whole lot happier. Saturday night gets going at midnight with a pretty awesome fireworks display followed by the headline bands. Sunday night is more communal, with the whole crowd joining in traditional Icelandic songs, sitting around small bonfires and finishing the last of the booze through until 6am. Shuttle flights run all day back to Reykjavik, weather permitting, and the campsite is cleared out by late Monday afternoon. Throughout the weekend, activities are focused on a unique kind of Icelandic triathlon, which involves participants running from bar to volcanic hot-pool to freezing sea and back to the bar again. By the time the hour of darkness arrives that marks night – due to the extreme northern setting, the weekend passes in almost perpetual daylight – everyone is very, very drunk, and jumping around the pools with complete abandon – usually naked, and usually still necking vodka shots. It’s a sight that will stay with you for a long time.

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