Europe 49 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (9)

Fiesta de Sant Joan

Where? Ciutadella, Spain

When? June 24

How long? 1 day

Celebrating both midsummer and the saint’s day of Sant Joan (St John), this amazing equestrian event takes over the centre of the Menorcan town of Ciutadella. With thousands of people, and cavalcades of riders on black stallions racing and jousting their way through the narrow streets, this massive midsummer party culminates in fireworks and partying right through the night. Somehow, it’s not what you expect from this relatively sedate resort island – and it’s all the better for it.

Gauboden Volksfest

Where? Straubing, Germany

When? August

How long? 10 days

Although technically the country’s second largest beer festival after Munich’s Oktoberfest, with in excess of one million visitors, the excellent Gauboden Volksfest in rural Straubing is much, much, less well- known outside Germany. Named after the area of Bavaria surrounding the town, the festival originated in the early nineteenth century as a gathering of farmers doing business together, but has developed over the last hundred years or so into a chance for everyone to let their hair down and clash steins with each other. A mini-city of tents, band stages, fairground rides and food stalls offering every type of sausage imaginable is set up in the centre of this elegant town near the Czech border, and revelling officially begins with the raucous Bierprobe parade on the first Friday, after which the aim of most visitors is to remain Pleasantly schlossed until Sunday week. Above all, the nice thing about this festival is that, unlike Munich, there are loads more Germans in attendance than tourists. Just get your lederhosen on and get drinking.

Giants of Douai

Where? Douai, France

When? July

How long? 1 day

Many towns in northeast France and Belgium hold festivals involving giants made of wood or papier-mache. But the one in Douai is the oldest, the biggest and the best. Built – or at least repaired and maintained – by local clubs that are the successors to the city’s medieval craft guilds, over a hundred of these enormous effigies -some over eight metres tall and requiring six men to carry – are paraded through the city streets on the first Sunday after July 6. The effigies represent characters from local legends, who are received as guests of honour at celebrations throughout the town; some of them hark back to the sixteenth century, commemorating a group of local knights who protected the town from attack, others are of more recent provenance. The entire town goes crazy over the giants as they are carried down the street accompanied by music and dancing – though a lot of the kids are scared half to death.

Giostra del Saracino

Where? Arezzo, Italy         

When?September 3            

How long? 1 day  

Early September sees the beautiful Tuscan town of Arezzo burst into colour and life with the Giostra del Saracino, or Joust of the Saracen (®, a no-holds-barred jousting competition that continues the traditional festivities started by Siena’s II Palio in July. Taking place on the day of San Donato, Arezzo’s patron saint, it’s basically a contest between the four main districts of the town, and each neighbourhood has its own colours displayed in the standards and costumes of the competing jousters and their supporters. The event kicks- off in the morning with a parade of hundreds of people dressed in fourteenth-century garb, followed by a blessing on the steps of the Duomo, performed by the bishop.

The jousting itself takes place in the afternoon, after the procession enters Piazza Grande. First there’s a display of the sbandieratori (flag wavers), and then the jousters gallop into the piazza’s competition ground. Then comes the jousting itself, each lance-armed knight charging at a wooden target attached to a carving of a Saracen king The pair of knights who accumulate the most points hitting the Saracen’s shield wins the Golden Lance, the tournament’s trophy.

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