Being at festivals is like standing inside the mind of a culture as it dreams. They have the ability to be both extremely intimate and public spectacles at the same time. Here are 10 of the world’s best festivals. Let yourself go.
New Orleans; early January. This famous two-week festival features parades headed by ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’ leading a flotilla of garish floats manned by ‘krewes’ who throw trinkets to the crowds (who usually beg for it; if they don’t, female krewe members bare their breasts in encouragement). The culmination is the wicked mayhem of Mardi Gras Day (also known as Fat Tuesday), when all inhibitions are let loose. The next day, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, when abstinence prevails, making Fat Tuesday the ultimate excuse for a piss up, a knees up and a throw up.
Rio de Janeiro; early February. This is sex and samba on a stick, drawing around a million people each year for its throbbing, fourday-long festivities. The centrepiece is the Sambódromo parade, when neighbourhood groups compete against each other for the title of best ‘samba school’; flashy floats and nearly nude women feature prominently. The Masquerade Ball is almost as breathtaking, rammed to the gills with celebrities and mere mortals alike, all bemasked, bewigged and becostumed. Wear a G-string (thong) for best results.
Kawasaki; 31 March & 1 April. Japan is a study in contradictions. Here’s a society that bans pubic hair from being shown in films, yet holds this absolutely bonkers fertility extravaganza. The ‘Festival of the Steel Phallus’ features transvestites carrying a whopping great pink penis through town while onlookers of all ages suck on phallus-shaped lollipops, kids straddle penile swings, and adults carve radishes into penises. The festival was originally held to ward against a syphilis surge in the 17th century and now raises money for AIDS research.
Antigua; Easter. Semana Santa commemorates the Passion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in a week of feverish worship. Statues of Jesus are paraded through streets layered with flowers, pines and fruits in various designs – some up to a kilometre (0.6mi) long. Then the sentencing and crucifixion of Christ is re-enacted, complete with Roman centurions and Pilate, while, seemingly, the entire city is draped in black crepe and smelling of incense. Even an atheist’s jaw would drop in awe at the sheer scale and passion of the proceedings.
Siena; July & August. This heart-stopping event revolves around a bone-crunching, bareback horse race run around the Piazza del Campo; it lasts 90 seconds although the rest of the day is taken up with major-league carousing. The frequently violent race features jockeys from Siena’s 17 neighbourhoods, all traditional rivals (intermarriage is often forbidden). Expect to see riders thudding to the ground with alarming regularity (this truly is a no-holds-barred event) and don’t be surprised to be offered a baby bottle of wine when it’s all over – for the neighbourhoods, a win means rebirth.
Buñol; last Wednesday in August. Tomato buffs rejoice! For this is your festival. Each year tens of thousands of people descend on Buñol for La Tomatina, the culmination of a week-long celebration of Buñol’s patron saint. An estimated 125,000kg (275,625lb) of tomatoes are used, driven into the town square by a convoy of trucks. Drunken participants dive in, hurtling the fruit at each other until the streets run red like the sickest splatter film, and then it’s all over – within an hour.
Black Rock City, Nevada; August or September. This week-long spectacle draws 30,000 people, making it Nevada’s third-biggest ‘city’ for that brief period. What exactly is Burning Man? It’s hard to say. The founder reckons it’s a City of Art; the motto is ‘No Spectators’ and you have to contribute something, anything, to that year’s theme. No money is allowed inside so you have to give it away – whatever ‘it’ may be (nudge nudge, wink wink). The entire shebang culminates in thousands of nude and nearly nude spectators witnessing a giant, burning effigy, possibly inspired by the pagan horror film Wicker Man.
October or November. This five-day festival (also known as Deepavaali or Festival of Lights), which unites all creeds and religions, sees homes all over India lit with lamps and candles to ward off the darkness of evil. The homes are then thoroughly spring-cleaned while the people take the opportunity to buy new clothes and set off an armada of firecrackers, which sees noise-pollution levels rise dramatically (actually, it’s enough to perforate eardrums on the other side of the planet). On top of that, sweets are exchanged as hatchets are buried and grudges are forgotten…at least for now.
1 & 2 November. Mexico’s ’Day of the Dead’ does not pay homage to filmmaker George Romero – rather, it’s a two-day festival celebrating the reunion of relatives with their dear departed. Expect colourful costumes, loads of food and drink, skeletons on stilts, parties in cemeteries, skull-shaped lollies and mariachi bands performing next to graves. This beautiful, moving spectacle will demystify your fear of crossing over, because – unlike Halloween’s witches and all-round terror – the Day of the Dead smashes the taboos surrounding death, celebrating the continuation of life beyond and the value of interdimensional communion.
Oaxaca; 23 December. The ‘Night of the Radishes’ began as a marketing gimmick: when the Spanish first brought radishes to Mexico in the 16th century, they carved them into fanciful shapes to attract buyers (although they didn’t go quite as far as the Japanese; see ‘Kanamara Matsuri’). Today the tradition takes the form of a contest, as local artisans carve tableaux from massive radishes for a cash prize and the respect of lovers of crisp, pungent roots worldwide.