10 of the best winter festivals in Europe: readers’ travel tips

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10 of the best winter festivals in Europe: readers’ travel tips

Takes nine teams dressed in medieval costume to tango … Ivrea’s battle of the oranges. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/Getty Images

Winning tip: Carnevale di Ivrea, Italy

The battle of the oranges is held annually in February in the pretty Piedmont town of Ivrea as part of the town’s annual carnival. Nine teams over the course of three days hurl 500,000 pounds of oranges (from Sicily; they aren’t grown in these parts) in their attempt to kill the tyrannical marquis, who apparently was decapitated by the local miller’s daughter; the story dates from the Middle Ages. As a spectator you won’t be involved in the crossfire, but there is an incredible amount of oranges to contend with on the ground. It’s one of the largest food fights in Italy, and culminates with the funeral of the marquis. There is a huge variety of street food available at reasonable prices. It’s a fun, feel-good festival that will leave you smelling of citrus for days. It’s always held on Sunday to Ash Wednesday – so 23-26 February in 2020.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick

On a tour of Scotland last winter I went to the Shetland Islands for a couple of days – and ended up staying a week because of a sort of Norsemen-style Mardi Gras in Lerwick, which took days to enjoy and recover from. Up Helly Aa is a wild, torchlit party with costumed Norse revellers, all-night dancing and drinking, bonfires, processions and blazing ships which celebrate the island’s connections with Scandinavia. The main theme is who can be the Lord of Lerwick, apparently by being the last person standing as the festivities end. Many of the characters portrayed were real vikings with fascinating stories attached to them. The culmination of the festivities takes place on the last Tuesday in January (the 28th in 2020); the day after is a public holiday to recover.

Somerset carnivals

You can’t say you’ve really experienced an English winter until you’ve experienced a Somerset carnival. Over the course of one fortnight in November one of the biggest illuminated parades in the world travels around the county, warming chilly high streets with a procession of floats bearing thousands of lights, banging pop tunes, and sulky tweenagers dressed in masquerade costumes. The route takes in towns such as Bridgwater, Shepton Mallet and Weston-super-Mare, but my favourite venue is Glastonbury, if only for the conjunction of stoned hippies, drunk locals, and bemused-looking visitors. Bridgwater’s spectacular illuminated processions takes place on the first Saturday of November.

Fête du Citron, Menton, France

The Lemon Festival is held at the end of winter in the south of France, in the small town of Menton (from 15 February to 3 March in 2020) to celebrate the Menton lemon. The theme changes each year, but the carnival always includes enormous sculptures made from oranges and lemons (entry costs €10). There are also multiple parades filled with citrus floats and dancers (tickets cost €25 seated, €12 standing). I found the whole experience to be unique.

Tartófla truffle festival, Bologna

White truffles on a shop counter

Last November we visited the Tartófla truffle festival held in Savigno, 45-minute drive south-west of Bologna. Aside from a brisk trade in whole white truffles and stalls selling truffle-flavored everything, there were exhibitions, crafts and a huge pop-up restaurant tent serving a truffle-heavy menu. There was even a workshop where you could take your dog to test its truffling potential. Our highlight was the candlelit evening truffle hunting expedition (€10 adults) which took us through farmland with a truffle hunter and his dog, finishing in woodland where the dog excitedly dug up a few truffles, though it ate half of them before we had a chance to catch a glimpse! This year the festival is being held over three weekends: 1-3, 9-10 and 16-17 November.

Fête des Lumières, Lyon

Lyon’s annual Light Festival takes place over 5-8 December this year. Religious in origin, it is now a deservedly popular event with more than 40 light installations. Lasers and modern technology transform the city’s statues, fountains, bridges, and building facades into a magically hued, constantly changing wonderland; the most impressive I’ve seen. There are spectacular fireworks, and street-food stalls selling mulled wine, soups and local, delicious, fare. There’s plenty to do in beautiful Lyon before dark, too. Climb the hill to the basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière for panoramic views of the city and even the Alps, and enjoy the city’s vaunted gastronomy.

Krampus, Salzburg

Cast aside the health and safety book and join Salzburg’s Krampus parades to explore the dark side of Christmas, this year starting on 6 December – St Nicholas Day. Be prepared to atone for your sins as the fearsome Krampus, clad in stinking goatskins, clanking cowbells and terrifying horned masks, roam the streets in packs with flaming torches and birch whips, thrashing the legs of anyone unfortunate enough to stray too close. The city parades tend to be tamer affairs, so head out to the villages for the real deal. Definitely not for the fainthearted.

Fiestas de San Antonio Abad, Spain

In the Matarraña, Teruel (inland between Barcelona and Valencia), the delightful fiesta of Antonio Abad, patron saint of animals, is celebrated on 17 January. The festival is held all over Spain, but we really enjoyed the one held in Valderrobres village, where on the night of the 16th there is a spectacular bonfire at which cakes and drinks are passed around. Early the following morning everyone is invited to participate in a community breakfast – mainly local sausages and chorizo roasted in the embers of the fire. Later in the main square locals bring their animals to be blessed. In the surrounding villages, the bonfires are staggered so that people can enjoy several of them. Stay at very reasonable prices in the villages or in comfortable country houses: a wonderfully authentic experience of popular culture.

The light festival, Amsterdam

During the Amsterdam Light Festival (28 November to 19 January 2020), the city is illuminated by light artists from all over the world showcasing their work throughout the city centre. Hundreds of designers and architects submit their ideas and the selection committee chooses 30 artworks. To fully enjoy the festival, as we did, it’s best to follow suggested routes on foot, and there are also routes for those who want to see it all by bicycle and boat.

Percée du Vin Jaune, Jura, France

Next year’s Breakthrough of the Yellow Wine festival will take place on the weekend of 1-2 February in the picturesque village of Ruffey-Sur-Seille, 80km south-west of Besançon. This local festival celebrates the release of the new vintage of this very special sherry-like wine which is aged for six years. A € 20-day pass is available online

Adeogun Adewunmi
Adeogun Adewunmi
passionate about travel and all dots surrounding the planning and implementing a great experience.

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