I’ve always thought that the world is a pretty amazing place and one of the best things about exploring is all the incredible festivals that are out there. Some are religious, some are secular, and many were once religious but are now celebrated by people of all faiths. Some festivals are celebrated in different ways in many different regions and others are only celebrated by a single town or village. Some events have been recognized and celebrated for centuries or even millennia while others are modern inventions. It really is incredible to think about all the ways that human beings have found to exercise our common desire to celebrate together.
Participating in festivals can be a great way for a travelers to enhance their journeys. Festivals often bring out the best of a culture and give the visitor a chance to join in the celebration. Yet major festivals can bring a challenge to family travelers as well. I’ve always made a point of avoiding crowds and trying to find the least expensive times to visit places when we travel, yet major festivals always bring the highest prices and biggest crowds. Some families just love a party and take a “the more the merrier” philosophy, diving head first into the festivities. Others don’t want anything to do with the hassle and avoid big parties at all costs.
Some of the big, “bucket list” festivals would definitely require some advance planning. If you wanted to go to Carnival in Rio, the Palio in Siena or the running of the bulls in Pamploma, you couldn’t just show up and expect to get front row seats or cheap accommodations. For some, the chance to experience a legendary event with their kids may be worth the hassle, but I’m not sure if we’re quite ready for that kind of travel yet, especially with our kids being so young. So how can we reconcile our desire to experience the world, festivals and all with our wish to avoid crowds and hassles as much as possible?
One way families can experience the party without the crowds is to research smaller, local festivals that brings out the celebrations on a smaller scale. For example, Lunar New Year is a huge event throughout China, but any major city in North America with a significant Chinese minority will have a New Year’s parade that will provide an excellent chance to experience the event without the crowds and expense. Another option is to do some research and seek out smaller, more localized festivals that can give you that festival experience on a smaller scale. Almost every town and village in some parts of Europe have their own saint’s days and festivals and some of them are celebrated in very unique ways. They may go completely unnoticed even one town over, but they are the high point in the year for that particular town and everyone who shows up for the party is welcome to join in the fun.
My husband and I have fond memories of the Gioco del Ponte festival in Pisa, which we were able to watch on our first trip to Italy. This festival goes back 500 years and features a parade of locals in bright medieval costumes and intense rivalries between the different parishes of the city, yet it is barely mentioned in the guidebooks. While thousands of tourists snapped pictures of the Tower of Pisa a few kilometers away on the north side of the Arno, we sat on temporary bleachers on the south side, chanting and cheering with the locals as teams of men reenacted a medieval battle for possession of one of the bridges crossing the river. While the Pisans were happy to welcome us to the festivities, it was clear that this was an event for the locals, not a staged show for tourists.
So before your next family trip, make sure you take some time to do a bit of research and see what’s going on at your destination. Even if it’s not a world famous event that makes it onto the six o’clock news, you may find something that will enhance your travel experiences. Or maybe you’ll even be able to find something new in your own home town. No matter where you go or when, chances are there’s a party going on somewhere!