Those who believe that Europe is a grand home for the sophisticated and urbane might be in for a mighty shock when they learn about some of the continent’s more unusual traditions.
If you’re impressed by Europe’s sartorial style, elegant cuisine, and cobblestoned streets, then you’ll probably be less than enthralled by La Tomatina–a massive tomato fight held annually in the Spanish town of Buñol. Or by Luxembourg’s bizarre hopping procession through the town of Echternach.
Here are a few reasons to doubt Europe’s veneer of cool.
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The Sausage Tossing (Eis-zwei-Geissebei)
“Are all my boys here?” shouts the mayor from a town hall window.
“Yes, one, two, goat-leg!” shout back the excited crowd of children below.
So begins the annual sausage tossing tradition in the small Swiss town of Rapperswil as sausages, bread rolls, and gingerbread rain down from the windows above. This bizarre tradition is said to go back to the siege and destruction of Rapperswil in 1350 when sympathetic wealthy citizens handed food to hungry children through their windows.
The Human Chess Game (Partita a Scacchi Di Marostica)
We often think of Medieval Europe as a much more violent place than the Europe of today, but one town in Italy didn’t quite live up to that reputation. In 1454, two local gentlemen in the northern Italian town of Marostica challenged each other to a duel over the woman they both loved. Yet, rather than the customary sword battle, they played a game of chess instead.
This event is now celebrated every other September by an enormous human chess game in the town’s square, complete with parades, period dances, music, and fireworks.
The Bear Dance (Ursul)
One of Europe’s oldest rituals, the Bear Dance takes place every winter in villages and cities in Moldova. With its purpose being to ward off evil spirits and bring in the new year, this ancient tradition sees men of all ages (and increasingly more women) dress in real bear skins and dance to the rhythm of pan flutes and drums.
In the past an actual bear was involved in the dance–thankfully that’s no longer the case.
The Water Plunge Monday (Vizbeveto)
While its name might sound like a viral social media trend, Water Plunge Monday is a Hungarian tradition said to date back to pagan times. Taking place every Easter Monday in small villages and towns across Hungary, young men wearing smart, folk costumes shower women in traditional dresses with buckets of water.
For all their trouble, the girls then present the boys with beautifully decorated Easter eggs either on the same day or the next, which doesn’t quite seem fair to me.
The Puck Fair
Deep in the heart of one of Ireland’s most famous landscapes lies the small town of Killorglin, home to the country’s oldest and (arguably) strangest festival. Travelers looking to explore the stunning Ring of Kerry might want to time their trip for August 10-12 when the historic Puck Fair takes place.
During this ancient celebration, a wild male goat, known as a “puck”, is crowned king of the town for three days, thus becoming the King Puck. He’s placed in a high cage in the town square to survey all his subjects (all while being safely fed and watered) before being returned to his normal life in the Irish hills.
The Frog Dance (Små Grodorna)
For anyone who’s seen the disturbing Sweden-set horror film Midsommar, don’t worry. There won’t be anything like that should you travel to Sweden for their midsummer solstice festivals. In fact, you might come across something much quainter. Something like the Frog Dance perhaps.
Dancing around a maypole, participants hop like frogs and make movements that illustrate body parts that frogs lack (ears and tails, namely) all to the beat of a bouncy melody.
The Wife Carrying Race (Eukonkanto)
Endurance races have become quite popular in recent years, though this one in Finland certainly stands out from the crowd. Inspired by a 19th-century tale of a gang pillaging villages and stealing women, contestants carry their wives across a grueling 253-meter obstacle course involving leaping over timber and wading through waist-high water.
Despite its dark origin story, the event is light-hearted (contestants don’t even need to be married) and the tantalizing winning prize is the wife’s weight in beer.
The Tomato Fight (La Tomatina)
For one hour on the last Wednesday of every August in the Valencian town of Buñol, a messy tomato-filled madness descends. With around 160 tons of tomatoes and 22,000 participants, La Tomatina is the world’s largest state-sanctioned food fight.
Said to have originated from a street brawl in 1945, the same people picked up the quarrel again the following year but this time bringing their own tomatoes. That epic show of pettiness led to an organized event that has grown in popularity ever since.
The Hopping Procession (Lechternacher Sprangprëssessioun)
From frog dances in Sweden down to bunny dances in Luxembourg, Europe certainly seems to enjoy getting its groove on in the style of small creatures. Taking place every Whit Tuesday in the eastern town of Echternach, the “hopping procession of Echternach” is one of Luxembourg’s most recognizable festivals and dates back to the 16th century.
Paying tribute to St. Willibrord, founder of a famous Benedictine Abbey in the town, participants dressed in white shirts and black trousers hop like bunnies to a polka melody through the medieval streets of Echternach to the crypt and past St. Willibrord’s tomb.
The Bathtub Regatta (Régate de Baignoires à Dinant)
Why watch the Oxford-Cambridge boat race when you could enjoy the Bathtub Regatta instead? A tongue-in-cheek tradition in the Belgian city of Dinant since 1982, its origins lie in a local chef hearing about a Frenchman sailing down the nearby river Meuse in a bathtub and the chef being frightfully amused by the story.
He then lobbied for a full regatta to take place, and the rest is history. These days, the 1km race continues with the bathtubs dressed up in the most ostentatious of fashions.
Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake
Nobody should be made to work this hard for cheese. Chasing a wheel of seven to nine-pound Double Gloucester cheese down a steep 200-yard hill in rural Gloucestershire, contestants in the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake face a difficult challenge. Despite its quaint pastoral location, the chase can get pretty violent with contestants often tripping up and flying down the hill like ragdolls. And all for the futile task of chasing a wheel of cheese that can hit speeds of up to 70 mph!
The Battle of Rockets (Rouketopolemos)
Comfortably the most dangerous (but also the most spectacular) tradition on this list, the rocket battle on the Greek island of Chios has been taking place since at least the Ottoman era.
Each midnight before Easter Sunday, supporters of two rival church congregations–Angios Marcos and Panaghia Ereithiani–gather near their respective churches located on separate hilltops about 400 meters away and fire tens of thousands of home-made rockets across the valley towards each other, with the aim of hitting the rival’s church bell tower. Probably best to stand back if you’re here for this one.