Many of the festivals a tourist can attend and participate in seem quite bizarre when taken out of context: A phallic festival for lent, orange or tomato throwing contests, odd horse races--yet each festival at one time conveyed meaning to the general population. Here are a few odd festivals you might want to plan for on your European vacation.
A spiritual horse race--the winner plays Constantine (a saint in Sardinia) and hopes to outrun the rest of the horses in the race. If he doesn't beat them all with the help of his two flagbearers, who are allowed to do just about anything nasty to challengers they want, the town is disheartened.
The battle is an allegoric representation of a local insurrection against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick of Swabia, a.k.a. Barbarossa (Red Beard) in 1194. It involves parades, red hats, and people pelting each other with very ripe oranges.
You want weird? Those Frisky Fins lead the way. From wife carrying contests to swamp soccer, Terri Mapes gives you the goods on bizarre Finland festivals.
Dionysus, god of wine and mischief, is the protagonist of this one. Eat vegetarian nettle and spinach soup and get whacked with various phalluses, usually enormous. Of course, in the olden days it was all about health and a good harvest. You know, that reproduction thing.
Lots of normal festival stuff goes on at the Festa della Madonna Bruna in southern Italy: Costume parades, Roman centurians roam the town on horseback, and some spectacular fireworks. But then there's the central issue during the parade: The float of the Madonna, which has been meticulously crafted over the year previous, is the object of a battle between police and the young folks of Matera. If the police don't lose, folks are dejected. Read all about it.
Throwing fruits and vegetables has a number of benefits. It's a competition, but it's also a way to do away with excess at the end of the season. The Tomatina festival isn't ancient, it doesn't have links to any gods, but it has become one of Europe's biggest festivals--all because of a disturbance that included thrown tomatoes in the 1940's.
Spain has other Bizarre Festivals as well.
The Sanjoaninas, which take place in June, are the biggest popular festivities in the Azores
and offer the visitor to Terceira island a rare chance to participate in and share local traditions and customs.