As someone who lives by carpe diem, my goal while stationed in Belgium was to participate in as many cultural festivities as possible. Whether it be celebrating the slaying of a dragon or the memory of a deceased poet, I wanted to experience it all.
Traditions are not taken lightly here in Europe. They are deeply ingrained in the culture and are celebrated with passion year after year. To make the most of your time abroad, dive in headfirst. Perhaps you will find yourself dodging oranges in the midst of a parade or picnicking at the Eiffel Tower as fireworks dance in the sky. Next time you plan a trip, try something different. Incorporate a cultural celebration into your itinerary. In this post, I highlight some of my favorite festivities that will be unique additions to your next European adventure.
Whiskey, haggis, and a bit of poetry on the side is a Scottish night to remember. Annually, the Scots gather to commemorate the life and legacy of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet who became a cultural icon. He was initially honored by friends after his death, and that night has turned into a 200-year-old tradition.
I first learned of this celebration through my very Scottish friend, Alex MacDonald. A Scotsman born and bred, he offered to host our very first Burns Night. With a haggis tasting and whiskey flowing, we had a great time trying to interpret poetry in his Gaelic tongue and attempting to identify what haggis actually is.
If you would like to experience this night, there are various events in Scotland, from small dinner parties to fancy galas and street festivals. A list of Burns Night events can be found here.
For my NATO friends, Burns Night comes to you. Hosted by the Scottish community on SHAPE, you can attend a formal party in the SHAPE club, just be sure to get your tickets early as it tends to sell out.
However you choose to celebrate, whiskey, haggis, and poetry are essential components to have you feeling like a “Great Scot”.
February or March, Pre-Lent season
Carnival or Carnaval is celebrated all over the world; however, the festival originated in Catholic regions of Europe. This week-long celebration begins 40 days prior to Easter, just before Lent season. Traditionally, during Lent, Catholics abstain from eating meat, hence the term Carnavale, which literally translates “to put away the meat.” In contrast to the solemness of Lent, the week of Carnival is marked by costumes, parades, and revelry.
For my Carnival experience, I chose to celebrate in Maastricht, a city in Southern Netherlands, and Binche, a Belgian city south of Brussels. Both involved costumes, bands, and parades but each had very distinct traditions.
In Maastricht, the Dutch Carnival went something like this:
Saturday: The Carnival Prince received the key to the city and was paraded to city hall where a reception and parties spilled into the street. Each square had the trifecta of bars, DJs and dancing that continued well into the night. The streets were filled with costumed party-goers who at any moment would belt out traditional songs. We ended up dancing in the moonlight as snow fell, singing along, and taking way too many shots of cheap liquor.
Sunday: At 1:33 pm, the parade began at the Central Station and continued through the city center. This was no ordinary parade, there were brass bands, extravagant costumes and thoughtfully constructed floats. The parade participants and attendees were dressed to the nines. There are many shops selling colorful attire with sales happening during carnival week. I happened to find a blue faux fur coat that turned out to be useful on more than one occasion.
Monday: Traditionally, this is Family Day! A parade kicks-off the event at 2:11 pm and children are the stars of the show.
Tuesday: Around the city the Hermeniekes, small brass bands, perform at various bars and crowds follow, singing along. This musical bar hop continues throughout the day ending with a closing ceremony to conclude Carnival season. Those who made it through all four days will have stories to tell and can finally give their liver a break.
In a tiny Walloon town called Binche, UNESCO heritage status has been granted for their Carnival celebrations. While they too have brass bands and costume parades spanning over the week, they put a unique orange twist on things.
On Shrove Tuesday, families gather early in the morning for a breakfast made of Champagne and oysters to prepare for the festive day ahead. The “Gille” characters are the centerpiece of the Carnival festivities and men who are selected are “in” for life. Women have their choice of harlequin, perriot, or peasant as parade participants. The processional begins at 3 pm, with each character dressed in their traditional costume and baskets full of oranges. Once the parade begins, watch out, as oranges can be thrown into the crowd at any given moment. If you happen to catch one, it is said you will have a year of good luck. The festivities continue all day, ending with fireworks and a huge street party that goes late into the night.
Other notable cities with grand Carnival celebrations I’d love to explore are Cologne, Nice, and Venice.
Koningsdag (King’s Day)
Instead of painting the town red, try orange. And the place to do this is in the Netherlands, where the whole country gathers to celebrate the birthday of their King. What began in 1885 as a way to promote national unity and honor Princess Wilhelmina’s birthday, has now become the Netherlands largest street party. Across the country, in almost every city, people dress in orange, flea markets line the streets, and tompouce is eaten.
There are many options when deciding which city to let the debauchery begin. The largest celebration occurs in Amsterdam; no surprise there. However, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and The Hague all have street festivals and flea markets better suited for those who want smaller crowds.
Thanks to my local Dutch friends who graciously hosted me, I celebrated King’s Night in Utrecht and King’s Day in Rotterdam. Our celebration began with the free street party in Utrecht, where we danced under the moonlight, above the canals and in a silent disco, barely catching the last train home.
The next morning, we eased into King’s Day beginning with flea markets in Rotterdam, where anyone can sell anything, no permit required. It’s a thrifter’s dream.
I was then introduced to tompouce, the traditional pastry eaten on this day. It can be found at any grocery store, even Hema (the Dutch discount store). After our sugar high, we began to party hop across the city and enjoyed another epic night. All I can say is that the Dutch are a good time!
Ducasse de Mons (Doudou Festival)
May or June, on Trinity Sunday (57 days after Easter)
Upon moving to Mons, the first thing anyone would tell me about is the Doudou festival. Huh, Doudou, you say? This festival is THE event of the year for this quaint Belgian city I’ve been calling home! For seven days Belgians sing, dance, and drink in the streets celebrating traditions originating in the 14th century. The crux of the festival happens on Sunday and involves a golden carriage, dragon combat, and a dirty mob.
Wednesday – Pre-opening day, bands finalize their musical performance and bars begin to buzz.
Thursday -The festivities officially begin and crowds gather in the Grand Place socializing until late in the night.
Friday – Free concerts and artistic events take place with the largest concert occurring Grand Place. Be prepared for a crowded wild night.
Saturday – The “Descent of Saint-Waudru’s shrine“ occurs at 8 pm when symbolic relics are removed from the church and culminate with a torchlight race.
Sunday – THIS is the day to experience the Doudou in all its glory. Early in the morning, the shrine of Saint Waudru is loaded onto an elaborately decorated carriage, referred to as the Car d’Or (the Golden Carriage) to be paraded and celebrated around the city. Saint Waudru, said to be responsible for ending the 14th century plague that haunted Mons, is honored year after year through this procession. The processional ends when the Car d’ Or makes it up the cobbled hill. The crowd is heavily invested in the success of the Golden Carriage, as it’s considered a bad omen if it doesn’t reach the top.
There is then a mad dash to the Grand Place to witness combat between King George and the dragon, symbolic of the clash between good vs. evil. People line the streets body to body to witness this tantalizing duel. Be mindful of where you stand, as the crowd gets very protective over their spots. After combat, where good triumphs (of course) and the dragon is slayed, an insane mosh pit of men all clamor to get pieces of the dragon’s tail. The mob gets very intense, and it’s not surprising to see bloody, shirtless men stumbling out. Those successful in obtaining the dragon’s tail are quite generous offering it to others. Believed to contain good luck, the tail is tied around your wrist to be worn until it falls off. For the remainder of the day the entire city transforms into a massive party, rain or shine.
Monday – Instead of Black Friday, the Belgians have Doudou Monday. Every store has a sale with tables set up outside and a large street market takes place.
Tuesday – The Doudou concludes with a dazzling fireworks show in the Grand Place.
If seven days of Doudou isn’t enough for you, the next weekend the young ones take center stage at the Children’s Doudou. It only occurs on the weekend with dragon combat, and provides a better view of the festivities with less crowds.
Bastille Day (La Fete Nationale)
Have you dreamed of watching fireworks light the sky in front of the Eiffel Tower?
Well, if so, this is the holiday for you. La Fete Nationale, also known as Bastille Day, marks the moment an angry mob stormed Bastille setting off the French Revolution and liberating France from further monarchies (cliff notes version). It is also the ONLY day fireworks can be enjoyed at the Eiffel Tower making it a bucket list priority. So let me break down the best way to spend Bastille Day in the city of lights and love.
I recommend getting to Paris on July 13th , as a majority of the Bal des Pompiers happen that night. What is a Bal des Pompiers you ask? Direct translation: a Firemen’s Ball. Now, when you hear “ball” you may think it’s a fancy affair, complete with white gloves and gown. Nope, it’s more like a giant outdoor party with DJs, bands and dancing that goes until the morning light. In each arrondissement almost every fire station throws a ball in their courtyard.
The balls are donation based where firemen serve as the bartenders and entertainers. It’s best to get there early, as the admission line can take an hour or more. But once you are in, it’s so worth it. I mean, have you ever witnessed crowd surfing firemen?
If the next day your hangover isn’t too bad, the Military Parade is another highlight of Bastille Day. Beginning with an airshow between 10-11 am, the parade then starts at the Arc de Triomphe and continues down Champs-Elysees ending at the Place de la Concorde. Once you grow tired of watching France flex their military guns, head to a nearby café where you can comfortably watch it televised as you sip your latte.
After the parade, you will have time to rest, wander, and gather your picnic supplies for your evening at the Eiffel Tower. The area around the Eiffel Tower is fenced off until about 4:30 pm. However, people start lining up as early as three. I found that getting there around 4 pm worked well to get a prime picnic location. If you plan to sneak alcohol into the event, be sure to transfer it into something plastic, as any glass found gets tossed.
The fireworks start after dark, but there will be a concert to entertain until then. Bring plenty of food, cards, and wine to keep you relaxed until the show. Once it starts, you won’t want to take your eyes away as it’s the most spectacular fireworks display I’ve ever seen.
If after all this you’re still game, there are more Bal des Pompiers to be had. Be sure to check the list for which arrondissements have parties as a majority of the balls happen the night before.
A list of arrondissements with Bal des Pompiers can be found here.
Whew, you’ve made it to the end of my most extensive blog post to date. I hope you’ve learned something new and are inspired to travel in a different way.
Until next time,
Other Notable Belgian Celebrations:
Mons – June 28, 29
A midsummer festival with performances, parades, a torch light procession and massive bonfire with concert.
The national day that celebrates the birth of Belgium with many activities occurring in Brussels.
Occurs the third Sunday of September
The annual public holiday for the southern region of Belgium known as Wallonia. In Mons it is celebrated with free activities and concerts.
Gent – July 20 to 28
A free week long music festival where multiple stages are set up across Gent and live street performances take place.
Ath – August 24
An annual folk festival where giants parade the streets reenacting scenes from the Bible.