That warm breeze and the soft scent of flowers tell you that spring is in the air (well it will be next month) so it's time to scour the globe for the best and the most bizarre of the world's plethora of festivals and events. There is a common theme to the following events -- they're all in Europe and most are free.
Viareggio Carnival: Viareggio, Italy (March 5, 2006)
Actually this colorful spectacle in Tuscany's seaside resort town begins in February but we thought we'd slip it is as it culminates in a huge parade of floats on March 5. There are so many carnivals across Italy and Europe, but what make this one stand out are its famous massive paper-maché puppets that mock public and political figures. Huge floats parade around the town competing for the finest float award, each one carrying about 200 people in costume, as well as the enormous moving puppets. The parade finishes with gastronomic events and a massive fireworks display. Noteworthy also is the program of related events taking place throughout the city including musical performances, comedy shows, sporting events, Carnival themed restaurant menus neighborhood festivals, as well as numerous masked balls. Indulge in Carnival regional dessert delicacies crispy frittelle and chiacchiere. For more information visit the Viareggio Carnival website (www.viareggio.ilcarnevale.com).
Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race: London (April 2, 2006)
For a touch of high society at a collegiate level, nothing quite comes close to the display of rivalry and team colors than the annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race. When they're not competing for the title of the world's most respected university, they are doing battle on the Thames River in London and the English never let the fact that it's just a short boat race get in the way of having a good time. Now in its 152nd year, the race marks the start of the English "social season" -- an event not to be missed and best of all -- it's free! Champagne flows, caterers jostle to serve cucumber sandwiches and private tents adorn the river banks. Prime viewing spots are often snagged by the elite groups, but perhaps the fact that you are a foreign visitor may endear you to the party organizers and you can slip in to one of the more glamorous festive affairs. The race runs from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge with several Tube stops on route so you can get to the course from Central London without too much difficulty. The best vantage points are in the middle section of the course at Hammersmith, on what is known as the Surrey Bend. For more information, visit their official website (www.theboatrace.org).
Good Friday Procession: Rome (April 14, 2006)
Religious or not, Catholic or not, the Good Friday Procession in Rome is a spectacle that all should witness. There are a couple of noteworthy obstacles to enjoying this event, the foremost of which must be the fact that Easter week is the peak season in Rome and hotels are super expensive and often booked out well in advance -- but don't let that stand in your way. But like all good processions, this one is free and is observable from various vantage points throughout the city. This will be the current Pope's inaugural Easter so perhaps more faithful will descent upon Rome's Colosseum to participate. The Pope leads a solemn torch-lit procession from the Colosseum up the Monte Palatino, reenacting the 14 Stations of the Cross, from Jesus' death sentence to the placement of his body in the tomb. Holding a large wooden cross, the Pope will offer prayers at every station and a speech at the final station. The Procession begins at 8pm and wear your best walking shoes.
Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival: Speyside, Scotland (April 27 to May 1, 2006)
Five whole days and nights to celebrate Scotland's greatest export (well, apart from golf)? I'm there! Speyside, Scotland celebrates its homegrown elixir with the eighth annual festival where an estimated quarter of a million drams of Scotland's finest are expected to be downed. The event includes a gala dinner, art exhibitions, traditional musical evenings, tours and obviously Whisky tastings. There are 100 or so distilleries in this area surrounding the River Spey which runs through Moray. Moray has its own Malt Whisky Trail, leading you to distilleries like Glenfiddich, Knockando (home of the J & B Rare Blend) and Glenlivet, but the festival celebrates the enormous variety of Speyside malts. Visitors are also encouraged to appreciate traditional Scottish cuisine from some of the nation's food manufacturers, including Baxters of Speyside and the delicious shortbreads at Walkers of Aberlour. The festival provides buses to get you between venues so no fear of getting behind the wheel after indulgences. If you are looking for an excuse to visit the Scottish countryside, this is it. For more information, visit www.spiritofspeyside.com.
Rhine in Flames: Bonn and the Siebengebirge Region, Germany (May 6, 2006)
The first Saturday in May is synonymous in Germany with the first of the Rhine in Flames events, which takes place along the River Rhine, south of Bonn. The region comes alive with color and fireworks during the opening extravaganza of the summer series. Gaze at historic castles and palaces illuminated by Bengal fire (a type of blue flare), as a flotilla of over 60 ships parades flamboyantly down the river between Linz and Bonn, setting it literally aflame. Visitors can watch from the banks or from boats docked in prime viewing areas (evening cruises that include dinner and live music along the parade cost around $55).The route takes in the beautiful Siebengebirge (Seven Hills) and the towns of Remagen, Unkel, Rheinbreitbach, Bad Honnef and Königswinter, and the island of Nonnenwerth. Each town celebrates in its own way with a weekend of festivities including wine tastings, food fairs, exhibitions and street parties. Visit www.firework.rhine-river.com for more information or to book cruises.
Nuit Des Musées: Paris and throughout France (May 20, 2006)
This event is so new that the website won't be up and running until April 1, 2006 -- so excuse us if the details are still a little sketchy (a bit like my French), but we wanted to include this special night. France's Department of Culture will be holding its first Nuit Des Musées (Night of Museums) on May 20, 2006. Formerly, the department ran the Printemps des Musées, which opened over 1000 museums across France to the public for free on a single day. Now that day has turned to night and this event promises to be equally spectacular and engaging. Imagine visiting the Louvre without paying a single Euro. Now multiply that by several hundred and you will have the gist of what this event is about. This is your chance to see some of the world's finest art, historic collections and contemporary exhibits without footing the bill. Participating museums will be announced in the run-up to the day, so visit the website or call (tel. + 331/4015-3600; www.nuitdesmusees.cultur.fr) after April 1 for full details.