Ah, May! Spring flowers blossom, birds chirrup, serpents get thrown in the forest. That’s right – Italy’s snake festival takes place this month, as do many more of the world’s quirkiest festivals. From cheese rolling in the heart of England to grown men climbing a tower of buns in Hong Kong, get ready for a whirlwind tour of May’s festivals around the world!
1. Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling – Gloucester, England
If you could spend a sunny day among the rolling hills of Gloucester, what would you do? Go on a country walk? Chase a 70-mph wheel of cheese down a hill so sheer it’s practically a cliff? For the past few centuries, locals have been doing just that at the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling festival.
Local cheesemaker Diana Smart creates nine-pound wheels of double Gloucester; that’s cheese as heavy as a newborn baby. Then ready, set, go! The cheese is thrown and everyone runs (or more accurately, tumbles) after it. Whoever catches the cheese/gets to the bottom first, wins the cheese! Given the one-to-one gradient in places, there are plenty of ambulances and paramedics waiting to scrape bruised and battered participants off the hill. Fancy having a go?
2. Fiesta de San Isidro – Madrid, Spain
Madrid doesn’t get livelier than during this week of open-air concerts, street processions, dances and bullfights. The reason behind the festival? It’s all in celebration of Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro. A humble 12th-century farmer and his wife who fed the poor together, they’re the only sainted couple in history!
The most famous part of the fiesta is the pilgrimage round Ermita de San Isidro, when surreal models of the saints are paraded around the streets, and even the most cosmopolitan madrileño wears traditional clothes to make their grandmothers proud. During Feast Day on May 15, look out for bubbling cauldrons of chickpea-based stew known as cocido madrileño and, our favorite, sweet little aniseed donuts known as rosquillas.
3. Buddha’s Birthday (Vesak) – Sri Lanka
Buddha’s Birthday is observed all across Asia. In Sri Lanka it’s celebrated on the first full moon day in May and is one of the country’s biggest festivals. Houses and streets are decorated with candles and paper lanterns, scores of shops give out free meals, crowds sing, temples bustle and, amazingly, specially constructed buildings made out of light bulbs show the story of Buddha’s life when viewed from a distance.
4. Snake Festival – Cocullo, Italy
Every May 1 (previously the first Thursday of every May), the tumbledown Italian town of Cocullo gives itself over to a lively parade of snake catchers who cover themselves and their statue of patron saint St Dominic with writhing serpents. Why? To protect the town from snake bites for another year, of course! St Dominic was an 11th-century master when it came to healing snake bites, you see.
Back in the day, the snakes used to be cooked and eaten at the end of the festival. Nowadays you’ll have to make do with the town’s deliciously sweet breads, shaped to resemble a snake biting its own tail. Yum!
5. Cheung Chau Bun Festival – Hong Kong
Every year the tiny Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau braces itself for the crowds who crash its shores for the annual bun-scrambling competition. Contestants climb up a 60-foot tower made of buns to collect as many as possible. Other activities include dragon dances, Taoist ceremonies and Chinese operas. Don’t come expecting pork buns though: The whole island goes vegetarian for the week-long festival – including the local McDonald’s!
6. Festa della Sensa – Venice, Italy
One of Venice’s best-known festivals, the Festa della Sensa keeps up the city’s 1,000-year-old tradition of ‘wedding the sea.’ So just how do you go about marrying the Adriatic? From St Mark’s Square, the Mayor of Venice and his dignitaries lead a grand parade of traditional rowing boats across the sea to the Lido. The mayor then drops a blessed gold ring in the dark waters.
Bring your snorkel! Any diver who finds the ring gets to keep it. A religious ceremony at San Nicolo church cements the marriage between city and sea, after which there are colorful races across the water and a lively fair in St Mark’s Square. Rent a kayak or hop on a gondola to get up-close to the action.
7. Naghol Land Diving – Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
Ever bungee jumped while attached to nothing more than some springy plant vines? If you answered yes, chances are you’re a Pentecost islander who partakes in the 1,500-year-old land-diving tradition of your forefathers.
Once the first crop of yams begin to emerge in early spring, the men of southern Pentecost build 25-meter-tall wooden towers. Once the towers are ready, the men get ready to dive, bound by nothing more than two vines attached to their ankles.
This is basically the bar mitzvah of southern Pentecost: A boy’s first jump marks his passage into adulthood. And it’s hair-raising stuff. Only when the men’s hair touches the soil is the land dive said to be effective: The union is said to fertilize the ground, promising a perfect yam harvest.
8. Cannes Film Festival – Cannes, France
With over 150 films shown a day, Cannes is nothing if not frantic. Still, if money’s no object, there’s no better time to see the stars. Book yourself into the Carlton InterContinental to sleep under the same roof as Hollywood’s elite. Or save yourself a few pennies and hang out by the red carpet leading to the Palais des Festivals – it’s where the A-list flicks get their first screening. Who knows, you might just manage to snap a selfie while George Clooney walks past!
9. Rose Festival – El-Kelaa M’Gouna, Morocco
Hidden among the Dadès Valley of the High Atlas Mountains, the town of El-Kelaa M’Gouna erupts every May in a cloud of pale pink rose petals for two days of singing and dancing, chariot processions and beauty pageant parades. The whole town joins in to celebrate the bloom of hundreds of thousands of pink Persian roses spreading out for miles around. No doubt, this is the most sweetly scented celebration of the year!
10. Bay to Breakers – San Francisco, USA
Technically, Bay to Breakers isn’t a festival but a race – the world’s oldest consecutively run annual footrace, in fact – held every third Sunday in May. But this isn’t like any run you’ve seen before. The 12K’s starting point is near the San Francisco Bay and ends at the Pacific Coast’s Ocean Beach (hence the event’s name), and thousands of costumed participants run or walk while many other thousands watch what essentially becomes a colorful parade. Although alcohol is officially prohibited on the race, much merriment occurs nonetheless, and house parties pop up all along the route as spectators gather to toast a quintessential San Francisco tradition.