Sun, 11 May 2003

Get into holiday mood at zany festivals

Jason Volker, Contributor

Summer is still a few weeks away but there's nothing wrong in preparing for your holiday in advance. If you want to stay away from Asia due to the SARS threat, you might consider a trip to Europe or the United States for your holiday destination.

Below are some places that may grab your attention:

1. Cooper's Hill Annual Cheese Rolling, England

I've a hunch the citizenry of Cooper's Hill are a somewhat quirky bunch. While your average non-nutter would be content with merely admiring a staggeringly steep hillside in the middle of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, the fine, fine folk of Cooper's Hill prefer to gather on its peak once a year to set free a three-kilogram clump of cheese and then merrily chase after it for 180 meters -- 178 of which are spent stumbling, tumbling and bouncing down the 45-degree slope.

But wouldn't that hurt? It sure does! In fact, bruises, sprains and the odd break are all part of the mayhem (although competitors swear that with 5,000 spectators cheering them on they don't feel any discomfort for the first minute or two).

Then surely there must be amazing prizes? Of course there are: First down the gradient gets to keep the cheese, the runner-up scores a fiver (five pounds), third place pockets a cool three quid (pounds).

Cor blimey, for the love of humanity, why do they do it? Well, you must understand this event is an absolute barrel of laughs. Also, their ancestors have been hurtling down Cooper's Hill in pursuit of runaway dairy products for several centuries, so there's a tradition to uphold. What's more, they're completely bonkers.

When: Last Monday in May each year

Where: Cooper's Hill is near Brockworth in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, England

More info:, e-mail or contact the British Embassy in Jakarta, phone 3907484,, e-mail

2. Wife-Carrying World Championships, Finland

About 12 years ago the good folk of Sonkajarvi, a small and decidedly cool village in central Finland, came up with a gloriously improbable idea: Invite fun-loving men from around the globe to carry their own, or somebody else's wife around a 250- meter obstacle course harboring sand traps, bitumen patches, high hurdles and a pool of chilly water. To the quickest couple goes US$170, a cell phone, a brand new t-shirt, and a loaf of rye bread. To the slowest, cheek-warming embarrassment.

Naturally, this madcap notion proved a rip-roaring success. From the very beginning an international blend of wacky wife- lifters have accepted the challenge, from a gargantuan South Korean sumo wrestler and his gnome-sized "wife", to a champion Estonian pair that pioneered the crowd-pleasing, "Wife Backpack with Butt Up" technique.

And if that mental image isn't enough to boggle the mind, these Nordic high jinks were actually inspired by real events. Apparently in 19th-century rural Finland it was common for bored men to pop off to the neighboring village and nab themselves a wife!

When: First week of July every year

Where: Sonkajarvi, Iisalmi District, Finland

More info:, e-mail or contact the Finnish Embassy in Jakarta, phone 5761650,, e-mail

3. Summer Redneck Games, Atlanta

There's nothing like the thrill of watching finely honed elite athletes going for gold. Unfortunately, there's nothing like that at the Summer Redneck Games. But what they do have is a whole lot of unhoned sedentary folk competing before crowds of unhoned sedentary folk in the woods of central Georgia.

Inspired by the 1996 Olympics held in nearby Atlanta, the Summer Redneck Games are a hirsute hillbilly tribute to ancient Grecian sporting traditions. Or rather they will be one day, just as soon as the International Olympic Committee endorses the following events: spitball bug-zapping, hubcap hurling, watermelon seed spitting, the armpit serenade, dumpster diving and the mud pit belly flop.

I guess if you want to get really persnickety, there are one or two other minor differences between the Olympics and the Summer Redneck Games.

For example, you know at the Olympics how there's always some amazing, show-stopping way to light the Flame? Well, at the Summer Redneck Games there's a ceremonial lighting of a barbecue grill. Also, in lieu of winners' medals as such, there are beautiful crushed-and-mounted aluminum cans. But I swear, in terms of pure spectacle, the two are otherwise indistinguishable. Yeehaw!

When: First Saturday in July

Where: Buckeye Park, East Dublin, Georgia, Atlanta

More info: //, or try the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, phone 34359000, website (internal e-mail available at this site)

4. Palio of Siena, Italy

It definitely does matter whether you win or lose, and how you play the game is bend and break every rule in the book to beat out your opponents.

This, in a nutshell, is the pseudo motto of Il Palio, a 1,000- year-old bareback horserace around Siena's central piazza. Riotous cheering, ancient allegiances, simmering feuds, scurrilous cheating, sprawling jockeys, courage, skill and speed -- it's all squeezed into just 90 seconds of devilishly exciting racing.

This equestrian hurly-burly explodes to life twice a year, when representatives from each of the city's 17 districts vie for a sacred banner, or palio, destined to hang in the victor's neighborhood museum.

With sporty names like Caterpillar, Goose, Tortoise and Snail, the districts invest large amounts of lira and months of wild scheming and plotting in the burning hope of securing citywide bragging rights.

While, for the impassioned locals, it's all about winning the race, there's also an abundance of festive diversions, such as grandiose public banquets, traditional horse-blessing ceremonies and a technicolored medieval parade to appease the 50,000-strong crowd. Bellissimo Siena, bravo, bravo.

When: July 2 and Aug. 16, every year

Where: Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany, Italy

More info: Contact the Italian Embassy in Jakarta, phone 337445,, e-mail

5. Muff Festival, Ireland

It's quite an attention-grabber, isn't it. Yes, there's a town in Ireland called Muff (for the geographically inquisitive, it's not far from the town of Bumfoot) and they do have a festival. But not just any old shindig: The Muff Festival is a boot- scooting, rib-tickling, cross-eyed salute to all things blithe and daffy. A four-day public party where laughter reigns supreme and the fun flows faster than the Guinness; well, almost faster.

It's as though the Muffians go out of their way to serve up the silliest assortment of activities possible. From horseshoe- throwing contests, treasure hunts and pig racing, to a fancy dress parade, a talent show for the talent-challenged and a lorry-pulling competition. Whatever it takes to get you guffawing, that's what the frolicky folk of Muff will do.

Oh and there's jigs, lots of jigs -- plenty of jigging around. But a friendly word to the wise: If you wander into a pub looking a wee bit weird, an impromptu court of prankish larrikins could sentence you to hand over a fiver for charity. And don't bother playing it cool either, you can also be fined for appearing too normal!

When: Starts the first Friday in August

Where: Muff, near Derry City, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland

More info: Irish Tourist Board, (internal e- mail available at this site)

6. World Bog Snorkeling Championships, Wales

If we're ever visited by intelligent life from another planet, I hope they don't land at the Waen Rhydd peat bog near the tiny Welsh village of Llanwrtyd Wells in late August. For if they do, our alien visitors will be gobsmacked to discover humans with snorkels and flippers sloshing through a smelly, gummy, muddy ditch in a gallant quest to be crowned Planet Earth's Bog Snorkeling Champion. If word gets out, we'll be the laughing stock of the galaxy!

The quaint sport of quagmire snorkeling involves completing two lengths of a 55-meter-long, one-meter-deep trench cut through a swampy paddock, in the quickest time possible, without using regular swimming strokes. And while wetsuits, masks and fins are the norm, it's not entirely unheard of for competitors to attack the gooey gully dressed in body paint, pink tutus or even business suits.

And, at the end of the day, when everyone's had a nice warm bath and put on plenty of deodorant, the barmy bogsters gather to pig out on free ice cream, compare water scorpion bites and pass on a sizable wad of cash to charity. If you think all that sounds like a hoot, be sure to also roll up in July for the World Mountain Bike Bog Snorkeling Championships.

When: August Bank Holiday Monday (usually around Aug. 25) every year.

Where: Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys, Central Wales.

More info: // (click on "Summer"), e-mail or contact the British Embassy in Jakarta, phone 3907484, britain-in-, e-mail

7. La Tomatina, Spain

It's a tick before high noon in the town square of Bunol, a smallish Spanish town near the city of Valencia. Some 20,000 people cram the cobblestone streets. The excitement is pulpable, I mean, palpable. Suddenly, a firecracker booms above the din and several large trucks dump 140 tons of juicy tomatoes amid the revelers. Game on!

For the next 60 minutes the world's biggest food fight erupts, in a bright red, mushy melee of side-splitting proportions. Squished tomatoes zing through the air from every direction. Skin tones and sealed shop-fronts turn a sloppy shade of salsa.

Everyone gives as good as they get as a continuous "splat, splat, splat" echoes across town.

This annual, fruity, free-for-all started back in 1944 when a gaggle of teenagers arrived late to carry effigies in the Bunol fiesta. On hearing their places had been taken, a scuffle broke out that quickly led to the raiding of nearby tomato stalls and a muy grande food fight. The locals thought this a wonderful way to release their inner imps, and the tomato flinging soon became a cultural institution, much like sonnet writing, or flamenco.

When: The last Wednesday of August

Where: Bunol, 40 kilometers west of Valencia, Spain

More info:, e-mail or contact the National Tourist Office of Spain in Singapore (responsible for all Indonesian inquiries), phone 656 7373008,, e-mail