There's nothing like the life-affirming buzz of a major festival, whether it's toasting the arrival of summer in Iceland, chugging beers at Munich's Oktoberfest, or joining in the orgy of beats at Ibiza's closing parties.
Festivals are generally overcrowded and expensive. Rooms and even seats in cafes are difficult to come by and many of the usual attractions will be shut. But they are also, irrefutably, just what traveling is about. Or at least used to be about, before the whole of the world offered itself up on a plate, tagged, priced and sanitised, with phone, fax, e-mail and even a website for bookings.
Festivals are raw. Unpredictable. Exciting.
Festivals also often define the right time to visit a place. You can tell this just by looking at the postcard stands. Buy a postcard in Venice and Rio, and it will show carnival. Siena will show the Palio. Pamplona will show the encierro, bull-run.
Festivals are also a good time to meet the locals. Drink with the locals. Dance with the locals, and often dress up in drag with the locals. It is the time when the locals ignore the tourists and get on with their own lives. In an increasingly homogenized world, festivals are often the only outlet for local culture.
They are a colorful key to unlocking local cultures and can make for a fantastic travel experience. Many travellers have their own special memories of spectacular events they have attended, whether it's a long-planned visit to the Fiesta de San Fermin, or a stumbled-upon saint's day procession in a dusty southern Italian town.
Many have been in one form or another, for decades - some, such as Kumbh Mela and Naadam, for centuries - and have deep roots in the culture of the country they take place in. Ohters, such as Burning Man, will be following, perhaps, even initiative,newer traditions. Some, like Sri Lanka's Esala Perahera, will have deep religious significance; others will be secular occasions based on a key, history-changing event - Lewes Bonfire Night, for example. Some, like Pushkar Camel Fair, will be a mixture of all these things. And some, like Spain's La Tomatina, will be no more than a massive food fight. However, nearly all the festivals demonstrate tangibly the values and priorities of local cultures - and, as such, they almost all involve some sort of cultural exchange; attending and getting involved in a sensitive and non-voyeuristic way offersw a travel experience like no other.