Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Mon September 14 2015

Opinion Home | A Cruising Couple's Column

  • A Cruising Couple | September 14, 2015 11:00 PM ET

    3 Epic Festivals You Have to See to Believe

    3 Epic Festivals You Have to See to Believe

    PHOTO: Samos Burning Boat Festival. (photos by A Cruising Couple)

    Whenever we attend a cultural event, we tend to do a lot of research in advance. We want to know the historical significance, how long it's been around, the rarity of seeing such an event and what it means for the culture today.

    But sometimes, even extensive research can't prepare you for the actual event — which can lead to some very unexpected experiences. Here are three epic festivals we've been to that turned out far different than we anticipated:

    Barong Ceremony in Padangbai

    Barong Dance Crowd

    We had been traveling around Bali for a few weeks already, and Padangbai was one of our last stops. While walking around the quiet little town, we heard news that there would be a traditional Barong ceremony with the whole town attending. We had seen many staged Barong dances all over the island, and we were excited to hear that our arrival aligned with this authentic ceremony.


    The first half of the dance started off in typical fashion, the familiar faces of the Barong and Rangda dancing across the street. But halfway through came the portion of the event that wasn't included in any of the staged versions: exorcism.

    None of the guidebooks had mentioned anything about this element of Barong dance, and it took us completely by surprise. There was no way of knowing if it was just an act or if the villagers actually believed there were demon spirits in the air. But soon multiple villagers in the crowd became "possessed" by evil spirits; they were then cleansed with a ritual of fire and chanting that lasted nearly an hour.

    After the possessed villagers were "purified" and the town dispersed, we asked around to try to figure out what we had just seen. No one in town seemed to want to talk about it, and we were left with more questions then answers.

    Samos Burning Boat Festival


    Over breakfast one morning in Samos, Greece, we were surprised when our hotel owner asked if we would go to see the local Boat Burning Festival. We had not intended to arrive during the celebration. And honestly, we had already seen what we thought would be a similar ceremony years before in Taiwan where an enormous wooden ship was burned to rid the town of sickness and ill fortune. We assumed this would be something similar.

    Much to our surprise, it was much different.

    This particular festival commemorates a battle during the Greek Revolution. We arrived at the harbor to see a tiny vessel bobbing about in the water. After an hour of patiently waiting to see the tiny boat burn, a fleet of ships with flares paraded around the smaller boat. The story of the battle was told dramatically over a loudspeaker to the sound of cannons and war. Finally, once the mock battle was over, one of the flares was tossed into the tiny boat.

    There were a few seconds of silent anticipation.

    Suddenly, the boat exploded, violently propelling wood and flames high into the air. Seconds later, another explosion went off, and fireworks erupted from both the small boat and the giant barge parked behind it. The display went on for another twenty minutes, culminating in a grand finale of fireworks as what was left of the small wooden boat slowly burned. For such a tiny boat, the burning was a fantastic affair.


    Siena's Palio


    The festive horse race in Siena takes place twice a year and is highly competitive amongst the residents of the Italian city. Our visit to Tuscany was timed perfectly with the August event, and we were eager to see the horses race around the heart of Siena.

    The parishes of the urban center proudly sported their respective colors and cheered on their jockeys for a full day as they paraded around town in traditional garb. Once the parading finished, some 60,000 people crowded with us into Siena's Piazza del Campo to watch the bareback horse race.

    DSC_4134.jpg DSC_4109.jpg

    The nervous energy and excitement was palpable as the riders took their positions for the race. We were informed that the riders were making last minute bets and forming alliances amongst each other even at the starting line.

    Apparently all is fair in the Palio and riders are free to try to slow down and distract other riders during the race. After two false starts the true race began, and the full day of ceremonies, elaborate costumes and parading culminated in this main event.

    The cheering, shouting and thundering hooves of the race was over in all of 90 seconds.

    It was exhilarating, and though the race was short, it was an event unlike anything we had been a part of before. Unfortunately, it was followed by fighting between rival teams and intense pushing — circumstances that aren't ideal if you're a claustrophobic.

    Have you ever visited an event that turned out to be totally different than you expected?

More Bali, Greece, Italy


You may use your Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook information, including your name, photo & any other personal data you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on Click here to learn more.

A Cruising Couple A Cruising Couple's Column

A Cruising Couple Dan and Casey are the two lovebirds, world travelers and adventurers extraordinaire behind the popular travel blog A Cruising Couple - adventure travel with a dash of class. Their stories and photographs feature that special place where experiential and stylish travel meet. Find out how you can spend less money, live more adventurously and travel more luxuriously on their blog,
Experience Alaska With Holland America Line

Cruise Lines & Cruise Ships