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They're celebrating what? Unusual festivals in Europe

Special to the Los Angeles Times

You may have heard of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, or the gathering of sun worshipers to celebrate the summer solstice at Britain's Stonehenge, but Europe has plenty of other less famous but equally unusual festivals. Some date back many centuries, but others have more recent origins. Although certain festivals reflect serious local traditions and seem odd to Americans, others are just plain nuts to everyone. We've found a few to tickle your fancy and introduce you to some lesser-known cultural eccentricities of our European friends.

La Fête du Cochon/La Pourcailhade, Trie-sur-Baïse, France: To enter the Pig-Squealing Championship at the annual Festival of the Pig, you'd best rehearse your pig shrieks now; locals have been practicing for years. Townsfolk here celebrate the pig in many forms: as noisy squealers, as competitors in pig races, as men in pig costumes and, of course, as pork, ham and sausage. Aug. 14,

Carnaval de Granville, Granville, France: Carnaval in this Normandy town began in the 1500s as a way to bid adieu to fishermen launching their boats. Its 138th celebration has morphed into a Mardi Gras with cocktails, balls, parades, extravagant costumes, intricate floats and so much flying paper in the Battle of Confetti that it can be hard to see the floats. Feb. 17-21,

Sandsation, Berlin: Maybe the intricate artworks created from 2,200 tons of sand for the Sand Sculpture Festival wouldn't seem so quirky if they weren't in landlocked Berlin, about 100 miles from the beach. Summer 2012,

Romería Vikinga-Viking Festival, Catoira, Spain: Locals dressed as Viking warriors re-create a 1,000-year-old battle by invading this Galician village in far northwestern Spain. During the simulated battle to take Torres del Oeste, an 11th century castle, Vikings and defenders alike get soaked in wine. Aug. 7,

Viking Festival, Hafnarfjordur, Iceland: Costumed Icelanders show off with traditional archery, art, storytelling and demonstrations of fighting and glima, an ancient Viking form of wrestling. Mid-June 2012,

Las Hogueras de San Juan, Alicante, Spain: It's not hard to imagine that Nevada's Burning Man was inspired by the Bonfires of San Juan festival. After being paraded around town for five days, ninots, wood and papier-mâché satirical figures far taller than a person and representing highlights (or low spots) of the previous year, are set ablaze all around town. The resulting bonfires, flames and fireworks represent purification for the coming year. Mid-June 2012,

Ottery St. Mary Carnival, Ottery St. Mary, England: The tradition of carrying flaming barrels of tar through the streets of this Devon village is both odd and serious — as well as highly dangerous. The tar-barrel tradition may have begun as a pagan ceremony to get rid of evil spirits or as a warning signal that the Spanish Armada was bearing down on the town or as a way to fumigate cottages. Despite the obvious dangers, it's a high honor for a citizen to carry one of the 17 barrels, which this year takes place Nov. 5. On Oct. 29. 5, a 35-foot-high pile of the village's debris is set alight for a monumental bonfire.

International Bognor Birdman, Bognor Regis, England: Aviators costumed in delta wings, feathers or just a huge sombrero launch themselves off a pier to see which human-powered get-up flies the farthest. The prize-winning distance must be at least 328 feet, or 100 meters. Mid-July 2012,

Maldon Mud Race, Maldon, England: If you prefer staying closer to the ground, sign up to be one of 250 "runners" covering 400 meters (437 yards) of dark, sticky mud at low tide along the River Blackwater's estuary. Participants, some formally attired, begin on one bank, wade across the river, slide along the muddy bank opposite and then wallow back. Racers are warned to get a tetanus shot before the race and to "tape their shoes to their feet." Jan. 2,

Egremont Crab Fair & Sports, Egremont, England: The "crab" refers to crab apples, which the Lord of Egremont used to give to villagers. The tradition continues with apples tossed to revelers during the Parade of the Apple Cart. Dating to 1267, this festival, one of the oldest in the world, preserves some truly quirky events. The Gurning World Championship — gurning means grimacing or snarling — is described as the "sport" of contorting your face into the most ghastly expression possible. Winners are honored by having a horse collar placed around their necks and, nowadays, gurning for photographers. Sept. 17,

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