From the sublime Venice Carnevale to the self-mortifying vegetarian festival in Thailand, everything you ever wanted to know about the world's wildest and weirdest parties is packed into a new Lonely Planet book, A Year of Festivals. Here we take a sneak preview
JANUARY: Festival in the Desert
Location: Essakane, Mali
Dates: Second week in January
For three days a year, a patch of Saharan sand, 65km from Timbuktu, hosts "the world's most remote music festival." That's what the Festival in the Desert bills itself as, and it's a credible claim. The sandy site is half a day's Jeep ride (or three days by camel) from a town that is itself synonymous with inaccessibility.
The event dates back centuries to gatherings where Tuaregs, the turban-wrapped Saharan nomads, would converge to race camels, show off their swordsmanship and exchange news.
Having ditched your kit in a goatskin tent, the first order of business might be a trip to the bar. It is, after all, the most remote in the world. During the day, there are various games, and women sing traditional tindes (songs). As the day sizzles into evening, the single stage fires up.
Essentials: Mali is one of the best African countries to travel in, but its transport is slow.
Local attractions: The best thing about Timbuktu is its famous name. Head instead to the laid-back Tuareg centre, Gao.
FEBRUARY: Carnevale Venezia (Venice Carnival)
Location: Venice, Italy. Piazza San Marco is the focus of the festival.
Dates: Begins two Fridays before Ash Wednesday, finishing on Shrove Tuesday
The high point in Venice's social calendar, Carnevale is a masked extravaganza and your chance to spend 12 days looking like The Phantom of the Opera. The world's best-known baroque fancy-dress party, it's as extravagant as Rio's Carnival is riotous, celebrating the approach of spring with refined gusto.
Venetians have been celebrating Carnevale since the 15th century, when private clubs organised masked balls. Sunday is the highlight, when a procession of decorated boats and gondolas wends its way down the Grand Canal.
Essentials: To really enjoy the Carnevale spirit you'll need a mask, at the least. Two of the finest mask makers are Ca' Macana (0039 412 776 142; www.cama-cana.com) and L'Arlecchino (0039 4171 6591). Reservations for the masked ball can be made through the Carnevale website.
Local attractions: Float through canals in a gondola, wander the labyrinthine alleys and admire the golden gleam of St Mark's Basilica.
Carnaval de Quebec
Location: Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
North America's only walled city north of Mexico City, Quebec's capital is steeped in 400 years of history. Overlooking its windy streets, the gothic Chateau Frontenac is the world's most photographed hotel. During the Winter Carnival, when snow and slides are added to the picture, it looks more magical than Santa's grotto.
MARCH: Noche de Brujas (Night of the Witches)
Location: Cerro Mono Blanco, Catemaco, Mexico
Dates: First Friday in March
If witches and wizards have a spiritual home then it may well be Catemaco, considered the centre of Mexico's witchcraft industry. Here, traditions go back centuries, mixing indigenous beliefs, Spanish medieval traditions and voodoo. In 1970, a local brujo (shaman) hosted a witchcraft convention. Now, every year, hundreds of shamans, witches and healers descend on Catemaco to perform a cleansing ceremony.
Essentials: Long-distance buses are not at all regular, so consider travelling via San Andrés Tuxtla (12km west) or Acayucan (80km south). Take a look at the movies Medicine Man and Apocalypto, which were both filmed here.
Local attractions: Laguna Catemaco contains several islands, including Isla de los Monos, home to dozens of stump-tailed macaques. In the remnant rainforest of Reserva Ecolólogica de Naciyaga, you can find a shamanic-style 'spiritual cleansing' or take a spa in mineral mud.
APRIL: Semana Santa (Holy Week)
Location: Antigua, Guatemala and Seville, Spain
Dates: Easter week
Easter week is a big deal across the Spanish-speaking world, but it's Antigua and Seville that celebrate it with the most gusto.
Antigua really comes alive during Semana Santa, when the streets are covered in elaborate alfombras (carpets) of coloured sawdust and flower petals. Clouds of incense envelop the streets and daily street processions remember Christ's Crucifixion. Penitents in purple robes carry floats bearing enormous statues of Christ, the apostles and the Virgin Mary, weighing more than three tonnes.
In Seville, the celebrations are similar but arguably more spectacular. Holy Week rites here go back to the 14th century, but they took their present form 300 years later.
Essentials: In Antigua, be sure to have iron-clad room reservations, or plan to stay in Guatemala City and commute. Beware of thieves.
Local attractions: Antigua is nestled between three volcanoes. Seville's cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world.
More info: See www.visitguat-emala.com and www.semana-santa.org
MAY: Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling
Location: Cooper's Hill, Brockworth, England
Dates: Last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday)
You may have thought the most dangerous thing about cheese was the mould, but then you've probably never stood atop Cooper's Hill on this mad Monday. The premise is simple: a handmade, seven-pound circle of Double Gloucester is rolled down the hill and a gaggle of people chase down behind it. The first to the bottom of the hill (or to grab the cheese) wins, and gets to keep the cheese. Which does nothing to explain the mud, the slope and the injury toll.
A 200-year-old tradition (a wooden cheese was used during rationing after WWII), it draws around 5,000 spectators and an international cast of competitors, with Australians and Kiwis seeming to do particularly well.
Essentials: To compete on Cooper's Hill you must be at least 18 (there are races for younger people). You might also want to check your health insurance.
Local attractions: Nearby 12th-century Tewkesbury Abbey is one of Britain's largest churches.
JUNE: Lajkonik Festival
Location: Rynek Glówny, Krakow, Poland
Dates: Thursday after Corpus Christi
According to Polish legend, when the head of Krakow's defensive raftsmen defeated a Tatar marauder in the 13th century, he slipped into the Mongolian's robes and triumphantly rode into the city. The folkloric myth has been celebrated for more than 200 years with the procession of 'Lajkonik' through the Gothic city. Clad in Mongol robes, the fairy-tale figure rides a hobbyhorse topped with peacock feathers, accompanied by the Mlaskoty musical troupe.
Local attractions: With its basement bars, Krakow's nightlife is like Prague's but with fewer stag parties. If you prefer to swot up on Lajkonik, head to the Historical Museum to see the hobbyhorse that was used in the early 20th century. Covered in leather, caparison, nearly a thousand pearls and coral beads, it weighs about 40kg.
JULY: Rath Yatra (Festival of Chariots)
Location: Bada Danda, Puri, Orissa, India
Dates: Ashadh Sud 2 in the Hindu calendar (early July)
Despite the rains falling during India's monsoon, the country's Hindus crowd into Bada Danda, Puri's main drag, to honour their deity Lord Jagannath. An image of this avatar (incarnation) of Lord Krishna is transported, along with those of Jagannath's brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, in three large, colourful raths (chariots).
Accompanied by up to a million pilgrims and tourists, the temple-like vehicles proceed from the main temple to Jagannath's garden palace, where the idols holiday for a week.
Local attractions: Along with Puri's Jagannath Temple, the Sun Temple in Konark and Lingaraja Temple in the state's capital Bhubaneswar are important Orissan monuments.
AUGUST: Crop Over
Location: National Stadium, Bridgetown, Barbados
Dates: First week in August
During Crop Over, Barbados dissolves into three months of rum-soaked fun. The tradition began in 1780, when plantation workers celebrated the end of the cane harvest.
The main events in May and June are the Cavalcade, a parade of calypso and costumes that moves around the island.
Location: Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada
Dates: Week prior to and including Labor Day weekend (first Monday in September)
Burning Man is more than a festival; it's a utopian society that springs up on the cracked terrain of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
Measuring five miles across, the camp is arranged in a semi-circle, and visitors accustomed to music festivals are blown away by the visual impact. Teams of entrepreneurial artists arrive from across the US with truckloads of materials. The results range from a colossal sculpture made of two lorries to the poignant Temple of Forgiveness. This is torched on the last night, by which time it is covered in thousands of messages from people hoping to leave some emotional baggage in the desert.
Between the sculptures are all sorts of performers.
Essentials: Goggles and bandanas for the dust storms and that Mad Max look; two gallons of water per person per day; a gardener's spray can (it's the closest you'll get to a shower); plus lip balm and vinegar to stop your lips and feet cracking.
Local attractions: Before entering the fray, eat a 'last supper' among the neon casinos in Reno, 'the biggest little city in the world'.
SEPTEMBER: Imilchil Wedding Moussem
Location: Imilchil, Morocco
Dates: Three days around the third week in September
Like the Cure Salée, this match-making festival held in the High Atlas town of Imilchil is all about livestock and finding a partner. The most famous example of 600-plus moussems, the event is a homecoming celebration for herders who have spent the summer taking advantage of grazing grounds.
More info: National Office of Tourism, Marrakesh (0021 224 436 131)
Location: Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India
Dates: Indian lunar month of Bhadra (August/September)
Held on the eighth day of the Krishna Paksha ('dark fortnight'), when the moon is waning, this mass pilgrimage kicks off an intense season of festivities, even by Hindu standards. It's a birthday party for Lord Krishna, the blue-skinned incarnation of Vishnu.
Local attractions: See the slab of rock in Kesava Deo Temple where, Hindus believe, Krishna was born 3,500 years ago.
More Info: Mathura tourist office (091 565 250 5351)
Location: Kano, Nigeria
Dates: The end of Ramadan
In Nigeria's Islamic north, the end of Ramadan is celebrated with equine cavalcades called Durbars. One of the best places to see them is Kano, West Africa's oldest surviving city and an ancient centre of Islamic learning.
Location: Jui Tui temple, Th Ranong, Phuket Town, Phuket, Thailand
Dates: First nine days of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar (late September/early October)
Thailand's largest island, nicknamed the 'Pearl of the South', is particularly spectacular during the Vegetarian Festival.
Celebrated by Phuket's Chinese community, the event marks the beginning of the month of 'Taoist Lent', when devout followers of the Tao abstain from eating all meat products.
The festival begins with processions, religious offerings and cultural performances, and the religious fervour culminates with incredible acts of self-mortification -- walking on hot coals, climbing knife-blade ladders and piercing the skin with sharp objects. Devotees participating as mediums bring the nine Taoist emperor Gods to Earth by entering into a trance state and piercing their cheeks with all manner of objects: sharpened tree branches, spears, slide trombones and daggers. Some even hack their tongues continuously with a saw or axe blade.
Essentials: The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office in Phuket Town gives out a helpful schedule of events.
Local attractions: Phuket is south east Asia's St Tropez, with jagged coastal terrain, rocky peninsulas, sandy bays, tropical vegetation and limestone cliffs.
NOVEMBER: Tori no Ichi (Day of the Rooster)
Location: Otori Shrines, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan
Dates: Every 12 days in November
Taking place on the Days of the Rooster (according to the Chinese zodiac), this event happens twice a year. In the occasional year when it occurs three times, superstitious doomsayers say there will be many fires. However, it's invariably an upbeat occasion where festival-goers visit Otori shrines to ask for abundant harvests and shedloads of sales. Markets spring up all around the shrines -- the largest in Tokyo's Asakusa area attracts tens of thousands of visitors to some 200 stalls.
Essentials: The festival takes place at 30 shrines in Tokyo.
Local attractions: Asakusa is on the site Yoshiwara, the red light district of the ancient pleasure-seeking city Edo. The five-storey padoga was built to honour comedians, among others.
More info: Tokyo Tourist Information Centre (0081 353 213 077)
DECEMBER: Chriskindlesmarkt (Christmas Market)
Location: Hauptmarkt, Nuremberg, Germany
Dates: Friday before Advent Sunday to December 24
In Germany, 'tis the season to be shopping. Across the country, Christmas markets spring up throughout the month, leading up to the big day. The most famous is the Nuremberg market, filling the city's main square with almost 200 stalls and drawing in around two million people.
If you want Christmas tree ornaments, cribs, candles, toys, gingerbread, fruit cakes or just that elusive bit of Christmas bratwurst, you'll find it here.
Essentials: There's a reason Santa wears so much clothing: it's winter so rug up. The Chriskindlesmarkt is open from 9.30am to 8pm most days.
Local attractions: Tortured by your Christmas purchases? Then check out the gory Lochgefängnisse (Medieval Dungeons) beneath the Altes Rathaus, though you might want to do so before you eat. For more horrors, see Reichsparteitagsgelände (Nazi Party rally grounds). Much of the grounds were destroyed during Allied raids, but enough is left to get a sense of the megalomania behind it.
Irish Independent readers can buy Lonely Planet’s 'A Year of Festivals: A Guide to Having the Time of Your Life', usually priced €23.95, for a discounted price of €19.16, including post and packaging. The offer is available only on www.shop.lonelyplanet.com and ends on September 12 2008. The offer is available only on this title