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Top 10 famous annual traditional festivities in Croatia and when to catch them live

Women singing in traditional ethnic clothesCroatian National Tourist Board

Croatia has a rich cultural landscape of traditional folk music, historic reenactments and religious festivals. Throughout the year, but especially in the spring and summer, annual festivities celebrate these local, regional and national traditions. If you’re visiting Croatia, here are the top 10 traditional festivities, and when and where you can find them.

Men riding donkeysCroatian National Tourist Board

1. Tribunj Donkey Race

On the first Sunday of August in Tribunj, Croatia, a small town on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, the annual Tribunj Donkey Race pays tribute to the region’s long relationship with the sturdy, sure-footed pack animals.

Man climbing a donkeyCroatian National Tourist Board

The “race” is often a comical scene of rowdy spectators cheering riders as they try to coax and pull their stubborn donkeys to compete, or of donkeys suddenly taking off and leaving their rider on the ground behind them.

Riders dress in traditional folk costume and must have been born in Tribunj to qualify for the ride. The race, which has been held since the 1950s, is now organized by Croatian Donkey, which runs a donkey refuge on a nearby uninhabited island.

Group of bell ringers preparing to danceCroatian National Tourist Board

2. Carnival Bell Ringers’ Pageant from the Kastav area (Zvončari)

In the Kastav area of Croatia, the spectacular Bell Ringers’ Pageant takes place in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. During the pageant — which is really a procession — male villagers from the towns around Kastav dress in sheepskin throws, and often wear oversized, horned animal masks also made from sheepskin.

Bell ringer dancingCroatian National Tourist Board

With large brass bells tied at their waists, they march from village to village, rhythmically leaping, loping and ringing the bells.

Halubian Bell RingersCroatian National Tourist Board

Removing the maskCroatian National Tourist Board

The tradition of the bell ringers — called Zvončari in Croat — likely dates back to pre-Christian rites of spring. The masks, costumes and noisy bell ringing were a way to ward off evil spirits, portend an abundant harvest and protect farm animals.

Alkar men walking by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

3. The Sinjska Alka, a knights' tournament in Sinj

Held the first weekend in August that includes a Sunday, the Sinjska Alka Nights' Tournament takes place in Sinj, in the Dalmatian hinterlands. During the tournament, knights, called alkari, ride their horses at full speed and attempt to hit the inside of a hanging ring with their spears.

The Sinjska Alka commemorates an event in the Seventh Ottoman–Venetian War when a grossly outnumbered army of Sinj townsmen held off 60,000 invading Ottomans. Rich in history, elaborate costumes and closely observed ceremony, it is the last remaining medieval knights’ tournament in Croatia.

Knights’ tournament in SinjCroatian National Tourist Board

Ljelje from the backCroatian National Tourist Board

4. Spring procession of Ljelje / Kraljice in Gorjani

The spring procession of Ljelje / Kraljice takes place every year on Pentecost Sunday in the town of Gorjani in the northeastern Slavonia region. The young women (ljelje) of the town dress as queens (kraljice) or kings (kraljevi) and walk house to house in procession, accompanied by singers and musicians. The kings are dressed in elaborate fall hats covered with flowers and jewelry. The queens also wear elaborate costumes but wear white garlands instead of hats.

The history of the spring procession may relate to a story from the Croatian-Ottoman wars, when the women of Gorjani allegedly reclaimed their captured men from the Turks.

Ljelja hands on purple dress by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

The tradition may also have been a way of presenting young girls of marrying age. The spring procession in Gorjani is the last remaining example of a practice once widespread in Slavonia.

Gorjanske LjeljeCroatian National Tourist Board

Festival of St. Blaise, patron Saint of Dubrovnik by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

5. Festivity of St. Blaise, patron Saint of Dubrovnik

On February 3 every year, Dubrovnik celebrates its patron saint and savior of the city with the Festivity of St. Blaise.

Ornament presenting Saint Blaise by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

The festival in his honor has taken place since at least the 12th century. Tens of thousands of locals and visitors attend the festivity, the high point of which is a procession with the gilded statue of St. Blaise and relics of the saint. These are paraded around the city, accompanied by young women in elaborate folk costumes, as well as costumed flagbearers. At the end of the procession, a corps of soldiers fire powder muskets over the harbor to chase enemies away from the city.

In the evening, the entire old town of Dubrovnik takes on a party atmosphere, with music, dancing, flag-waving, feasting and an orange-throwing fight.

Sword dance on Korčula IslandCroatian National Tourist Board

6. Moreska sword dance of Korčula island
Like many events that commemorate victory over the Ottomans, the Moreska sword dance on the small Croatian island of Korčula is rich in history, costume and tradition.

Sword dance on Korčula IslandCroatian National Tourist Board

The sword dance is just what it sounds like—a danced, mock sword battle between an allegorical White King and Black King, both vying for the love of a princess. Both kings and their respective armies parade through town in elaborate costumes. Then they dance a carefully orchestrated battle that inevitably ends in victory for the White King.

Sword dance on Korčula IslandCroatian National Tourist Board

The Moreska sword dance is held on Korčula on select dates from May to October—most frequently in July and August. These type of symbolic danced sword fights were once common in the region, but today the sword dance of Korčula is the last of its kind.

Saber DanceCroatian National Tourist Board

A female Klapa in OmišCroatian National Tourist Board

7. Festival of Dalmatian Klapas in Omiš

From late June through most of July, the streets and squares of Omiš, a medieval town south of Split on the Dalmatian coast, come alive with the mesmerizing harmony of Klapa singing.

Klapa at a festivalCroatian National Tourist Board

The Festival of Dalmatian Klapas draws performing groups from across Dalmatia to sing, compete and share the cultural heritage of Klapa. A form of a cappella singing, Klapa is homophonic, with all voices singing the same melody in harmony.

Klapa songs are usually about love or lost love, the beauty of one’s homeland or yearning for home. Once a dying tradition, Klapa has experienced a resurgence of interest among younger performers who are keeping the art form alive.

Dancers in rich costumesCroatian National Tourist Board

8. Zagreb International Folklore Festival

Held over five days in July, the Zagreb International Folklore Festival celebrates the rich Croatian traditions of folk singing, dancing and instrumental performance.

At least 30 groups from all regions of Croatia perform during the festival, which also features folk performers from around the world. Artists wear the traditional costumes of their region or country and offer visitors the chance to learn about and appreciate often obscure folk music.

Dance and music on International Folklore FestivalCroatian National Tourist Board

Performances, most of which are free, are held in squares, churches, theaters and concert halls across the city, with each day being packed with events.

International Folklore FestivalCroatian National Tourist Board

Storks flying maskCroatian National Tourist Board

9. Carnival in Rijeka

Among the most important events on the Croatian festival calendar is the Rijeka Carnival, one of the biggest Carnival celebrations in Europe.

The weeks-long event always begins on January 17 and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, with the ceremonial burning of Pust, a puppet that represents all the bad things about the previous year. The weeks of Rijeka Carnival are marked by parades, private parties, masked balls and informal block parties.

Dance like an EgyptianCroatian National Tourist Board

Today, the Carnival of Rijeka attracts as many as 150,000 spectators and more than costumed 10,000 participants to the huge International Carnival Parade, which takes place the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Bell ringers festivalCroatian National Tourist Board

The procession of elaborate floats, fantastic costumes, and musicians, dancers and performers culminates with the arrival of the Zvončari, the Carnival bell-ringers from the nearby Kastav.

Festival on LastovoCroatian National Tourist Board

10. Lastovo Poklad on Lastovo Island

On the remote southern Dalmatian island of Lastovo, a Carnival ritual revolves around vanquishing a historic enemy.

Lastovo Festival 2019Croatian National Tourist Board

Burning of the Poklada PustCroatian National Tourist Board

The Lastovo Carnival centers on the stabbing, burning and setting of fireworks under the Poklad, a puppet effigy of an invading Ottoman. On Shrove Tuesday, the Poklad is paraded through town on a donkey before being brought to the middle of the village. There, he is sent down a sort of zipline, with firecrackers attached to his feet.

Afterward, he is sentenced to death and repeatedly stabbed by villagers before being ritually burned at the stake. The Poklad tradition is thought to date as far back as the 16th century. Today, it remains a solemn, symbolic event for residents of Lastovo.

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