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Tales Spun by Firelight: 5 Ancient Folk Traditions You Can See by Traveling

One of the great joys of exploring a new destination is hearing yarns spun during chance encounters—perhaps by the shopkeeper at a provincial miellerie, or a bartender pouring a dram on a quiet evening.

Tales Spun by Firelight: 5 Ancient Folk Traditions You Can See by Traveling

People love to tell folktales—many of them ancient, some of them happy, and more than a few with a dark and cautionary twist. One of the great joys of exploring a new destination is hearing yarns spun during chance encounters—perhaps by the shopkeeper at a provincial miellerie, or a bartender pouring a dram on a quiet evening. When you travel with Country Walkers, your local guides have a wealth of entertaining folktales and legends to tell. So pull up a seat, and we’ll spin you a tale.

Step Back in Time to Medieval Assisi

The arrival of spring is celebrated the world over. Each year, as the hills of Umbria display the green shoots of new growth, the traditional festival of Calendimaggio in Assisi is a springtime celebration in grand Italian style. This three-day festival starts on the first Thursday of May, and it’s an exceptional time to experience the medieval roots of Assisi in full bloom. According to legend, a 14th century feud between rival Assisi families caused the city to be divided into two sections—and during the festival, sotto and sopra continue their ancient rivalry as they compete for the best medieval reproduction. The streets are filled with people in medieval Italian dress—including parades of drummers, dancers, and artisans. Food vendors serve traditional fare such as porchetta—a medieval Italian pig roast. After three days of festivities, the climatic “Night Parade” adds a spooky finishing touch as angelic monuments cast eerie torchlit shadows against the stone walls of Assisi’s narrow lanes. Experience Assisi’s Calendimaggio festival when you start your Italy: Umbria & Assisi Self-Guided Tour six days before the first Thursday in May.

Move Over Santa Claus! Yuletide in Iceland is All About Trolls

The Yuletide spirit is celebrated the world over—but in Iceland, Christmas brings a uniquely dark twist. Deep in the Black Fortress of Dimmuborgir dwells the child-eating troll, Grýla, and her brood of 13 sons. The Yule Lads, as they’re called, are consummate mischief-makers—harrying livestock, ruining cookware, and gobbling up untended meat and skyr. The pale eyes of Gluggagaegir spy on Icelandic children through the dark windows of the Icelandic winter; meanwhile, his brother Askasleikir lurks beneath the bed to steal any leftover snacks. The naughtiest Icelandic youths are snatched up by Grýla’s icy talons, stuffed into a sack, and hauled back to Dimmuborgir where they’re boiled alive and devoured. Grýla’s pet, the Christmas Cat, is a blood-thirsty feline with a particular penchant for gobbling up children without new clothes for the holiday. In Iceland, the Yuletide tales of Grýla and her sons were considered so terrifying that in the 18th century it became illegal to use her image to frighten children into good behavior—and consequently, modern Icelandic traditions are somewhat more cheerful than these dark, ancient tales. Even still, as you explore the unique lava pillars at Dimmuborgir on our Iceland: Reykjavík, Borgarfjord & Lake Mývatn Guided Tour, be careful not to wake the trolls!

The Path of Mythic Proportions in Greece and Italy

The ancient temple of the Oracle of Delphi has been a center of intrigue since 1400 BCE. The priestess of Apollo at Delphi was said to possess the gift of prophecy. The temple was constructed over a great chasm in which the rotting carcass of the great serpent, Python, was said to emit fumes conferring the gift of prophecy upon the Pythia, or priestess, who perched above the chasm’s heady vapors and had direct contact with the divine. In one prophesy, the Pythia condemned the denizens of neighboring Kirra—who had been known to harass Delphic pilgrims along the road to the temple. As legend has it, several Greek city-states banded together and laid siege to Kirra. Following a prophesy from the Delphic Oracle, the commander of the besieging army devised a scheme to cut the town’s water supply—poisoning it with hellebore before restoring the water to its original flow. The thirsty Kirrans drank the water greedily—and the ensuing diarrhea disabled the town to the point of submission. On our historic Greece: Athens, Delphi & Meteora Guided Tour, you’ll explore both the archeological site of the Delphic Oracle and the modern-day town of Kirra (and yes, it’s OK to drink the water now.)

The active volcano of Mount Etna is one of the largest in Europe. With a two-night stay at the foot of its legendary slopes during our Italy: Sicily Guided Tour, you’ll discover the wealth of tales the mountain has to tell. Many will remember Homer’s Odyssey—in which the triumphant hero of the Trojan war finds himself mired in a 10-year journey back to his home and family. As Odysseus struggles to return to his beloved homeland, he becomes trapped in the cave of the giant cyclops, Polyphemus, nestled at the foot of Mount Etna. With Odysseus and his crew imprisoned beneath the volcano, Polyphemus regularly dines on the sailors, grasping them in his meaty fists and crushing their skulls between his massive jaws. As Odysseus plots to escape the monster’s clutches, he tells Polyphemus his name is “Nobody.” One night, the clever Odysseus contrives to ply Polyphemus with wine, after which the cyclops falls into a deep slumber. As Polyphemus snores by the fire, Odysseus and his surviving companions put out his singular eye with a sharp stick.  The enraged giant roars out for justice, crying “Nobody is blinding me.” Unable to name his attacker, the crime goes unpunished. With the cyclops both blind and unsupported, the wily Odysseus and his crew escape by strapping themselves to the underbellies of sheep going out to pasture. Discovering the deception too late, the infuriated cyclops blindly hurls volcanic rocks at Odysseus and his departing ship—creating the Cyclopean Isles which can still be seen from the Sicilian village of Aci Trezza to this day.

A Midsummer Night’s Walking Tour

Throughout the world, ancient traditions honor the June summer solstice—many dating back to pre-Christian times. In Lithuania and Latvia, midsummer’s eve celebrations include music, dancing, traditional costumes, bonfires—and a midnight search for the mythical fern flower. Said to bloom once a year on midsummer’s eve, the fern flower appears only to those who pass a test of courage. To find this elusive bloom, one must first survive a night in the deep Baltic forest—withstanding attacks from the evil spirits who guard it. There, at the stroke of midnight, the eerie light of the fern flower begins to unfurl beneath the bracken—rewarding those stalwart few courageous enough to persevere. Once discovered, this magical blossom confers on its finder various powers—including clairvoyance, the ability to speak to animals, luck, love, friendship, and happiness. For your chance to find the fabled fern flower, book your Lithuania & Latvia: Vilnius to Riga Guided Tour around the summer solstice—and don’t forget to pack a few extra layers for that all-night vigil!

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