Festivals: Go-go, or no-go?

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Festivals often provide the raison d'etre for travel, showing people and places at their most alluring and exciting. Sometimes, though, they can be a complete pain, making transport overcrowded and spare accommodation non-existent. Simon Calder, Louise Jury and Harriet O'Brien provide a guide to the pains and gains of various festivals around the world.

Destination: Brazil

Event: Mardi Gras

Date: the week up to and including Shrove Tuesday, which falls on 24 February in 1998

The ultimate street party takes place in the nation that lives on the street. For the week building up to the start of Lent, Brazil goes bonkers, with a frenzy of festivities. Some of these are formally organised, notably the huge three-day-long series of parades in Rio, when a dazzling sequence of floats decked with dancers celebrates the virility at the core of Brazil. Elsewhere, "Carnaval" is simply an excuse for reckless indulgence in alcohol, sex and dancing (sometimes, alarmingly, all at once).

Pain/gain ratio: You will not find such an intensity of humanity on any street, anywhere, though the Notting Hill Carnival (below) can come close. Unlike London W11, though, policing seems to be random with a tendency towards non-existence. The thieving classes of Brazil, active at the best of times, enjoy a week of unfettered robbery. People leaving the parade in Rio, at least by the route I took, had no choice but to run a terrifying gauntlet of pickpockets who grabbed at any loose item - and many that were not loose at all. A few days later, in Salvador de Bahia, I was warned by the hotel staff not to venture out while wearing glasses. So, unfortunately, pain outscores gain. Similar thrills and threats apply at the carnivals in Havana and New Orleans.

Destination: Sydney

Event: Gay Mardi Gras

Date: February (main parade is on the last day)

All month long, Australia's largest city is the venue for a festival of performing arts, sport and community events. Even though Lent is already under way by the end of the month, on 28 February the streets of Sydney's city centre are given over to a ribald and raunchy celebration for lesbians and gay men at a parade more outrageous than in Rio.

Pain/gain ratio: There has been some controversy about whether "straight" people should attend, so heterosexuals may find the experience not altogether comfortable. But gay participants will find it a solid gold (lame?) no- pain gain.

Destination: Poland

Event: Easter Sunday

Date: This falls on 12 April in 1998

Poland on Easter Sunday has the unnerving calm of Christmas in Britain 25 years ago. Arriving in Cracow on the Saturday, everywhere is fairly quiet. On the Sunday it feels like not a bird is stirring. The only activity is at every church where, as befits a Catholic country, masses are held almost every hour. Nowhere is open, not even hotel restaurants.

Pain/gain ratio: One visitor ended up in McDonald's for almost the first time in her life. Never was she so grateful for American fast food.

Destination: India

Event: Holi

Date: This falls on 13 March in 1998

The festival of colours is essentially a Hindu event but everyone joins in. People rush around splashing each other with coloured powder, everything (shops, offices, even tourist stalls) closes at least until noon, and as the day progresses so does the rowdiness.

Pain/gain ratio: anyone is fair game. If you go out anywhere you must expect to be quickly covered in red, black and green powder (which takes some time to wash off - wear old clothes). In many areas this is very jolly, but some women tourists have complained about being groped at the same time. It's best to avoid going out later in the day when there's often a high level of drunkenness and traffic accidents are frequent in the cities. The real gain during Holi is that, very unusually for India, no one tries to sell you anything.

Destination: Paris

Event: Bastille Day

Date: 14 July

Arriving in Paris on Bastille Day without prior planning is a bad move. And finding an affordable hotel might prove impossible.

Pain/gain ratio: The city is a wonderful backdrop to celebrations. The fireworks which traditionally light the sky over the Eiffel Tower on 14 July are splendid. The firecrackers, which some Parisian youths think it is amusing to throw indiscriminately, are not.

Destination: Notting Hill, west London

Event: Carnival

Date: August bank holiday weekend.

Veterans of the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 always drone on about how that was the biggest single-location festival ever, but the three- day thrash in London W11 each August bank holiday is possibly larger. London's Caribbean community is joined by professional partygoers from all over the world, for electrifying music, exciting food and a selection of intoxicating substances.

Pain/gain ratio: these days, very little pain - though no sensible participant risks turning up with much more than T-shirt, shorts and a small, sweaty wad of cash - and much gain.

Destination: England and Wales

Event: Christmas

Date: 25 December, but travellers are affected for several days before and afterwards.

The birth of Jesus is celebrated throughout the Christian world, but in some parts of Britain it is taken as an excuse for a near-total national shutdown. For a week beforehand, public transport is hopelessly overburdened. Then, on Christmas Eve, services are wound down. On 25 December itself, there is virtually no way of getting around without private transport. Most trains take the following day off, too, and many enterprises remain closed until 2 January.

Pain/gain ratio: Any gain to the traveller is difficult to assess, since most events are purely family affairs.

Destination: the Islamic world

Event: Ramadan

Date: variable; this year, probably starting on 31 December and lasting for one lunar month

The month of fasting is never a brilliant time to travel to the Islamic world, since the stress engendered by fasting throughout the hours of daylight can be intense for participants and travellers alike. In some areas non-Moslems are expected to observe the fast, too, while in public; most travellers would, in any event, wish to respect it.

Pain/gain ratio: For non-believers, no gain and plenty of pain. Entire nations can slow down to an ill-tempered crawl. The festival at the end of Ramadan, though, is often a hugely rewarding time to visit - particularly in the Arab world.

Destination: Edinburgh

Event: Hogmanay

Date: 31 December

The city that brought you Trainspotting also supplies the UK's greatest New Year celebration - so successful, that to quote the official guide: "You will need a pass to get into the street party on 31 December from 8pm. Passes are available free from the Hogmanay Box Office by personal application or by post"; the address for both is 21 Market Street, Edinburgh. Much of the city centre will be cordoned off, and part of the A1 closed down, while 300,000 people greet the New Year with music (from the likes of Jah Wobble and Salsa Celtica) and possibly with some assistance from strong liquor, though the official guide solemnly warns that "People under the influence of alcohol may be refused admission."

Pain/gain ratio: Transport links between Scotland and England are full to bursting before and afterwards. But the fun factor here is likely to be much higher here than at the parallel event in London's Trafalgar Square.