Show time on the continent

From open-air opera in Athens to sonic weirdness in Barcelona, Sarah Barrell chooses her top 10 cultural highlights on offer across Europe this summer


1 Avignon and Aix festivals, France

1 Avignon and Aix festivals, France

France's top two arts festivals are both billed as the country's equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival, which does them no justice at all. Swap lukewarm beer and even more lukewarm comedians for chilled kir and performances by international dance, opera, and classical music companies. The added incentive? The festivals are at about the same time and are only 40 miles apart, making this the perfect pairing for the art lover with a summer rental in the South of France.

The Festival d'Avignon (8-27 July), the country's oldest arts festival, has the most spectacular setting, within the medieval walls of the former papal capital. Since the 1980s, the event has augmented its contemporary programme with an "off" festival, as Edinburgh has with its fringe, ensuring arts for every taste. The Flemish artist/playwright/choreographer Jan Fabre is this year's Associated Artist, promising genre-busting theatrics.

The Aix-en-Provence International Festival (8-30 July) puts modernity to the fore this year with Julie, an operatic rendering of Strindberg's Miss Julie, by Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans. Other modern highlights include a repeat of the 2001 festival hit, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

For more information contact the French Tourist Office (09068 244 123; www.franceguide.com).

2 Jules Verne centenary, France

The cities of Nantes and Amiens this year celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of the French science fiction pioneer, Jules Verne. Born in Nantes in 1828, Verne's early wanderlust was fed by his home town's large port and exotic winter gardens. But it was in Amiens, in Normandy, where he lived for 34 years, that he wrote most of his best-sellers, including Michel Strogoff and Around the World in Eighty Days. Nantes and Amiens will host joint festivities, exhibitions and a literary-themed street party. In September, Nantes will re-open its Musée Jules Verne, and in December, Amiens will inaugurate Jules Verne House, showcasing some of the writer's prized possessions.

In Paris, where Verne wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth, an exhibition exploring the sea as a theme in his novels will be held at the Musée de la Marine (9 March-31 August).

For more information contact the French Tourist Office (as above). Or go to www.julesverne.fr.

3 Sonar, Barcelona

An annual festival of progressive music and multimedia arts, Sonar (16-18 June) has become a must for any self-respecting producer, musician and lover of breaks, beats and "out-there" visuals. This industry shindig attracts as many amateur music geeks as it does professionals, offering an avant-garde line-up of DJs and artists.

The festival offers an eclectic line-up on the Sonarlab stage, including stellar artists such as Laurent Garnier, LCD Sound System, 2 Many DJs, De La Soul, The Chemical Brothers and Soulwax. There will also be installations, concerts and film screenings.

For more information go to www.sonar.es.

4 Prague Spring Festival

More conventional music can be heard during the Prague Spring Festival (12 May-4 June). The event, the unofficial start to the summer season of European arts festivals, excels in music from its own region. Lovers of Dvorak should not be disappointed, while tradition demands an opening concert that features Smetena's patriotic Ma Vlast (My Country).

This year, the festival's 60th birthday, the honour of performing the opener goes to the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Other highlights include Wagner's Ring Cycle at the National Theatre, the Prague Radio Symphony teaming up with the Herbie Hancock Trio, and an evening of Bohemian favourites (think the Czech Proms) performed by the impressively titled Prague Castle Guard and Czech Police Band. This is a great excuse to see some of Europe's leading orchestras test out the acoustics of the Czech Republic's grand old buildings.

For more information go to www.festival.cz.

5 The Passion Play, Italy

The Passion of Christ has been staged every five years since 1850 in the village of Sordevolo in Piedmont. While not as well known as the once-a-decade performance in Oberhammergau, Germany, Sordevolo is gaining international recognition. Again, the setting provides ample reason to attend. Sordevolo is surrounded by medieval towns offering breathtaking views of the Alps. The three-hour choral reconstruction of the life of Christ, the text of which dates back to the 15th century, is performed as tradition dictates by the residents of Sordevolo. This is community theatre at its most polished, starting as a street procession and finishing at an amphitheatre in a woodland clearing. The whole village is involved with about 1,300 performers.

The Passion runs on select days, 18 June-15 September. For more information go to www.passionedicristo.org.

6 Athens Festival, Greece

The Athens Festival (20 May-9 October) offers the opportunity to watch al-fresco opera and ballet classics performed in the 2,000-year-old Odeon Theatre at the foot of the Acropolis hill. For island-bound holidaymakers, this five-month-long arts bash is the perfect excuse to stop in Athens for a night or two. And who could resist with performances by some of the world's top orchestras beginning as the sun sets dramatically over the Parthenon and concluding under a blanket of stars. Two millennia ago, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus had a roof, but the theatre is now open to the elements and to views of the back-lit Acropolis.

This is the festival's 50th year and the programme includes Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet by the English National Ballet, Los Tarantos, "the first flamenco musical", Verdi's Macbeth by the Bolshoi Theatre and Mikis Theodorakis's Zorba by the Hungarian National Opera.

For more information go to www.hellenicfestival.gr.

7 Roma Sposa Mozart, Italy

Rome is getting married and it looks set to be one bellissima bash. Roma Sposa Mozart (Rome Marries Mozart) celebrates the upcoming 250th anniversary of the composer's birth in 1756. His works will be performed in three of the city's iconic archaeological sites, The Colosseum, the Mercati Traianei and the Basilica di Massenzio, none of which has ever hosted operatic events of this magnitude. The three performances are: Ascanio in Alba, Lucio Silla and La Clemenza di Tito. In the run-up to the celebrations proper, Così fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Gigi Proietti, will be performed at the Teatro Nazionale. Organisations are also underway for Rome Opera's Orchestra to perform the Requiem of Divino Fanciullo in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere on 5 December, the date of Mozart's death.

For more information contact the Italian State Tourist Office (00800 00482542; www.enit.it).

8 Salzburg and Vienna festivals

Austria offers another premier arts pairing, with two festivals at around the same time within day-tripping reach of one another. The Salzburg Festival (25 July-31 August) is Europe's most prestigious summer music event while Vienna's cutting-edge ImPulsTanz (14 July-14 August) is a contemporary dance festival with top dance troupes performing in the capital's theatres.

Mozart gets another tribute at the Salzburg Festival. This being his birthplace, his music always forms a big part of the festival. Almost 200 performances take place throughout the festival, with ballet and opera complementing the packed classical music programme. The programme opens this year with Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten.

In Vienna, ImPulsTanz is fast becoming one of the country's most exciting new festivals. Dancers from around the world clamour to perform in countless shows and open-air parties. Star draws this year include The Martha Graham Dance Company, David Neumann, and Sylvie Guillem.

For more information go to www.salzburgfestival.at and www.impulstanz.com.

9 Galway Arts Festival, Ireland

The Galway festival (11-24 July) is Ireland's largest arts celebration, attracting more than 100,000 people to the country's third city. An enormous programme includes dance, street parties, film screenings, live music, theatre, visual arts, literary and children's events. This year's theatrical programme places work by Ireland's leading younger writers, such as The Small Things by Enda Walsh, in the spotlight with tried and tested classics, most notably the entire canon of JM Synge presented by the venerable Druid Theatre company.

For more information go to www.galwayartsfestival.com.

10 Art Nouveau, Belgium

The Royal Museums of Art and History will celebrate Belgium's independence from the Netherlands in 1830 with an overview of the country's decorative arts, up to the World's Fair in 1958, called Art Nouveau and Design 1830-1958,(25 May-31 December). For such a small country, Belgium has spawned a disproportionately large number of acclaimed decorative artists, not least the big names in art nouveau. The style came into its own in Brussels where the19th-century bourgeoisie favoured the creations of Victor Horta, Van de Velde, Serrurier-Bovy and Wolfers.

Other exhibitions will be held at The Royal Museums of Art and History, the Red Cloister Centre for the Arts, the Architecture Museum "La Loge" and the Biennale Art Nouveau Festival.

For more information go to www.visitbelgium.com.

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