Carnival season is upon us, returning to bring the high-energy and dynamism that we’ve come to expect from the holiday. Typically involving extravagant public parades and riotous celebrations, visiting at least one of these festivals in your lifetime tops most travellers’ bucket lists.
Starting out as a pre-Christian tradition, the holiday originates from the celebratory Roman orgies that were held in honour of the hedonist God of wine, agriculture and fertility: Bacchus. It’s not hard to imagine why these celebrations have survived throughout the ages, adapting to the times and traditions along the way.
In fact, it was during the Middle Ages where masks were incorporated to protect the identities of medieval party-goers. With the spread of Catholicism, the festival became a pre-Lent celebration to mark the start of the 40 days of fasting that follow, allowing partygoers to fill up as much food and drink they can consume before taking up abstinence.
Many cultures around the world have perfected their own way to throw this unforgettable party, so what better way to beat the winter blues than to don your own mask, throw on an elaborate costume and dance the night away in one of these street parties? To make it easy for you to choose from, here are five of the world’s best Carnivals that you cannot miss:
1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When to go: 9th – 13th February 2018
Famed the world over, Rio’s Carnaval is the biggest in the world, and as such will be crowned King of all Carnivals!
Running annually since 1723, the extravaganza welcomes around two million guests every day during the five-day long event. These attendees eagerly gather in flamboyant, flashy and certainly flesh-y costumes to watch performances from around 200 samba schools and 300 neighbourhood bands, while dancing, singing and partying throughout the city’s streets.
While the festivities officially start with the crowning of King Momo, aka the Fat King, who is presented with a silver and gold key by the city’s mayor, the key attraction is the iconic Samba Parade held at the Sambodromo, in which the city’s leading samba schools compete and show off their skills.
In addition to the parade, balls are held throughout the Copacabana Palace and beach, while street festivals known as blocos and bandas flow throughout the city day and night. There can be more than 300 bandas taking place at any given point in time, so regardless of where you are in the Cidade Maravilhosa, you’ll be guaranteed a good time.
2. New Orleans, USA
When to go: 13th February 2018
Not one to be outshone, Louisiana’s Mardi Gras celebrations easily tops the most famous festivals held in the United States.
While technically not quite Carnival, which traditionally refers to the period of feasting and fun that begins on 6 January at the Feast of Epiphany, Mardi Gras holds the same celebratory carnival-esque atmosphere and takes place on Shrove Tuesday, for which Mardi Gras is a French term.
This is the final day of festivity before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins, and boy, do they know how to throw a party! The celebration parades last for two weeks building up to Mardi Gras.
During the festivities, float riders will traditionally throw gifts into the crowds with the most common being strings of colourful plastic beads, doubloons, Moon Pies, or small inexpensive toys, so if you want a souvenir from The Big Easy, make sure to mingle with the crowd and come prepared with empty bags in which to store all the goodies and freebies you will collect throughout the event. Complete with music, parades, picnics, floats and excitement, it’s one big holiday in New Orleans that you have to visit once in your lifetime, and best of all, it’s all free!
3. Venice, Italy
When to go: 11 – 27th January – 13th February 2018
Dating back to 13th century when nobles disguised themselves in masks in order to mingle with the poor folk, the Venetian Carnival is steeped in history and tradition. These days the party still retains its former glory, with attendees donning traditional costumes and elaborate papier mâché masks to turn up at some of the noble palaces of Venice.
Banned in the 1930’s by Mussolini and back with a bang in the 1970’s, the festival attracts thousands of tourists each year, especially on Shrove Tuesday, which is considered the most important day of the celebrations. The ten days leading up to Carnevale is full of balls, street entertainment, traditional sweets, and of course, elaborate masks and costumes. Festivities occur nightly throughout this most unique city, but the epicentre of the action is in St Mark’s Square, where you’re just as likely to meet Giacomo Casanova, rub shoulders with the Doge in a gondola, have breakfast with Cleopatra or lunch with Cruella de Vil and a handful of puppies. Expect the unexpected.
The must-dos during the event include dancing the night away at the ultimate masked ball, the Gran Ballo delle Maschere, attend the Best Mask Catwalk in St. Mark’s Square, and witness the Flight of the Angel which kickstarts the festivities.
4. London, UK
When to go: 26th August 2018
Unlike all the others, London’s extravagant Notting Hill Carnival takes place during the month of August away from the religious season of Lent, and takes over the bank holiday weekend. The festival usually kicks off on the Sunday morning with the traditional Caribbean carnival opening Jouvert, and Family Day or Sunday Parade then take place in the afternoon, with performers showing off their elaborate costumes, as they dance and swirl through the streets.
Proud of its status as the biggest street parade in Europe, one million people burst through the chic streets of west London with feathers and sequins, dancing to the booming sounds of Steel Bands. Calypso, Dancehall, Soca, Bashment and Reggae, eating plenty of plantain and loading on the finest jerk chicken along the way.
Having first been established in the 1960s as a way to ease tensions between the English and the Caribbean newcomers from the former British Colonies, today it has blossomed into a week-long celebration. Elaborate floats and colourful costumed performers wind their way in a vivid spectacle to represent and celebrate London’s multicultural past and present, and as such is one for every party-lover’s diary.
5. Binche, Belgium
When to go: 11th – 13th February 2018
Recognised by UNESCO as an “Intangible and Oral Heritage of Humanity”, this is one for the culture vultures.
Paying tribute to this fascinating country’s heritage and traditions which date back to the 14th century, events related to Carnival begin up to seven weeks prior to the primary celebrations. The main event takes place around Shrove Tuesday with the entry of the Giles.
Officially the party starts 49 days before Lent, but the last three days are the main event when approximately a thousand local masked men and boys called Gilles, ranging in age from 6 to 60, run through the town, causing mischief and mayhem by throwing oranges into the crowds. The oranges are considered good luck because they are a gift, and it is an insult to throw them back. So if you’re in attendance, you better just learn to take it. However, it’s not all bad; they counteract the chaos they’ve caused by shaking sticks to scare away any bad spirits too!
Dressed in red and black, ostrich feather hats, and wax masks with curled moustaches and glasses, they’re a sight that cannot be missed!
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