It’s time for Carnival

There’s a huge party afoot in many predominantly Catholic regions around the world. While North Americans may be familiar with Mardi Gras celebrations down south in New Orleans, in other countries the festivities are called something else. “Carnival” – also “Carnavale” or “Carnaval” – is a word that probably brings to mind images of masqueraders at a Venetian ball or scantily-dressed figures wearing massive, colorful headpieces as they dance the streets of Rio de Janeiro. But do you know the meaning of this festival and where it originated? And do you know how you can celebrate Carnival in some of our favorite destinations?

As a festival to mark the Catholic season of Lent, the original Carnival has its roots in medieval Italy. Preceding the religious period of Lent, during which the pious deprived themselves of any sort of rich foods, carnal pleasures and parties, it was practical to hold a large street party for the whole community in order to dispose of all the food and drink before the forty days of strict limitations began. There are some who believe the name of the celebration comes from the Latin expression carne vale, meaning essentially “goodbye to meat” or “farewell to the flesh”. Whatever your interpretation, it is for sure that Carnival festivities emphasize letting go of your identity, living in the moment, carpe diem, eating and drinking for pleasure, and generally celebrating life’s indulgences.

Luckily for us, the traditions of Carnival spread from Italy to the Catholic societies of France, Spain and Portugal, and from there to colonized territories in the Americas. If you want to experience Carnival European-style, here are a few of the most unique and bizarre celebrations backed by historical traditions and stunning settings.

Venice Carnival

February 23-28, 2017

Let’s start with what is perhaps the oldest and most well-known Carnival extravaganza. Venice’s massive masquerade might be Europe’s most elegant and over-the-top event. If you’re lucky, you will procure a ticket for one of the grand masked balls, such as the theatrical Mascheranda Grand Ball in the elegant Palazzo Pisani Moretta overlooking the Grand Canal. Don’t forget your mask and costume!


Viareggio Carnival

February 12 – March 5, 2017

If you’re visiting the region of Tuscany in winter, there is a lovely seaside resort with art nouveau appeal and a famous street party. Spectators come from all around to see the Carnevale di Viareggio’s Sunday parades, which feature competitively-decorated floats adorn with gigantic papier-maché likenesses of fantastical creatures, cartoonish politicians and celebrities.

Ivrea Carnival

January 6 – March 1, 2017

This historical festival holds the special distinction of being not just a Carnival event, but also Italy’s largest food fight! The climax of this annual celebration is the Battle of the Oranges. But lest you think it’s all just chaotic pelting of produce, this is actually an organized, community-wide event enacted to symbolize the civil war between the townspeople and the tyrannic lord’s army. Here the “Miller’s daughter” (not the Queen of Carnival) takes center stage in her role as the heroine of the medieval story of revolt. Carnival Sunday falls on the 26th of February this year. And after you’ve dodged the flying citrus in Ivrea, the stately and historic city of Torino is just an hour away!


Tenerife Carnival

February 22 – March 5, 2017

Moving over to Spain, the Canary Islands offer some of the best festivals under the sun. And we mean that literally – despite being held in winter, the party atmosphere here is tropical and inviting with plenty of beaches for all the revelers. On the island of Tenerife, you can join in one of the most popular carnival fiestas in the world. In the spirit of the flamboyant and colorful Rio Carnival in Brazil, the celebrations in Santa Cruz de Tenerife feature much of the same showy costumery and Latin rhythms like samba. Beginning with the presentation of candidates for Queen of Carnaval, the revels continue for over a month with plenty of parades, dances, concerts, fireworks and lots and lots of wild costumes. The bizarre and fascinating Funeral of the Sardine precipitates the end of the events.

Carnival of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

February 10 – March 5, 2017

Not to be outshone by their western island neighbors, the residents of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria have their own glittering festival to rival Tenerife’s. The festivity highlights include the crowning of the Queen – and Drag Queen – of the festival. These events are supported by lively street musicians and costumed partiers who energize the streets with color, music and the dance rhythm known as batucada. And again, can we just talk about the perfect [bathing suit] weather that is reason alone to pay a visit in February! As the event’s own website states, “For over five centuries the city has celebrated with masquerading, tomfoolery… and flesh.”

Cádiz Carnival

February 23 – March 5, 2017

The locals of Cádiz bring a satirical wit and light-hearted atmosphere to Carnaval. Not only do they dress up in fancy and hysterical costumes (known as tipos), they sing clever songs to match. Even if you don’t understand Spanish, you will have fun listening to the music and soaking up the scene. Many of these musical acts are perfected for a competition hosted by the Gran Teatro Falla. And while you’re in town, don’t forget to appreciate all the charms of Cádiz, widely held to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe. From its fresh seafood and sunny beaches to its ancient center and sociable residents, it is the perfect place to party amid an impressive historical setting.

Antroxu, Asturias

February 22 – March 1, 2017

If you want to experience a unique part of Spain while also enjoying lively traditional festivals, you should definitely head to Asturias. The people of this beautiful green northern region claim to be inhabiting the original Spain, never conquered by the Muslims. The Carnaval (Antroxu) celebrations begin seven weeks before Lent in Avilés with “Comrades Thursday”, basically Girlfriends’ Thursday where the ladies take to the streets to party all night. On the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the whole city takes part in the revels with elaborate costumes and parades in the streets – and oh yea, there might be giant foam cannons involved. The party continues with dressed-up crowds in Gijón, the regional capital Oviedo, and a mining town called Mieres.

Nice Carnival

February 11-25, 2017

Another of the world’s major Carnival events occurs along the French Riviera in Nice. The fanciful parades fill the streets with color and whimsy day and night, backed by entertainers from around the world. The themed party carries on for over two weeks, featuring truly stunning floats made up of original floral arrangements, and accompanied by “flower battles” where the audience is showered with blossoms by elaborately-dressed characters.

Dunkirk Carnival

February 4 – March 18, 2017

If you thought throwing oranges was an odd way to commemorate history, how about throwing fish?! A tradition reaching back as far as 1676, La Carnaval de Dunkerque brings this small coastal town to life every winter, when the fun-loving Dunkerquois come together with a wacky celebration in honor of their proud fishing heritage. Centuries ago, there would be a yearly send-off party for the town’s fishermen who went off on a dangerous, extended fishing voyage to Iceland. These days, the outrageous party stretches on for weeks, especially during the Trois Joyeuses – the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Bands roam the streets playing boisterous tunes, merrymakers turn out in eccentric costumes with colorful umbrellas, giant puppets come out to play, and on the final day, the mayor steps out onto the balcony of the belfry to throw over 1,000 pounds of [wrapped] smoked herring into the crowds below before everyone dances a final jig. The fishing bands and balls continue on into March, so there’s plenty of time to discover the madness of this unique festival.