There's no doubt the Venice carnival is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether you're actually lucky enough to wear one of the vintage costumes and enigmatic masks of what is one of the most traditional of European carnivals, or whether you are there simply as an on-looker to this festival of colour, sensuality and mystery, there are few settings more beautiful than the romantic canal-threaded city.
On the other side of the world, though, carnival is celebrated to a very different beat and in Rio de Janeiro, the third largest city in the whole of South America, the Brazilians sure know how to party. The glitzy, feather-bedecked parade of musicians and dancers in the city's Sambadrome is legendary, and the performers are renowned for their apparent never-ending stamina as they dance as if there were no tomorrow.
Then there's New Orleans, where Mardi Gras is lived to the full as a celebration of the liberation from slavery and the recovery of ancient African rites. The list of carnival excess and excitement around the world goes on and on, so here we've just chosen some of the most spectacular celebrations.
It's been described as "a thousand plays on a single stage", and UNESCO have seen fit to include the Barranquilla Carnival on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity which aims to recognise and protect such things as oral traditions, rituals and social practices. In colonial times, Barranquilla was one of Colombia's busiest trading centres, where European, African and indigenous cultures met and blended. This mixture is evident in the variety of dances, music and folk instruments of the carnival celebrations, a clear expression of the meeting of cultures and races, and an expression of joy through music and rhythm.
Combining ancient folklore and Slavic mythology with traditional carnival traditions, the Croatian town of Rijeka on Kvarner Bay enters into the Shrovetide celebrations with verve. The “ugly masks” are a unique feature of the celebrations here, with popular legends telling how the unbridled chaos of their antics chases away evil forces and conjures the spring. The carnival madness begins in mid January with the Carnival Queen Pageant and includes concerts, exhibitions, shows, masquerades and general fun, culminating in a huge masked parade on Shrove Tuesday.
This year the beautiful island of Madeira dedicates its carnival celebrations to the theme of "the Magic Forest" so you can expect there to be plenty of marvellous insects and tree spirits invading the capital city of Funchal, on the southern coast, which will be the focus for these festivities of colour and creativity, imagination and music. The Trapalhao Parade on Tuesday March 8th features the traditional trapalhaoes or bunglers, and the motto “it’s Carnival – nobody takes it badly” makes it clear that audience participation is expected!
Year after year, this city on the French Riviera provides one of the most joyous carnival celebrations in Europe. This is partly thanks to the huge colourful giants who parade through the streets, but the parades of floats and colourfully costumed revellers play their part as well in making a success of a tradition that dates back to the early nineteenth century, as does the annual Battle of Flowers on the Promenade des Anglais.
With roots stretching back to the Middle Ages, the carnival celebrations of the historic walled city of Binche in Belgium is one of Europe's oldest surviving street carnivals and another on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The legendary Gilles characters, numbering in their hundreds, are dressed in costumes in red yellow and black – the colours of the national flag – topped with ostrich-feathered hats; they have bells on their belts, clogs and wax masks with spectacles, and parade through the streets to the beat of the drum.