TV Editor Matt Dawson writes about the Carnival experience in Europe and explains why it should no longer be hidden in the shadows
When anyone mentions Carnival, normally the first things that come to mind are the samba parades in Rio de Janeiro, the street parties in New Orleans, or the celebration of Afro-British heritage that is the Notting Hill carnival. But what is often overlooked is the celebrations religious roots (which the latter does not conform to as it takes place later in the year) regarding Easter and Lent. Seen as a final hedonistic celebration before the fasting period, it is extremely popular in countries and regions of Europe with a strong catholic presence. Carnival is essentially a bombastic and over-the-top Pancake Day, but instead of using up ingredients to make batter for the delicious dish, the aim is to gorge yourself on sweets, fine food and alcohol over several days all while wearing (sometimes really elaborate) fancy dress.
Of course, Carnivals in certain cities and regions are more renowned than others: in Europe alone, the celebrations of Cologne, Germany, Cádiz, Spain, and the Canary Islands all spring to mind. However, the beauty of the celebration is in its ability to draw the local community together, and so often the smaller-scale celebrations are often passed over.
One such example is that of Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Much like the surrounding cities, Carnival is an important event in the local social calendar, but often overlooked by tourists. It is characterised by an enormous street parade on Rosenmontag, the day before Shrove Tuesday, by the local schools, institutions and Carnival clubs, featuring elaborately made floats that are sometimes satirical – a highlight this year was a depiction of Angela Merkel in a princess dress with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in bird cages. The local Carnival greeting of “Helau!” is accompanied with the joyous distribution of sweets, chocolate and even roses to parade-goers as the procession winds its way around the ancient city, set against the backdrop of the majestic Dom cathedral, the diocesan seat of the bishop of Münster. The historic town hall is at the centre of the celebrations, in which the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, giving birth to the nation that is now the Netherlands. From the town hall’s balcony, the Carnival Princes overlook the revelry as music fills the square, people are eating and, especially, drinking and even spontaneous conga lines. Once the parade ends, people seek shelter in Münster’s many bars to avoid the cold given that, depending on when Lent falls, temperatures have been known to plummet to below freezing – something to consider when preparing your costume!
If you prefer to head to slightly warmer climes, another renowned Carnival city is Badajoz in Extremadura, Spain. A region frequently forgotten about (even by native Spaniards), the dry plains of Extremadura come to life during Carnival season. Declared as a festival of national interest by the Spanish government, approximately 80,000 people flock to the largest city of the autonomous community, and it is easy to see why. The distinct town squares of Plaza Alta and Plaza de España fill up with costumed people partying the weekend before Shrove Tuesday. Plaza Alta’s Moorish architecture is a stark contrast to the variety of fancy dress on display, and the distinctly yellow Town Hall, with it’s statue of the painter Luis de Morales (one of Badajoz’s most famous sons) welcome the wave of botellones that crashes over the city. These Spanish street parties involve lots of public drinking and dancing, and they are propped up during Carnival by touring buses that blast out music. As these parties can go on to the early hours of the morning, thankfully there are plenty of eateries selling tapas and street food, so you can keep your energy up to keep the fiesta going.
For a less-alcohol heavy alternative, one city’s celebrations for the arrival of Lent is so unique, it has gone on to form part of its identity: those of Venice. Even throughout the year, the celebrated Carnival masks adorn the narrow streets of The Floating City. But it is around the period of Martedì Grasso where the masked Venetians food the capital of the Veneto region. At the centre of all the attention is the famous Piazza San Marco, where a daily pageant for the most beautiful masks is held, with the winners competing against each other in the grand finale at the end of the Carnival period. Over the course of the week around the celebrations, a diverse range of public shows happen in the main square, overlooked by the spectacular buildings of St. Mark’s Basilica, the jewel in the crown of Venice’s Italo-Byzantine architecture, and the imposing bell tower, a striking symbol representative of the city.
Apart from some celebrations in pockets of the country, including that of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, Great Britain doesn’t celebrate this tradition as much as our European cousins. So if you desire an alternative late winter/early spring break, why not head to the continent to celebrate Carnival?