Winning tip: Manic drums, Uruguay
The Montevideo carnival, which runs from January into early March is a well-kept secret with far fewer tourists than Rio’s more famous event, and has its own unique traditions and history. I stumbled on it when backpacking a few years ago. I had settled downto sleep in a hotel when the manic banging of drums followed by singing and dancing in the streets below kicked off a month of carnival celebrations. All of the capital’s barrios have samba contests, gigs, poetry readings and outrageous costume parades. The carnival has its origins in slavery times and features a lot of candombe – a music and dance genre created by the descendants of liberated African slaves.
Join the throng, Salvador, Brazil
Nothing prepared me for Salvador’s carniva, the world’s largest street party. For five days and nights the city’s streets are packed with more than a million revellers dancing to all kinds of Brazilian music. The scale can feel overwhelming at first, especially when a gigantic in front of a triotrico (a truck equipped with a colossal sound system and a 10-piece band on top) thunders by with hundreds of people dancing, singing and pogoing in its wake. The only thing to do is warm up with few a few beers, then take the plunge and join the throng for an absolute riot of a time.
Pelting oranges, Italy
A few years ago, an Italian train strike left me stranded in Ivrea, 30 miles north of Turin, but I was lucky enough to be there during carnival and ended up staying the weekend to enjoy the wild festivities and atmosphere. The climax of street dancing, parades eating and drinking was the Battle of the Oranges. Using surplus oranges traditionally imported from Sicily, the townspeople pelted a few costumed leaders dressed as a local tyrant and his family from the 12th century. The festival celebrates Ivrea’s freedom from this evil man. The cruel ruler was about to rape a local miller’s daughter, but she escaped and decapitated him (as you do): the oranges are said to represent the tyrant’s testicles. A girl is chosen each year to represent the daughter. This year’s event starts on Saturday (26 February) and finishes on 1 March.
Party hub with dragons, Malta
For a close encounter with ancient traditions, drop into a Maltese Festa celebrating the village patron saint. Staying in Qormi in 2018, I accidentally caught the feast of Saint George in late June over an initially baffling few days. Every night red-shirted paraders passed through the square beneath the apartment windows, carrying a statue of the dragon slayer through the narrow streets to the sound of a brass band and fireworks. Strings of lights and bright red tapestries hung from flaking baroque buildings. On the festa’s last night, our little square turned party hub, all swaying red shirts and music, while temporary statues were pedestalled using precarious ladder rails. A rowdy secret carnival.
Carnival on two wheels, Cambridge
The Reach Ride, a mass 11-mile cycle ride from Cambridge to Reach Fair, is a new tradition meeting a very old one. Reach Fair was granted its charter by King John in 1201. Taking place originally on Rogation Monday and now on the first bank holiday in May, it is opened at noon by the mayor of Cambridge, who then throws pennies to the crowd. There are fairground rides, market stalls and entertainments, including dancing by the Devil’s Dyke Morris Men. Their name comes from the Anglo-Saxon earthwork which stretches 7½ miles from Reach to Woodditton. The next Reach Fair is on 2 May. All cyclists are welcome and encouraged to dress up according to themes.
A feeling for Fasching, Germany
Held around Ash Wednesday (2 March this year), Fasching, the German carnival season, is a staple Teutonic calendar highlight (key dates are: Fat Thursday, which is today, 24 Feb; Shrove Monday, 28 Feb; and Fat Tuesday, 1 March). Traditionally, the Catholic regions celebrate with the greatest intensity, with Kölner (Cologne) Karneval (finishes 2 March this year) almost certainly the biggest. However, its less-famous cousin is in Heidelberg, where witches, jesters, the local mayor and up to 100,000 others parade through the Altstadt towards the cathedral, many in medieval costume, and all to a thumping techno beat. Sadly this isn’t taking place this year once again because of Covid.
Universal fun, Florida
The Mardi Gras at Universal Studios, Orlando, is amazing. I’ll never forget my late husband roaring with laughter as he caught the strings of beads the characters on the floats throw to the crowd. There are daytime and night parades as well as concerts, scavenger hunts and themed foods. I can’t wait to go again with my grandson. This year it runs until 24 April.
Out of the pan, into the fire, Trinidad
Trinidad is the mother of Caribbean carnivals, a riot of music, brilliant costumes and wining (or dancing) in the street. For me, though, the highlight was Panorama, the steel pan band competition away from the main procession. Established in 1963, it’s taken incredibly seriously by the island’s 80 or so pan bands, with qualifying competitions taking place all year. For the final, on the Saturday of carnival, bands of up to 200 musicians create music that’s both exhilating and orchestral in its scope. I meant to pop in for just a short time but was mesmerised by band after band and stayed long into the night.
Colombia with a taste of the Caribbean
The origins of Barranquilla’s huge carnival, which starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday (26 February this year), are shrouded in mystery. But it’s known that it really became a thing in the 19th century and may have been started – before then – by slaves. It’s now a huge celebration of different cultures and people and their music, blending African and South American styles, culminating in mourning for the death of “Joselito Carnaval” – not a real person, in case you were wondering. The food is fantastic – a real Caribbean influence on the already varied Colombian fare, though I can’t pretend I ever really took to fried catfish. I still feel somewhat stunned by my visit to this sultry, intensely colourful city during carnival – visually and aurally – but most of all by the sheer vitality of the people.
Top crop, Barbados
A few years ago I visited Barbados for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday with various family members in midsummer. I hadn’t heard about the Crop Over Carnival – which this year takes place between 27 July and 2 August. My sister’s husband said we should pop along to Bridgetown and check it out. We were reluctant to take a day off from the beach but soon got into the spirit of things. Incredible scenes ensued, possibly fuelled by regular infusions of local Banks beer. It was Grand Kadooment Day, the culmination of the whole affair. The festival itself began centuries ago in sugar plantation times and some traditions endure – there’s a King and a Queen of the Crop for starters. In Spring Gardens I lost my companions for quite some time. And I quite like soca music now.