A wide-ranging overview of the places in Europe where you should take your camper van for Carnival.
Traditions, fun rituals, parades and irreverent games: Carnival is around the corner and is a perfect opportunity for a camper holiday. Let use this event as an excuse to explore the beautiful surroundings. We hope to provide some inspiration, selecting some of the most impressive Carnivals in Italy and Europe.
As everyone knows, Carnival is one of the liveliest celebrations of the year, with its float parades, ‘magical’ rituals, jokes, sneers and the joy of being together, among people, wearing traditional or contemporary masks.
These celebrations are based on pagan rites. The ancestors of our present-day Carnival are the Saturnalia celebrations in Roman times, when for a few days around Winter Solstice the normal course of things was interrupted by Saturn, God of nature and Lord of chaos, who took over from Jupiter, guarantor of reality. Everything was allowed, the world was turned upside down, masters serving their servants, even the Courts were closed. This historic Carnival heritage is the common element of all carnivals in the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Putignano.
Jokes, irony and sneers often prevail, sometimes a bitter reflection on the world or, more simply, the desire to amaze is the key theme. IN some places, Carnival means re-enacting past history, lost memories, things that no longer exist, through ceremonies and laborious reconstructions. There is not one Carnival, but one for each city in Europe.
The main area is the Cote d’Azur. Around Nice, in particular, Carnival is a twenty day marathon attracting over a million spectators: amazing float parades, caricature masks, confetti, dances on public squares, bands playing carnival music and ‘flower fights’ take place in the Promenade des Anglais (even at night). On the last day, everybody convenes around a large fire by the sea, burning a gigantic papier-mâché Carnival King in the Bay of the Angels.
The liveliest and most popular Carnival is the one in Cologne, where there is an official Carnival and an even livelier alternative Carnival, with a special ‘Ladies’ Carnival’ day on Thursday, when ladies give away little kisses on the cheek, and spectacular parades like the ‘Monday of Roses’. There are also grand parades from schools and neighbourhoods, concerts and theatre performances, masked parties, samba groups mixing up with clowns, and of course beer is generously served in the beer bars. On the last day: final bonfire with the straw scarecrow burning winter away.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, capital of the largest of the Canary islands, hosts one of the most ancient Carnivals in Europe.
Popular support is huge: residents improvise their singing talents at street corners, where muras (musical groups) and rondallas (opera singing groups) happily parade, invading the streets. Masked parades and sing-songs mark the election of the Queen of Carnival, and the ‘burial of the sardine’, which signals the end of the party and arrival of the spiritual time of Lent.
On the island of Skyros, a pagan celebration animates the castle and the village lanes: the ‘old man’ and ‘the girl’ lead a procession of residents masked as man-beasts with goat skins and sheep wool, miming ancient rites of fertility to the sound of little bells tied to the animals.
Patras hosts one of the largest parades of floats and costumes in Europe, opened by the Carnival King and Queen, which includes a women-only parade, a ‘chocolate fight’, a treasure hunt, and fireworks that close the celebrations and open the time of penance observed by Orthodox Christians, for whom Easter is the most solemn event of the year.
Carnival traditions here date back to the 16th century, when they were introduced by crusaders en route to the Holy Land. The most spectacular action takes place in Valletta and Floriana, but many villages put on little simple carnivals as well, especially on the island of Gozo: residents decorate their carts with palm leaves and go out at sunset with their home made masks. Malta’s catholic majority means that the Holy Week is solemnly celebrated. On Good Friday, the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ are commemorated with a procession of statues along the roads of Valletta and several other towns. Among the many depictions of the Last Supper shown in the capital and surrounding towns, it is worth mentioning the one in Zebbug, which is entirely made of pasta.
There are summer carnivals too. The Notting Hill carnival, a party started 40 years ago by West Indian immigrants, is held in London on the last August weekend. With two million visitors, this is the largest summer carnival in Europe: float parades, new bands and ultra-famous bands, increasingly multi-cultural crowds.
There are countless carnivals in Italy, but two are really unmissable: Venice and Viareggio.
The Carnival in Venice is perhaps the most elegant and well known in the world, thanks to the magic setting of the lagoon city. Enigmatic masks of timeless beauty parade in the St. Mark’s Square, bringing the clock time back to the splendour of the Doge.
The Venice carnival is never tasteless, but permeated by a subtle intellectual complacency. In fact, every year a great contemporary artist dedicates his or her work to the Venice Carnival.
This is a celebration that does not amaze with giant floats or elaborate historical reconstructions, but rather with its dreamy and floaty atmosphere, recalling a grand past when masked balls were designed to stir a sense of wonder.
The carnival in Viareggio is possibly the liveliest in Italy. Here, in addition to the role-swapping, there is an irresistible feature of Tuscan culture: their sense of humour and love of jokes. No international figure, celebrity, fashion or situation escapes the giant papier-mâché dolls, and the satire. Here, the floats are the real attraction, as they parade on the mask-decorated Viareggio seafront, between late February and early March, along a closed circuit of nearly two kilometres. Among the most significant events, the parade on Shrove Tuesday and the masked seafront at night, followed by fireworks.