“Like Mardi Gras and Halloween rolled into a public party at the Playboy mansion, Rio during Carnaval is like no other place on earth. And the freak-flags fly like the color guard of an invading army.” – James Schannep, “Murdered*”
In a nutshell, that is pretty much the image that comes to everyone’s mind when someone mentions Carnaval, right?
As one of the oldest pagan celebrations in the western world, though, the three-day festivities before Ash Wednesday are as diverse, mystique and curiosity-inducing as the traditions that trigger them.
Dodging the obvious and well-publicised celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and Venice, these are some of the best offbeat destinations to celebrate Carnaval.
The folks over at this city of Spain’s Costa Blanca take their fun out on the streets for a week-long celebration of the most important winter festival.
From a crowd parading down the streets in costumes to the burying of the sardine by the end of the celebrations, Alicante gives you plenty of reasons to be on your Carnaval offbeat destinations bucket list map.
Torres Vedras, Portugal
Dubbed as the most Portuguese Carnaval in Portugal, the folks at Torres Vedras, a town 30 miles from Lisbon, sure know how to throw a Mardis Gras parade.
February is typically a cold month in the area and to stay true to the tradition they steer away from the other Brazilian-influenced celebrations happening across the country. The “gigantones”, bizarre 13-feet-high puppets often portraying local public figures, are the guests of honor.
Panama City, Panama
Colorful and vibrant, with a Latin American soul is one way to describe Carnaval in Panama City. The holiday has been celebrated by locals since the 1900’s and all seriousness stops (you know, like work) in the four days before Ash Wednesday, so that folks can fully engage in dances and parades.
The mood seems to be “lighten up! Everything will still be there waiting for you in a few days!”. Frankly, it’s not a bad life motto.
Any similarity between the traditional costumes and the mysterious monster-like character from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” is pure coincidence. I think.
The most pagan festival of all the Carnaval celebrations in Portugal, tradition commands that young men parade around town dressed up in colorful suits made with wool, with cowbells tied around their waists, and robot-like tin masks, as they celebrate the end of the long, cold winter.
The Historic Carnival of Ivrea is not only an important event in the little Northern Italian town but a registered brand, the hallmark of a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.
One of the intriguing customs consists of throwing oranges at one another, in what is known as the biggest food fight in all of Italy. Wearing a helmet and other protective accessories is not a bad idea.
The third biggest island in the Azores is affectionately known among locals as the “party island”. I can vouch for that. No one throws a show stopper of a cultural event as well as the people from Terceira do.
Their Carnaval has an interesting twist, with the traditional performances called Carnaval Dances that combine the wittiness of a roast with the lightheartedness of the musical theater. Pun-riddled, it takes a sharp mind to get most of the (usually political) jokes.
The Maslenitsa, Carnaval in Russian, is also known as Pancake Week where, you guessed it, pancakes are the designated sweet treat. The festival marks the end of winter, a date celebrated with sun-like golden pancakes, colorful parades, and ancient pagan rituals across the country.
The biggest and most popular event happens every year before Lent at the Red Square in Moscow.
With the approval stamp of the UNESCO World Heritage for being a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, the Binche Carnaval is a popular celebration deeply rooted in the town’s cultural heritage.
No one seems to be able to pinpoint the exact origin of these festivities, but the locals are strongly committed to continuing the tradition for years to come.
Unlike the other Carnaval celebrations across the world, Carnaval in Martinique doesn’t come to an end on Ash Wednesday.
Born from the combination of customs between the European and the African cultures experienced during colonization, the Carnaval in Fort-de-France has an expected Caribbean flair and vibe. The event is deeply rooted in ancient myths and legends brought over by their African ancestors.
Carnaval is taken very seriously in the Asturian city of Avilés. So seriously, that the whole town dresses up for the Fat Tuesday parade and celebrations. If you’re not dressed up as the day ends, you are likely to end up wet since that’s the public punishment of choice.
The big parade down the main street Calle Galiana usually includes foam baths, courtesy of the local fire brigade. Don’t take it personally. It’s just a fun way to wash away your worries from winter and welcome the nearing spring.
What are your top picks for the best offbeat destinations to celebrate Carnaval?