It was party time for the Romans. It was party time for the Christians. And it's still party time for everyone who loves a sequin, a spectacle, and the chance to kick up a heel or two. Let's hear it for Fat Tuesday! Here are the cities that hold the world's wildest carnivals.
Officially, Carnaval is just five days of revelry – from Friday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – but Cariocas (residents of Rio) begin partying months in advance. The culmination of the big fest is the brilliantly colourful parade through the Sambódromo, with giant mechanised floats, pounding drummers and whirling dancers – but there’s lots of action in Rio’s many neighbourhoods for those seeking more than just the stadium experience. Out-of-towners add to the mayhem, joining Cariocas in the street parties and costumed balls erupting throughout town. Prepare yourself for sleepless nights, an ample dose of caipirinhas (cane-liquor cocktails) and samba, and mingling with the joyful crowds spilling out of the city.
Sydney’s famous gay and lesbian Mardi Gras is now the biggest annual tourist-attracting date on the Australian calendar. While the straights focus on the parade, the gay and lesbian community throws itself wholeheartedly into the entire festival, including the blitzkrieg of partying that surrounds it. There’s no better time for the gay traveller to visit Sydney than this month-long lead-up to the parade and party, held on the first Saturday in March. Along with film festivals, theatre, art exhibitions, talks, gay zoo tours and cruisy harbour cruises, the big events are the launch, fair day and the pool party. On the big night itself, the parade kicks off around sunset proceeded by the throbbing engines of hundreds of dykes on bikes. The party is an extravaganza in every sense of the word – attended by over 16,000 revellers it stretches over several large lavishly decorated halls featuring the best DJs and lighting designers the world has to offer.
Listed by Unesco as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Bolivia’s largest annual celebration is a massive event said to draw in around 400,000 people. Its centrepiece is La Diablada, the ‘Dance of the Devils’, an extraordinary parade that showcases demonic dancers in extravagant costumes. The 4km-long entrada (entrance procession) takes place on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and features 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians – so many people that the parade lasts up to 20 hours. It’s led by a brightly costumed San Miguel character. Behind him, dancing and marching, come the famous devils and a host of bears and condors. The chief devil, Lucifer, wears the most extravagant costume, complete with a velvet cape and an ornate mask. Events continue through the week and end on the Monday after Ash Wednesday with the Dia del Agua – the Day of Water – a huge water-bomb fight in which you as a visitor are likely to be a major target.
For more information contact the Oruro tourist information office (+591 2 525 7881).
New Orleans expands on the Fat Tuesday concept with a 10-day festival during which the fun steadily intensifies until the entire city is certifiably insane. Carnival is New Orleans’ leviathan holiday – a beautiful, undulating, snakelike festival that first rears its head on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany) and weeks later unfolds in all its startling, fire-breathing glory to terrify and delight the millions who come to the city to worship it. In New Orleans, Carnival operates on the subconscious. It’s the flame that burns in the city’s soul, the elaborate overture that tells us what the city is all about. It’s a baroque fantasy, a vibrant flower, a circus, a nightmare, a temptation from the devil. It permeates all levels of New Orleans society. Families of all classes and colours come out before each parade. All over the city imaginative people create theatrical costumes for seasonal masquerade parties. Above all, Mardi Gras is a hell of a party, and New Orleans, in its characteristic generosity, welcomes travellers from around the world to join in the revelry.
This is the world’s best-known baroque fancy-dress party; Venice has celebrated Carnevale since at least the 15th century. The festivities hit a high point with the Gran Ballo delle Maschere (Grand Masked Ball), or Doge’s Ball, which takes place in different locations each year – usually a suitably grand palace is chosen for the event. Anyone with proper costume and mask who is able to dance the quadrilles and other steps of a few centuries ago may join in. Tickets can cost in excess of €200, plus the outlay for costume hire. Saturday and Sunday are given over to musical and theatrical performances in Piazza San Marco and other locations. Calcio storico (a medieval approximation of football in period costume) matches are played on Piazza San Marco, also the scene for a parade of the best and most ornate costumes (the parade is repeated on Tuesday). On the Sunday, a beautiful procession of decorated boats and gondolas carrying masked passengers wends its way serenely down the Grand Canal.
Where did you spend your best ever carnival?
Dip into Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals and follow the world's finest parties.