Although most of us when mentioning the world carnival might instantly think of Sydney, Rio or New Orleans, Europe can still lay claim to the oldest and proudest Mardi Gras tradition. The historical importance of the religious celebrations preceding the start of Lent is marked by the diverse and colorful local festivals celebrated throughout European cities each year. From the famous masked balls in Venice, to the riotous and vibrant carnival in Tenerife, these occasions are a must see for wine lovers who enjoy glamor, excitement and the decadence of lavish celebrations.
The following five cities represent the best of Europe’s carnival tradition and welcome the spring season in impeccable style:
Venice Carnival or Carnevale is the very epitome of extravagance, a masked ball that traditionally ended on Shrove Tuesday and began on December 26th, which is celebrated as St Stephen’s Day in Venice, as in Ireland. Today, however, the festivities continue into the middle of February, as visitors flock from far and wide to enjoy the most decadent fancy-dress party on earth. The carnival has a history that dates back many hundreds of years; Venetians have been celebrating Carnevale since the 15th century. The popularity of masked balls and carnivals rocketed during this period in Europe and became an integral part of any cultural event in Venice. The mask, as well as serving a decorative function could nicely conceal the identity of the wearer, which became highly popular in political circles, as well as for celebrations.
Other European cities started to copy the Venice formula and order their own masks from the Venetian workshops. In Venice, private clubs would organize masked balls and street entertainment – the elite simply had to be seen at these events! Carnevale reached its heyday in the 18th century, as the Venetian Republic collapsed and social conventions and rules were relaxed. The event became increasingly hedonistic, with lavish displays of wealth, processions and festivals held in St Marks Square. Sadly, after Napoleon invaded in 1797 the carnival tradition fell into decline, the Italian ruler Mussolini subsequently banned the wearing of masks and so carnival was no more. That was until 1979, when the first event in several decades exploded into the Venetian scene and the city has not looked back since. Today, the undisputed highlight is the Gran Ballo delle Maschere or Doge’s Ball, which takes place in different locations across Venice, usually in a grand palace or residence.
The costumes, masks and general extravagance on display is unrivaled. Prior the the Grand Masked Ball, the celebration begins with a masked procession through Piazza San Marco and around. The following weekend sees a multitude of wonderful musical and theatre performances in San Marco and other locations, with Sunday reserved for a stunning procession of gondolas carrying masked passengers down the Grand Canal. Of course, plenty of other events take place and are open to anyone who is prepared to pay. This year, visitors can enjoy the masked “Enchanted Palace” Ball, which takes place in an ancient palace on the Grand Canal. Expect cocktails, lavish costume, fine dining and partying aplenty. There is also the “Feast of the Gods Event”, which takes place in a sixteenth century palace under frescoes painted by Giovanni Bellini. Join in the celebrations as Bacchus, the god of wine and Mercury invite you to join their feasting, drinking and merry making. For more information on these and other events, go to www.venicecarnival-italy.com Finally, don’t forget to secure your mask well in advance of the party! Book an appointment to have a mask made.
While in Venice, why not go exploring the Prosecco wine roads, the delicious sparkling wine made in the gentle hills around Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Great Prosecco houses include Bisol and Bortolomiol, two faves.
Each year Tenerife holds one of Europe’s largest and most riotous carnivals, a three week extravaganza that attracts hundreds of thousand of visitors and culminates in a 24 hour party on Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. It has been celebrated on the island for centuries and visitors to Tenerife such as Lope Antonio de la Guerra Pena in the 18th century spoke of dancing and conga music in the capital Santa Cruz. However, when Franco came to power he banned the festivities, which got back into their full swing after his death in 1975 upon his death. The carnival was subsequently a vehicle with which to lambast the Catholic Church and its relationship with the Fascists – today people often dress up to lampoon religious figures, naughty nuns being a popular costume!
Tenerife is now twinned with Rio de Janeiro, and shares some of the vigor and debauchery of that world famous carnival in Brazil. Next year it runs from 26th February to 9th March, carnival season is officially opened with a gala for the election of the Carnival Queen and ends with the ceremonial burning of the sardine festival, an event totally unique to the island of Tenerife.The ‘sardine’ is in fact a collection of rags and cloths, paraded around Santa Cruz de Tenerife followed by hysterical mourners! It is quite a sight to behold! But the main attraction is most definitely the gala parade, a spectacular affair with stunning examples of fancy dress on display, elaborate floats, fireworks and much drinking and parting centered around the beautiful Plaza de España in Santa Cruz.
That said, the carnival involves far more than just one central parade and loads of stalls and events are set up in areas across the city. There are also competitions galore: murgas, rondallas, comparsas, all essentially dance competitions and a fancy dress competition for good measure. Make sure you don’t miss the grand gala for the election of Carnival Queen, the day after there is a delightful musical concert in the Guimera theater. And don’t think that the fun ends on Ash Wednesday, as the weekend of La Piñata Chica follows shortly after with more partying in the Plaza de Principe. So head out on 9th of March for what will undoubtedly be the best street festival of your life. More info on Tenerife´s Carnival events this year.
Tenerife for Wine Lovers– While on this beautiful island, don´t miss tasting spectacular local wines from the Crater bodega. Enjoy stellar food and wine in one of the most beautiful settings on earth at Terrazas del Sauzal, and El Burgado is also unmissable.
Capital of the Cote d’Azur, Nice holds a suitably glamorous and elaborate carnival celebration each year across its splendid squares, parks and the famous Promenade des Anglais. Its temperate winter climate and fantastic setting makes it the perfect location for a carnival to remember. The celebration starts mid February and ends at the start March, over two weeks of non-stop partying. Nice Carnival has had a long and distinguished reign: history records that the event was established in the 13th century, by Charles Anjou, the Count of Provence. In 1294, the Count made references to “the joyous days of carnival” suggesting that Nice Carnival is in fact the original and oldest carnival celebration in existence. Each year the carnival’s organizers choose a different theme for the celebrations, 2014 is the year of the “King of Gastronomy” so expect cuisine to dominate the parade and events that entertain revelers who flock to the Promenade de Anglais each year.
However, Nice Carnival is most famous for the Bataille de Fleurs (Battle of Flowers) which takes place on various dates throughout the Carnival season. Members of the parade fiercely battle to outdo each other with spectacular floral displays on floats that line the Promende de Anglais. As the procession moves through Nice, flowers are thrown into the crowds, stalls selling delicious local delicacies fill the air with enticing smells and the city seems to literally buzz with excitement. The festivities officially start with the Carnival Procession, heralding the arrival of the Carnival King in the beautiful Place Massena. Local residents spend months designing over 20 elaborate floats, which will take the theme of the year.
But perhaps the most eye-catching sight is the giant puppets marching through Nice, called Grosses Tetes, accompanied by hundreds of musicians, street artists and dancers that come from all over the world. The chosen King then takes the key to the city and declares a brief reign of excess! Highlights include the unmissable Zuma party and the awe-inspiring closing firework display over the Baie de Anges, officially ending the proceeding. For more information on this unmissable carnival event, check out info on Nice Carnival here.
Nice for wine lovers– Nice is the gateway to Provence. You are less than an hour away from dreamy hilltop villages where you can stay in gorgeous country properties tasting stellar rosé wines in situ. In Nice itself you have some fab little wine bars, we love La Part des Anges, La Cave de l’Origine and Cave de la Tour.
Second only to Tenerife in the sheer scope and originality of its carnival tradition, Cadiz carnival is a riotous, ten day celebration that literally turn the city into one big party. It is the highlights of any self-respecting Gaditanos calender, indeed, preparations for the carnival begin almost as soon as one carnival finishes. Historically, Cadiz has laid on a boisterous carnival since the 16th century, when the city thrived as a major trading port for the Americas. Looking across to their Italian neighbors in Venice, the citizens of Cadiz decided to copy their tradition of marking the start of lent and started to organize what would become the liveliest and most elaborate carnival in mainland Spain. It was the one celebration that the Fascist dictator could not ban, due to the overwhelming protest and resistance for the local Gaditanos!
Cadiz’s carnival is essentially one massive street party, with eleven days of elaborate costumes, theater, processions, concerts and above all else, singing! The originality of Cadiz’s lent celebration is impressive, the driving force of the party is an emphasis on music and on the famously witty local inhabitants of Cadiz, whose love of comedy comes shining through in their imaginative displays of satire. These performers are known as Chirigotas: their music and satirical songs provide the central focus each year. In fact, the celebration really starts a month before the official opening day, as various musical groups compete in the “official contest” held at the beautiful Gran Teatro Falla. Over 200 groups will take part in this musical feast, with various categories of performers: Chirigotas, Choirs, Comparsas, Quarters and Romanceros. The Choirs will often also entertain people in the streets, as will the single act Romanceros. The Comparas tend to take the competition more seriously and sing classical songs with deep, romantic leanings. The competition is held 20 days before carnival and in four stages: preliminaries, quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the grand final. Listening to the various performers is a big highlight of the festival, the songs tend to be aimed at ‘debunking’ the cult of celebrity, politicians and the church are also fair game!
The finale is another main attraction of the carnival, held on the first Friday of the celebrations. Performers roam the streets singing their compositions and on the following Monday perform on a central stage for all the city to enjoy. The other key attraction during carnival time is the procession and street parties, as thousands upon thousand of people in elaborate costume party the night away in Cadiz’s old town. In addition, there are gastronomic stalls, various musical concerts and plenty of things to keep the little ones happy; including puppet shows, and the incredible closing fireworks display. Truly, this is a carnival you won’t want to miss.
Cadiz for wine lovers- you are in the Sherry heartland here and this is a supremely interesting spot for wine aficionados. Don´t miss the terrific bodegas of Jerez de la Frontera like Lustau, Fernando de Castilla, González Byass and Domecq. And Angle Leon´s Michelin starred seafood eatery Aponiente is a glamorous place to taste terrific local Sherries paired with unusual and magical fish pairings.
Spain’s delightfully avant-garde, unconventional seaside resort is merely a half-hour away from Barcelona by train, so there’s no excuse for not visiting the next time you set foot in the Catalan capital. Sitges has been a fashionable place for jet-setters and night-owls since the 1960s, and puts on one of Spain’s most outrageous carnivals. It’s a week long riot of the extrovert, the colorful and the exhibitionist, capped by a gay parade along the sea-front promenade. Sitges has been holding carnival celebrations for over a century, although the installation of Franco as Spain’s Fascist dictator in 1939 put a temporary stop to the fun. Today, it is regarded as Spain’s wildest party event and over 200,000 visitors, both Spanish and international, turn out for the carnival. A normally quiet village (in winter at least!) explodes into life with parades, endless parties, local gastronomy, numerous folk dances and outrageous displays – a feast for all the senses.
The inaugural event is the opening Jueves Lardero (Fat Thursday) celebrations, with stalls offering a massive selection of local dishes; Sitges’ citizens seriously pig-out into the evening. It heralds the arrival of King Carnestoltes – the King of the Carnival – who arrives in a great flurry of color and activity. Let the mayhem begin! Sunday 2nd March sees the famous Rua de la Disbauxa, or the Debauchery Parade, an anything goes display of debauchery and outrageous costume, over forty floats usually participate in the fun, carrying up to 2,000 people at a time. However, even this spectacular event is outdone by the Rua de l’Extermini, or Extermination Parade, on the following Tuesday night. This parade marks the end of the festivities, although there is nothing mournful about the celebrations with more riotous displays of dress and kitsch.
Carnival truly ends with the Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday, the large effigy of a sardine buried in Sitges’s sandy beach. Around the same time as carnival, a more sedate but equally unmissable event is taking place – the Corpus Cristi celebrations. They are marked by the creation of floral ‘carpets’ in the streets of central Sites. These can be of incredible complexity and generally consist of geometric designs or religious depictions. They are simply stunningly beautiful so make sure to catch them before they are trampled over when the religious process passes through this delightful city.
Sitges for wine lovers- you are on the doorstep of the Mediterranean Penedes wine country. This is where Spain´s famed Cava, bubbly, is produced and great wines to seek out include Agusti Torello and Pares Balta. Don´t miss a meal at winemaker´s haunt Cal Xim where charming host Santi will take excellent care of you, and while in Sitges itself we love the easy going paella at beach front La Fragata.