Mardi Gras and Carnivals are usually associated with the Carnival of Rio in Brazil or the New Orleans carnival but this festive season is also celebrated in Europe, in particular in France. It used to refer to eating richer before Lent, but is now more associated with public celebrations or parades which take place in many French towns and villages around February and March.
The Nice Carnival on the French Riviera is the most famous. Giant, colourful parades take place day and night, with entertainment provided by over 1,000 musicians and dancers from across the world. Floats are decorated with stunning floral compositions and extravagantly dressed characters throw out mimosas, gerberas and lilies. Ninety percent are produced locally and the event promotes this industry. The parade is made of 18 floats designed on the year’s theme and of other figurines, the most famous ones being made of traditional papier maché. Street theatre and music groups from all over the world also take part. In the evening all the floats are illuminated and the evening parades light up the heart of Nice.
Carnival in Nice
At Dunkirk Carnival the action revolves around fishermen’s bands who confront each other with songs as they parade the streets. A costumed drum major leads the musicians dressed in yellow fishermen’s raincoats while the crowds sing traditional songs and roar their approval. It has all the elements for a successful festival: Giants (who are not burnt), music, satire and a general sense of madness. The parade finishes at the Town Hall where the crowds demand ‘what they deserve’, that is 450 kilos (992 lbs) of kippers which are traditionally thrown off the belfry.
Carnival in Dunkirk
Limoux Carnival, in the South of France is the longest running in the world. It lasts from January till March. The carnival is not so much a parade as a kind of dance, governed by rules handed down from father to son for the past 400 years. Masked players mingle with the crowd, joining up with spectators and musicians to give impromptu performances. The masked participants preceded by musicians, and dancers dressed up as Pierrots, pass from one café to another under the mediaeval arcades of the Republic Square.
Carnival in Limoux
Other famous carnivals include the Annecy carnival which echoes the Venetian Carnival, the Albi carnival, which is one of the oldest in France and where a giant pancake and hundreds of normal ones are eaten. In Granville in Normandy, one of the float is dedicated to raising money for charity. In Bordeaux, the “two-bank Carnival” celebrates each year a different foreign country, Turkey being this year chosen country. Paris’ festival was interrupted for half a century between1952 and 1997 and many Parisians don’t even know it is being celebrated again but it now attracts thousands of visitors.