European Winter Festivals
Winter can seem interminable in Britain, but it’s a different story across the Channel. With Easter arriving in late March, the pre-Lent carnivals are kicking off earlier than usual, bringing some much-needed fun and colour to the dull days of January and February. Grab a mask and join in.
Mary Novakovich is an award-winning travel writer who specialises in France, Italy and Eastern Europe.
If you don’t think Venice is heart-stoppingly beautiful enough, just wait till the Carnevale arrives on 23 January with a riotous parade of floats down the Grand Canal. For 18 days, the city is in full-on party mode, with daily parades and processions. There’s the annual hunt for the young woman chosen to represent Maria, with 12 hopefuls decked out in full Renaissance regalia – definitely not your run-of-the-mill beauty pageant. Dancers in sumptuous 18th century costumes turn Piazza San Marco into a giant ballroom, while a daredevil makes a dramatic entrance by swooping down from the Campanile into the square.
The French Riviera’s biggest city isn’t letting the small matter of Lent interfere with its February carnival. In fact, it begins three days after Ash Wednesday. Over 15 days, this lively city on the Mediterranean hums with fun and frolics as fantastic floats parade along the coast day and night. One event that’s not to be missed is the “battle of the flowers” – get in position along the Promenade des Anglais as thousands of mimosa blooms are thrown from flower-filled floats and grabbed eagerly by spectators keen to get the biggest free bunch of posies they can carry.
There’s more than a hint of Rio in this corner of the Canaries come 3 February, when Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz, sizzles over 12 days of revelry. Festivities take place all over the island, but Santa Cruz has the wildest celebrations – all done to a Brazilian samba beat and dripping with sequins. Thousands take to the streets to join the dancing and singing as the Carnival Queen is chosen in a blinding spectacle. Thanks to Tenerife’s wonderfully balmy winter climate, there’s always a handy beach to sleep off the effects of too much partying.
This elegant resort on the Tuscan coast doesn’t let Venice hog the spotlight during Italy’s carnival season. Since 1873, Viareggio has been the setting for raucous weekly parades that capture the early spirit of carnival perfectly. For a whole year, teams of craftspeople build gargantuan caricatures of everyone from actors to politicians to historical figures, and these enormous creatures are paraded through the streets to a suitably noisy soundtrack. The dancing carries on all night in the resort’s beachfront nightclubs. This year, the spectacle takes over the town every Sunday in February, as well as 5 March.
Croatia’s most magical port wakes up from its chilled-out winter season to get into the carnival spirit in exuberant style. From 5-9 February, revellers parade through the glittering marble streets of the old town. But Dubrovnik has a double festival that month, thanks to its patron saint, St Blaise. On 3 February, the saint is honoured with processions through the town before the spectators settle down for a huge communal lunch.
The French are old hands at basing festivals around food, but Menton’s Fête du Citron takes it a step further. From 13 February to 3 March, this exquisite Riviera town beside the Italian border pays homage to the fragrant lemon with an infectious vibrancy. Colossal floats crafted from citrus fruits are paraded along the seafront during the day, while evenings bring out the bands and the fireworks for night-time frivolity. With Menton’s mild climate and famed 300 days of sunshine a year, the lemon festival is a sure sign that spring is just around the corner.
Did someone say food fight? While Menton celebrates lemons, the people of Ivrea near Turin think that oranges make splendid weapons. In a centuries-old ritual celebrating the town’s liberation from a tyrannical ruler, teams of locals get into a festival frenzy during the Battle of the Oranges, which takes place 6-9 February. Unlike La Tomatina in Spain, where anyone can join in, the Battaglia delle Arance is an organised battle between nine teams. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get a bit chaotic – don’t get too close if you don’t fancy a few bruises.
Winter ends with a bang in Valencia – quite a few of them, in fact. From 15-19 March, the feast of St Joseph is marked with Las Fallas, a manic few days of bonfires, fireworks and fiestas. It all builds up towards the Nit del Foc – Night of Fire – when gigantic papier-mâché figures are set alight all over the city. Anyone flying over Valencia would think the entire city was ablaze. It’s not one for the faint-hearted.
For most of the year, this little town in south-west France’s Aude region quietly gets on with making its celebrated sparkling wine – said to be older than champagne, according to some historians. But from early January until mid-March, Limoux fizzes with weekend dances and parades in what is said to be the longest carnival in the world. Masked players and dancers put on performances as they wander among the cafés in the medieval main square, throwing confetti to the spectators and singing songs passed down from father to son. On the final night of the carnival, Night of the Blanquette, the festivities flow with seemingly endless bottles of sparkling wine.
Croatia’s largest port also puts on the country’s largest carnival. From 17 January to 10 February, the baroque streets and squares of this city on the Kvarner Gulf throngs with thousands of costumed carnival-goers. One of the barmiest spectacles is the masked “Pariz-Bakar” rally, an entertaining take on the Paris-Dakar car rally in which drivers parade their bizarrely decorated cars through the streets towards Korzo, the main square. And it wouldn’t be a carnival without a carnival queen and a special parade just for kids –not to mention a spectacular finale with a massive fireworks display.