2021 UPDATE: Pretty much all major carnivals around the world have been cancelled for 2021 due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, although a handful have soldiered on with extremely limited or no crowds. We of course recommend staying home and staying safe, especially if that’s the law wherever you’re reading this. However, we’re already looking forward to seeing all of these exceptional events listed below return in full force in 2022, and you should too – make your future travel plans now!
Mardi Gras is still a few days away, so we can only hope that you are already hard at work on your costume for the celebrations in mid-February, Carnival season is well and truly raging all over Europe, and explosions of colour can be found in every corner of our delicious continent. Here are some of our favourites, although be prepared to start drinking well before lunchtime if you choose to visit.
Sa Sartiglia Oristano, Sardinia
Two hectic days of superb horsemanship – those fearless equestrian acrobats! – the thunderous rhythms of galloping hooves reinforced by the rolling of drums and blare of trumpets; the roars of applause from the hundreds, the thousands, of local people and visitors who have poured into the usually sleepy town centre of Oristano. But what is all this about? What actually happens? Why are all these people here? Sounds like a particularly jolly street party with everyone in fancy dress and horses charging around. You’ll definitely want to read more here.
Carnaval de Nice, France
While not as heralded as its carnival brethren in Venice or Switzerland, for our money there’s no more impressive carnival celebration in all of Europe than the Carnaval de Nice. There are all sorts of activities happening during the carnival like dancing, music and floats – lots and lots of floats! – all of which occur on the Promenade des Anglais and Place Massena.
Throughout the rest of the year, Cerknica is a sleepy Slovenian village just trying to make its own way. The madness is saved up and dolled out on Fat Thursday, when the town is taken over by the so-called Butalci. First the locals must deal with the witch, before a variety of characters both amusing and terrifying patrol the centre of town, as revellers indulge in all manner of debauchery. If you think Slovenia is a peaceful, quiet country, you’ve not been to Cerknica for carnival.
Lucerne’s Fasnacht celebration starts early (5:00 to be exact), but we definitely recommend wiping the sleep from your eyes and getting out there for the beginning. You don’t want to miss Bruder Fritschi opening proceedings with the Urknall (loud bang) and Fötzeliräge (confetti rain). The celebration ends with plenty of live music and lanterns, a comforting end to an unusual festival.
Croatia’s biggest carnival, the celebration that takes place in Rijeka is unlike any other in the nation, and this year there’s even more reason to celebrate as Rijeka is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2020. The carnival has always taken on greater importance here than in the rest of Croatia, and the festival was traditionally attended by the highest strands of Habsburg society. The entire town is taken over by Meštar Toni at this time, with the arrival of the Zvončari the main event. Don’t let your kids see them though, unless you want the little ones to be awake for the foreseeable future.
It almost goes without saying really. If Venice holds a particular version of any celebration, Venice should be included on a list about it. The carnival is no different. Venetian masks are famous all over the globe, and the most intricate of designs are saved for this Springtime celebration. The award for most beautiful mask is one of the most important of the carnival, showcasing the Venetian attention to detail that is savoured across the world.
You can be forgiven for not being overly familiar with the little town of Rumšiškės, some 12 miles east of the historic city of Kaunas. The Užgavėnės festival is one of the oldest of its kind however, as Lithuanians come together to drive winter away once and for all (until next year). An effigy of winter is burnt as theatrical figures fight away the barren cold. Did we mention the pancakes? Plenty of them going around as well.
Carnival in Malta is certainly the most colourful event of the year. Brightly-coloured carnival floats shout out luminous colours and earth-shaking music as they vie for your attention and that of the Malta carnival competition judging panel. The capital Valletta takes centre stage during this boisterous time. Its streets and squares overflow with carnival parades and party-goers dressed up as all sorts of things. Paceville, Malta’s nightlife hotspot, gets even crazier as late-night carnival-goers wander around in outrageous outfits. For a more macabre version, head to Nadur village on Gozo.
Apokries centres around celebrations in honour of the God of wine and joy, so do we really need to say anything else? Debauchery is the name of the game in the Greek capital in the lead up to the 40-day fast, as visitors and locals alike take every opportunity to put their feet up and indulge. Home parties take over, before everyone descends on the atmospheric bars to bring the festival to a heady high.