In the days and weeks leading up to the 40 self-denying days of Lent, cities and villages across the globe celebrate with abandon. In anticipation of Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras (‘Fat’ or ‘Shrove’ Tuesday) functions as the reveller’s last hurrah. We have it to thank for some of the biggest and most fascinating parties in the world, from New Orleans’ famed bacchanal with strings of beads that have the power to make audiences drop trou, to sleepy Bolivian mountain towns that turn to worship colourful demons.
An army of Gilles in Binche, Belgium
While Rio’s and New Orleans’ carnival troupes are in perennial competition for glitziest floats and outfits, there’s no question who the star of Belgium’s most peculiar Mardi Gras celebration is. Every Shrove Tuesday the small Walloon town of Binche is overrun by a homogenous sea of Gilles: strange, clown-like figures with boxy bodies, white masks and towering headdresses made of ostrich feathers. Inside these costumes reside men and boys – Gilles know no age – of just about every family in the village. To get to be a Gilles and take part in the over 400-year-old parade, throwing oranges at the crowd (consider them gifts) and waving stick bundles (to chase away evil spirits) is considered a great honour. Read more about how Binche’s heroes go about their UNESCO-listed celebration here.
Splendid color in Goa, India
Introduced to the Indian coast region by the Portuguese in the early 16th-century, Goa’s carnival has mashed together the best of Christian and Hindu cultures. Vasco da Gama and consorts may be long gone, the seaside province, now a favoured summer sojourn to national and international tourists, has kept one of its occupiers’ best traditions. Starting the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the Goans pull together outfits of splendid colour, Hindu gods and tons of singing and dancing to lead pre-Mardi Gras festivities deep into the night.
Beads and birthday suits in New Orleans, US
A raucous crowd of over a million revellers descends on New Orleans’ French Quarter every year, readying themselves for a spectacle of epic proportions – and the chance to take off their clothes in exchange for a string of beads. Over the course of a fortnight, over 50 parades converge in Louisiana’s largest metropolis. As joyous onlookers are pelted with beads and panties by stilt-walking creatures and scantily clad, glittering dancers echo the origin of the word Carnival – derived from the Italian carnevale with Latin roots meaning ‘goodbye to flesh’ – the experience can feel like a fever dream. Responsible for the madness are New Orleans’ krewes, clubs with their own royalty and grand personalities, who each organise a parade and work their hardest throughout the year to trump the competition with gaudy floats. All of this culminates in the final day, Mardi Gras, in one of the biggest bacchanals known to the US.
All-night calypso rhythms in Trinidad
Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival qualifies as the wildest party on the Caribbean islands bar none. In the weeks running up to Ash Wednesday, painted bodies and masqueraders girate their way down the streets in all-night fetes, taking their cue from the calypso and soca sounds emerging from tireless steel bands and singers. No matter how insane the sleepless nights, all is generally topped by the all-out saturnalia that starts at noon the final day.
European sophistication at the Carnivale di Venezia, Italy
Further fuelling the most romantic ideas people have swirling in their heads of Venice, La Serenissima’s Carnevale plays up the mystery with a flurry of masqueraded balls leading up to Lent. During these feasts champagne flows, costumes are lush and the masks that are worn are elaborate pieces of feathered, beaded, enigmatic art. Preferring sophistication over Hellenic drinking scenes, guests are expected to arrive at these galas – tickets to some of which can be procured at the festival’s website – shining with Old World splendour.
Cool down in Quebec City, Canada
While Mardi Gras may not immediately bring to mind images of ice sculpture shows and canoe races on icy rivers, the Canadians have found their own special ways to go wild during the coldest month of the year. An après-ski atmosphere is embraced, with outdoor sports such as cross-country skiing, ice skating, dog sledding and snow rafting building up to the merriment. Icon of Quebec City during these days is Bonhomme, a jovial and giant snowman whose ice palace on the Place de l’Assemblée Nationale takes two months to assemble and whose effigy and signature red arrowhead sash are everywhere. To keep you warm there’s stiff, syrupy drinks like Caribou, served in red-and-white plastic canes, and Canadian classics such as BeaverTails (a deep-fried, doughy treat topped with peanut butter and maple syrup) should fatten you up nice and good before Lent swings around.
Electrifying excess in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Few do carnival like the Brazilians, with waves of parades so jaw-dropping they have earned the five-day event in Rio the nickname ‘greatest show on earth’. With a sense of Latin rhythm that speaks to the bodies of all who are lucky to attend, it’s the seaside city’s famed samba schools that practice year-long who lend the happening its boundless vibrancy. Making their way up the Sambódromo stadium’s kilometre-long strip, performing elaborately choreographed allegories and moving their scantily-clad bodies in ravishing themed outfits in hopes of taking home the Grand Champion title, they are the beating heart of Carnival.
Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia
Closing in on its 40th anniversary, Sydney’s Mardi Gras Parade bathes in rainbow flags, disco music and LGBTQ flair. What started with a political protest in 1978 to raise awareness for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community has grown into a Mardi Gras-inspired party with tight outfits and glitzy floats, attended by hundreds of thousands of revellers and allies. The festive mood is used to shine a spotlight on lesser-known subsets of the community, to spread messages of tolerance and love, and to a certain extent to note which dignitaries and politicians will attend – and which will remain noticeably absent.
Demon dancing at Oruro Carnival, Bolivia
3,700-meters up high in a miner’s town on a remote Bolivian plane, it’s possible to dance with the devil. On the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Oruro, an otherwise drowsy town in the Andean mountains, is the setting for a feast of massive proportions. Blending Christian influences of the Spanish conquerer with the long-standing mythologies of the Uru people, Oruro’s parades are icon and demon-heavy. The 10-day frenzy is kicked off by the arrival of the malevolent El Tio and hundreds of horned demons with bulging eyes. Later, the devil faces off against Archangel Michael in the diablada, a showy battle representing the triumph of Good over Evil.
Get Dionysian in Patras, Greece
Land of Dionysus, God of wine and general all-consuming ecstasy, it’s no surprise Greece has a Mardi Gras extravaganza of its own. While the Greeks technically don’t have a ‘Fat Tuesday’, they do observe a ‘Clean Monday’ as their start of Lent, on which all indulgences make way for a period of clean living. In the mountain-circled Patras, they take their preparations seriously and start the party early on St. Patrick’s Day, January 17. Known for its great number of events, Venice-inspired balls and parade-filled blowout on the last weekend, Patrino Karnavali rivals Trinidad in its participatory spirit.