Mardi Gras is crazy in New Orleans—but Europe’s celebrations may have it beat.
New Orleans’s wild celebrations are world-famous—but Europe’s carnival season is even wilder.
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Sure, Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans are world famous and worth experiencing firsthand—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t equally insane festivities to be enjoyed elsewhere. Even the famed Mardi Gras beads are hard-pressed to compete with fruit fights, marching throngs of men in identical masks, and smoked-fish showers. Want something wild and delightfully weird this Carnival season? Set your sights on Europe.
Crazy Days and Bars with No Closing Time
Germany’s craziest carnival starts earlier than most: November 11. The “crazy days,” however, are temporarily called off during the Christmas season and resume after epiphany on January 6. But the real fun begins on Weiberfastnacht (Fat Thursday) and goes on until Ash Wednesday. There’s a street festival and parades, and bars have no legally imposed closing time. Anyone can participate in Saturday’s Ghost Parade. The one caveat? Costumes have to be ghost-themed.
Want to blend in during the festivities? Get costumed up and make sure to greet other festival-goers with “Kölle Alaaf!” which means “Cologne above all!” And while you’re out and about, be sure to try to spot the Dreigestirn—three locals who pay handsomely to portray the Jungfrau (Virgin), Prinz (prince), and Bauer (farmer) in the parades. Fun fact: The Virgin is usually portrayed by a man (no beards or mustaches allowed), but for a short time during the Nazi regime, the German government ordered that the role be played by a woman.
The Battle of the Oranges
What’s wilder than drunken party people throwing plastic beads and flashing each other? Italy’s biggest food fight. Ivrea in northern Italy holds an organized orange-throwing fight among nine teams on foot and 40 teams in carts.
So where did this unusual tradition come from, anyway? Local legend says it started after a nobleman tried to rape the miller’s daughter and ended up getting his due–the brave young woman decapitated him and then led the locals in storming and burning the palace. The oranges used in today’s battle represent stones and old weapons wielded by the villagers.
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You can watch the orange fight each day at 2 p.m. from the sides of the streets or behind protective netting for an 8-euro entrance fee, or sign up to join one of the pedestrian teams (the cost of membership varies by team). If you don’t want to be considered a target, be sure to pick up a Berretti Frigio hat from one of the street vendors or bring your own red-slouchy stocking cap as a substitute.
Cliques and Confetti Bombs
It’s one thing for the party to end in the wee hours of the morning—but it’s quite another for it to begin before dawn. Basler Fasnacht, Basel’s 72-hour carnival celebration begins at 4 a.m. on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Groups of musicians called Cliques dress up in costumes and parade through the darkened streets of the city’s old town to the light of headlamps and lanterns, banging drums and playing piccolos.
Switzerland’s biggest carnival celebration is a week later than those in the rest of Europe. Why? No one’s sure, but it may have to do with it being one of Europe’s (and the world’s) oldest Carnival celebrations, as the date is thought to have been changed after the Protestant Reformation in 1520 to differentiate it from Catholic customs.
Over the course of three days and multiple parades, about 18,000 participants march around town, singing, playing instruments, and throwing confetti—all in full costumes, including masks. In fact, it’s considered the height of bad form for participants to take off their masks for any reason during parades—the point is for everyone to be unrecognizable.
Fair warning: As beads are to Mardi Gras, confetti is to Basel, so expect to spend extra time removing it from your hair and clothes after these parades. If you’d prefer not to get confetti-bombed, spend a few francs on a Fasnacht badge—it’ll show you support the participants and afford you some goodwill from fellow revelers. Another rule to follow should you choose to retaliate: Never mix confetti colors or pick it up from the ground to throw at other people—it’s just not done.
Taming the Beast
In this tiny village in the Spanish Pyrenees, locals put on an unusual show the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. Every year two young men are chosen to dress up and play their parts—one of a wild beast from the mountain caves and the other of the huntsman. The huntsman chases the beast around town as it terrorizes revelers of all ages mingling in the streets over tapas and beer and wine in plastic cups, but tends to pay special attention to small children and attractive young women.
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At the end of the night, the beast is put on trial in the town square for everything that’s gone wrong in the village over the past year (but ironically not for scaring small girls in Disney princess costumes), and unless the villagers vote to spare him (a rare occurrence), he’s put to “death” for his sins and dragged around town as a trophy.
Giants and Herring-Throwing
Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France
February 11 and 18
France’s noisiest carnival celebration has its origins in the town’s heritage as a port and fishing village. Every winter, before the fishermen made the dangerous trip to Newfoundland or Iceland to fish, ship owners would hold a feast for the men and their families before departure.
During the festivities, revelers take to the streets in costumes, carrying long-handled umbrellas in bright prints and colors to dance and sing to the music of brass bands and orchestras. Unsurprisingly, the most popular costume is that of a fisherman with a traditional yellow coat.
During the three days of festivities, massive 20-foot-tall puppets called reuzes are carried around town and are sometimes married in entertaining ceremonies (to return in later years with children). Looking for something traditional to eat? Head to the City Hall around 5 p.m. on Shrove Tuesday, when over 1,000 pounds of smoked herring are thrown down into the crowds from the building’s balcony—carefully wrapped, of course. Just don’t be surprised if you have to elbow through the crowd to catch some fish and fight to keep it.
Wax Masks and World Heritage
Forget the Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta. In Binche, Belgium, red-bearded Gilles is the mask to have—it’s so important to local tradition that the masks can only be worn by locals (local status is determined by birth or by residence in the city for five years or more), and it’s forbidden to leave town with one. This celebration, dating back to the 14th century, has been awarded Intangible Heritage of Humanity status by UNESCO.
Want to give yourself a little scare? Watch the Gilles parade around on Shrove Tuesday—in identical wax masks and traditional outfits, their shirts stuffed with straw to create a hunchback, jingling as they stroll around town carrying bundles of sticks to ward off bad spirits and baskets of blood oranges to throw at the crowd for luck. Don’t throw them back—it’s considered an insult.
Crazy for Carnival but not as excited about winter weather in Europe? Come warmer weather, there’s the Carnaval Tropical in Paris and Notting Hill Carnival in London. For something more traditional, try Acireale’s Grotesque Floats carnival—held in the Italian city’s baroque old town in August.
This article was published in 2017 and has been updated with the 2018 dates.
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