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Posted by on in World Travel

Carnival - two very different celebrations

In many parts of the world around this time of the year carnival in some form or other is taking place and here I'm going to tell you about two very different carnival celebrations.  Originally associated with a big blow out before the restrictions of Lent, depending on the location carnival nowadays isn’t necessarily on during the days just before lent but usually takes place sometime in February-March.  Of course many carnivals do take place in the few days leading up to Lent, but some, like the notorious Notting Hill carnival in London, happen at a completely different time of the year.  Our local carnival on the Côte d’Azur, Carnaval de Nice, lasts just over two weeks and is timed to coordinate with the winter school holidays optimising visitor numbers to the max.  It is in full flow now.

Nice Carnival French Riviera

Nice Carnival

I've written plenty about Nice carnival before (see further reading at the end of this post) but over the last couple of years it's changed, unfortunately in my opinion, for the worse, as it no longer has any free areas.  Under the guise of “security” all access areas are now paying which I think is totally wrong and contrary to the spirit of carnival.  I’m not sure if I’ll go this year or not which is sad because I used to love it.  You used to be able to wander around freely and mingle with the floats and their bands of followers, all for free, whih is how it should be as far as I'm concerned.

Nice carnival up close

Now, even having paid you are mainly kept behind barriers.  I’m not against having a paid area, in the viewing stands, where you are guaranteed a seat, but to have no free area at all is a terrible shame.  

Nice behind barriersIt’s supposed to be a people’s festival, and it couldn’t be more different to the best carnival experience I ever had.  And that was at….

Trinidad Carnival

Many moons ago, JF and I went to Trinidad carnival in Port-of-Spain.  Billed as the “greatest show on earth” it’s hard to beat the incredible joie de vivre and effervescent happiness at this very special event.  Everyone gets involved and it’s a spectacular leveler: for 3 days everyone is equal, no matter where you come from, what your socio-economic status is, your race, religion or sexual orientation, everyone joins in and is treated the same.  I didn’t take many photos, this was pre-digital and certainly way before the convenience of a smart phone, but back in those days I made albums and stuck newspaper cuttings in alongside my photos.  In the photos from the Trinidad Guardian below there are pictures of the Prime Minister’s wife and Leader of the Opposition, both in full “mas”!  

Trinidad newspaper cuttings

“Mas” is short for masquerade, in other words, dressed up/in costume/in disguise.  Bands have a theme and locals and people from all over the world alike can sign up to join the band, wearing the appropriate “mas”.  For a good description of joining a band read here

Carnival Trinidad 1997

But of course you don’t have to join a band, and we didn’t.  In fact we knew very little about what we were getting ourselves into as this was before the internet, before blogs and Pinterest.  The only “research” we’d done would have been to read a paragraph in a guide book, if that!  JF and I took an old cargo ship from Barbados, via St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines to Port of Spain.  The ship had a few very basic cabins for passengers and despite the rudimentary level of comfort and the very small number of passengers, this was a party ship!  It was to be our home for the return voyage and four days at carnival, somewhere to lay our heads down for the odd snooze in between manic “fete-ing” (partying).  And the party started as we climbed on board, the small deck was stacked with enormous speakers blasting out that year’s soca hits “Big Truck” and “Follow the Leader”.  (Click to listen to the sounds of carnival 1997). People were “wine-ing”, bumping and grinding, quite an eye-opener even for open-minded well travelled folk like us, and it didn’t stop for the week long trip!

Carnival in Trinidad goes from the Sunday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday taking in Dimanche Gras, J’ouvert, and Mas; it’s a time of competitions, flamboyant costumes, loud music (soca, calypso and steel pans), dancing (in particular "wine-ing") and partying (also called fete-ing).   We arrived in time to see Kiddie Carnival which was a more wholesome family-oriented affair on the Saturday, but nevertheless impressive, with kids decked out and dancing to soca and steel pans. 

kiddie carnival Trinidad 1997

The next day, Dimanche Gras, competitions took place to choose the Calypso Monarch and crown the Kings and Queens of the bands.  Luckily it was a relaxed, reasonably calm day because everything really took off at “j’ouvert” in the early hours of Monday.  This crazy event takes place in the middle of the night and consists of everyone getting covered in mud and paint and it’s pretty hard to avoid getting splattered.  This is a time for old clothes, definitely not carnival costumes.

jouvert Trinidad 1997

I remember sneaking back to the ship at dawn to grab a couple of hours of sleep before heading out to Carnival Monday.  On the Monday the mas bands start parading but on a casual scale, with revellers only wearing parts of their costumes.  This is not the big competition day yet.  We wandered around, following trucks with steel bands and dancing in the streets.  The weather wasn’t great, with some heavy rain, but it didn’t dampen the fun, just refreshed us a little!

Trinidad carnival 1997 drinks

Finally on the Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the bands put on their greatest show, with full make-up, costumes and hundreds if not thousands of frenzied followers decked out in the theme of the band.  The atmosphere was electric: an explosion of unbelievable energy, vibrant colours, blasting sounds, enormous smiles, gyrating “wine-ing” bodies, stupendous costumes, steel pans, fabulous street food, rum, Carib beer and very very sore feet!  Hours and hours of dancing, shuffling and following along with the different bands took its toll on our poor feet, but we were young and partied on to the very end.  One abiding memory is that we were told it stopped at midnight on Tuesday and with party mode in full flow only minutes before the clock struck twelve we really didn’t believe it would end then.  But it did.  On the strike of midnight, everyone faded away home and street cleaners came out in force.  Lent had begun and the party was over.  I have no idea if it is still as strict as it was back then but it was impressive to see such an abrupt end to three full on intense days of fete-ing.  On Ash Wednesday we toured the island, chilling out on some beautiful beaches, still in awe that the party had so thoroughly dissolved. 

music carnival Trinidad 1997

Carnival in Trinidad really is one of my most special travel memories.  From our unique means of transport/accommodation to the incredible festival itself, it was one of a kind and every year when Carnival comes to Nice I remember it with an enormous smile on my face.  Pulling out my old photos, finding the music on YouTube and writing about it has me grinning from ear to ear.  Click here if you'd like to find out more about Trinidad carnival and its traditions and more than anything I recommend you experience it (at least) once in a lifetime.

Have you been to carnival anywhere?  I'd love to hear your experiences.


Related reading

Lemon Festival on the Côte d'Azur - Menton's Fête du Citron

Battling with flowers and the meaning of carnival in Nice

Nice Carnival, a colourful tonic for the winter blues


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 Carnival in Nice and Trinidad


Wander Mum
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  • Guest
    Trish Monday, 05 March 2018

    We loved the Nice carnival when our son was little - the freedom to wander around, throw silly string, get up close to the floats. It's a shame it's changed but it's understandable.
    In my own town of Spalding in Lincolnshire we had a tulip festival every year with floats etc. That's now finished - not enough tulips being grown in the area (although we used to bring them in from Norfolk) but mainly it became too expensive: security costs just became too high. Such a pity.

  • Guest
    Clare (Suitcases and Sandcastles) Monday, 05 March 2018

    That does seem a shame about the Nice Carnival. I agree that it doesn't seem quite in the spirit of the thing to charge for everything. I loved reading about the Trinidad Carnival. It sounds crazy, but fun. I've been to the Notting Hill Carnival, of course, but would really love to experience it in other places around the world. #FarawayFiles

  • Guest
    Urska Monday, 05 March 2018

    Isn't interesting how differently is the same event celebrated in different parts of the world?Such a shame they restricted the free access to the carnival in Nice. Is it really that popular, they can afford to do this? #FarawayFiles

  • Guest
    http://Elizabeth (Wander Mum) Saturday, 03 March 2018

    The Trinidad festival sounds spectacular! What wonderful memories. I enjoyed being taken away with you back there. Shane about the Nice festival - paying to join in really isn’t in keeping with its spirit. Thanks for linking #citytripping

  • Guest
    Katy Thursday, 01 March 2018

    Love the contrasts. How about comparing with Moomba in Melbourne? Yeah, let's not!! I'd love to visit both of these carnivals but I think the Trinidad version would be my pick. Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

  • Guest
    hilary Wednesday, 28 February 2018

    Funny, but I've been to New Orleans 6 times, but never for carnival season... My husband went when he was young, and I suppose he's one and done, so I haven't been able to convince him. I'd love to see a carnival someday, and these both look like great choices, though I know what you mean about paying for something that used to be open to all. #citytripping

  • Guest
    Tanja/The red phone box travels Wednesday, 28 February 2018

    Nice carnival looks amazing as well as the other one:) check my blog for a story about another carnival too:) in Croatia

  • Guest
    Sandra Wednesday, 28 February 2018

    It is interesting to see the different takes on carnivals different countires have. The only one I've ever been to was carnival in Cologne.

  • Guest
    http://Annabel Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    I’ve been to Venice and Viareggio, both completely different but equally wonderful. We took the kids to a local carnival in Spain a few years ago which was amazknf, the kids hadn’t seen anything like it before so they totally loved it. I would love to go to another one again. I’d heard good things about Trinidad, your experience sounds amazing!. #Citytripping

  • Guest
    Christine Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    Wow, the Trinidad carnival sounds amazing. Your boat journey does too! I think I’m a little past partying all hours now but I’d certainly still enjoy the sights and sounds. Of the carnival. #citytripping

  • Guest
    California Globetrotter Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    We seriously almost came to Nice for Carnival but opted instead to go to Belgium instead! My first visit to Nice, I really want nice weather and to lay out on the beaches! But I will one day go to Nice for the Carnival! #CityTripping

  • Guest
    Taste of France Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    The little town of Limoux in Languedoc does what's billed as the world's longest carnival. It's nice because the town really gets into it and it's small enough that it isn't commercial or restricted behind pay walls.
    Another great Carnival is Venice, of course. The weather--all fog and mist--adds to the setting, as locals dress up in magnificent velvet robes to sweep like phantoms through the streets. Like a scene out of Amadeus.

  • Guest
    Catherine Tuesday, 27 February 2018

    I do remember your sore feet and the cabin on your cargo boat didn't have a window. Happy memories.

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Guest Monday, 18 June 2018

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