The celebrations of Carnival are deeply rooted in tradition, but I suspect in many cultures it’s also morphed into simply a wonderful excuse for a party. By luck or design I’ve been fortunate enough to experience these celebrations in a number of destinations and, while all have their own quirky delights, to my mind, for sheer, unbridled passion you can’t beat the celebrations in Sicily, Tenerife and Malta.
Making Merry in the Mediterranean: Our Favourite Carnivals
There’s no doubt about it: the Mediterraneans know how to put on a party. Barely a week goes by that doesn’t mark some kind of significant religious, historical or cultural date on the calendar. But the most anticipated of all are the celebrations reserved for Carnival, which are marked by street parades, music, feasting and colourful public street parties. Prestige Holidays’ exclusive accommodation collection puts you front and centre of the festivities in three of the best places to experience the joy of Carnival.
Sicily: Carnival of Acireale
The festivities in the Baroque city of Acireale are renowned as the most beautiful in Sicily. Many go as far to claim in all of Italy – and I count myself in that camp. It’s also one of the oldest Sicilian festivals, dating back to Renaissance times, in 1594. Held at the end of February, it is the most important cultural event of the year, with artisans displaying their exquisite craftsmanship through mask making and construction of the floats for the grand street parades.
Traditions Old and New
In ancient times the highlights of the festivities were the folk poets, known as the abbatazzi, who wandered the streets making up rhymes, and the cassariata, noblemen who distributed sweets and confetti to the crowds. The twentieth century heralded the tradition of the papier-mâché floats you see today, which offer a mix of symbolic historical and religious themes and satirical depictions of contemporary public figures, including politicians and celebrities. The result of what is often an entire year’s work, adorned with thousands of fresh flowers and complex lighting systems, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Aside from the parades, there’s an endless procession of folk musicians, dancing and food, glorious Sicilian food. The celebrations culminate with the Burning of the Carnival King at the stake, accompanied by a spectacular fireworks display. As with everything else in Sicily, this time of the year is simply magical.
My tip: As well as the full-sized floats, keep an eye out for the miniaturized versions of each one – the detail is astounding.
My Hotel Recommendation
If you want to get into the swing of the Carnival fun in Sicily, I can’t recommend the lovely Palazzo Failla highly enough. Like most Italian family-run hotels it really is the people and wonderful hospitality that sets it apart. It offers a truly authentic oasis of Baroque charm, and its setting in a lovely quiet part of Modica Alta affords you a welcome respite from the activity of festival celebrations.
The Maltese archipelago has been celebrating their tradition of Carnival for more than five centuries. The week-long event takes place in February leading up to Ash Wednesday and, as one would expect from such a warm, exuberant people as the Maltese, the festivities are joyful, colourful and absolutely inclusive to visitors.
Music, Masks and Merriment
The proceedings are opened with a sword dance, representative of the defeat of the Turks in the sixteenth century, followed by a musical extravaganza comprising everything from folk to DJs on the turntables. The crux of the event is the parade of magnificent floats that make their way through the streets of Valletta – and it’s a fierce (but good-natured) competition for the most impressive. You’ll also be able to work your way through the parties, masked balls, feasting, dancing and competitions for the most grotesque mask.
Historically, these celebrations have been symbolic of the excesses of the noble orders, which translated down to the locals as an opportunity for their own merriment. Today, they are an eclectic blend of old and new traditions, which, to me, is a perfect embodiment of the charming local people themselves.
My tip: Don’t miss the absolutely mouth-watering Prinjolata cake, which is made especially for Carnival time.
My Hotel Recommendation
Putting you just a short walk from the main street of Valletta, the magnificent Grand Hotel Excelsior is my top pick for your accommodation in Malta. It overlooks the ocean and the views are absolutely outstanding. For a large, contemporary hotel there’s certainly no compromise on the wonderful warm Maltese welcome and the service is superb. The hotel’s unbeatable position really does provide the best of both worlds.
Tenerife: Carnival of Santa Cruz
Every February the locals of Tenerife switch to party mode – and they don’t turn it off until at least the first week of March. Of all the celebrations I think the one in Tenerife is the most flamboyant; if you’re looking for a time and a place to really let your hair down, you’ve found it in the Canaries. The locals have been doing it their way since the fifteenth century and, for a few weeks leading up to Lent, it’s a no-holds barred extravaganza of masks, cross-dressing, dancing, music and, yes, I have to say it – a little mayhem.
In the old days the masks and dress-ups were a way to hide the revellers’ identities (at a time when Franco and the Church made it dangerous, or at least unwise, to attend). Now, however, it’s all part of the fun and there’s a definite case of one-upmanship going on – with each costume and mask more outrageous than the last. Along with masked balls and a never ending parade of, well, parades, there’s an absolutely pulsating music scene with Latino bands, folk, DJs and pop.
If you want to get an idea of the atmosphere at the Carnival of Santa Cruz, think Rio and Notting Hill rolled into one, dusted with a little bit of Spanish olé! Do bear in mind it gets quite crowded and, at times, a little overwhelming (especially on the opening and closing weekends). But there’s no dearth of local bars where you can slip away and enjoy a Rioja, a spot of tapas and some quiet time.
My Tip: The quirkiest event occurs on Ash Wednesday, with the Burial of the Sardine. In this case the star of the show is a massive cross-dressed papier-mâché sardine, complete with lipstick and eyelashes. Yes, it is as wacky and wonderful as it sounds.
My Hotel Recommendation
For sheer weight of history and star power – not to mention its undeniable luxury and old-style glamour – the Iberostar Grand Hotel Mencey gets my top recommendation in Santa Cruz. This wonderful hotel has an intriguing heritage, but it’s the privacy, location and beautifully appointed rooms that cement its attraction to royalty, celebrity and those with a love of luxury.