Where to Celebrate Mardi Gras (Besides NOLA and Rio)
New Orleans and Rio may have two of the most famous Mardi Gras celebrations, but neither place is the original home of the holiday. In fact, it was two French-Canadian explorers who brought Mardi Gras to the city now known as Mobile, Alabama at the turn of the 17th century, about 15 years before New Orleans was founded in 1718. Portuguese immigrants from Açores, Madeira and Cabo Verde introduced the festival (also known as Carnival) to Brazil in the early 18th century. And Carnival, which launches the last bacchanalian hurrah before the beginning of Lent, has roots in medieval Europe with yearly blowouts in Nice, Venice, and Binche, Belgium. Believe it or not, Mardi Gras isn't celebrated with the beads and shenanigans synonymous with Bourbon Street everywhere the world. Cotillions, mud-throwing, and live cows have all been a part of the history, for example. So, if you're looking for a fun Fat Tuesday throw-down outside of New Orleans and Rio, you have plenty to consider. Start with our list below.
Charles d’Anjou, the count of Provence, made the first written reference to the Nice Carnival in 1294. In the early days, it was celebrated by masked balls and dancing in the street. Part of the fun was also throwing plaster confetti and eggs at one another. Today, the event is known for its parades, including a parade of flowers, parade of lights, and the Carnival parade. For the latter, the event organizers pick a theme to inspire the floats. Previous themes have included "King of Sports" and "King of Music," and this upcoming year's theme will be "King of Energy." Participants are allowed to interpret the phrase in any way they see fit. Hundreds of musicians and dancers come from around the world to join the party and weave around the 17 floats. During the flower parade, an estimated 100,000 blooms are tossed into the crowd. If you happen to be in Nice for this event, make sure to also get your fill on ganses, fried dough that's similar to beignets and scented with orange flower water.
The Mobile Mardi Gras celebration is much longer than the two-week event most cities hold. Starting in November, there are exclusive parties held by mystic societies. A mystic society, which is much like a krewe elsewhere, is a social organization that organizes balls and parades for Mardi Gras. In early January, more parades, balls, and king cake parties are thrown by these secret orders. And two weeks before Mardi Gras, a parade is held in different parts of the city every day. Mobile's Carnival is a multicultural event that adopts several traditions, reflecting the city's various colonizers. When Spain controlled the area in the late 18th century, torch-lit parades became popular. Eating rich food before Lent is also part of an Anglican Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) tradition. And while Mobile's Mardi Gras parades incorporate the beaded necklaces of New Orleans block parties, they also have something sweeter: moon pies. The chocolate-covered marshmallow cakes are thrown from floats to revelers. Every New Year, the city even drops a 12-foot moon pie instead of a crystal ball.
The Belgian parade of Gilles is fascinating, mysterious, and even a little bit creepy. A band of men in wooden shoes, wax masks with green eyes and dispassionate grimaces, and ostrich feather hats march through Binche tossing oranges for good luck. There can be as many as 1,000 Gilles (or participants), who carry sticks to help ward off evil spirits. No one exactly knows the exact origin of these performers -- some historians say they were inspired by the 16th-century parade of Incas, while others point to an early spring ritual. Three days before Ash Wednesday, the Gilles assemble to delight the townspeople. And after a Shrove Tuesday ceremony, clowns and musicians join the Gilles in a parade in one of the most memorable Mardi Gras events anywhere.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis’ French neighborhood, Soulard, hosts Mardi Gras, but the celebration is more all-American than most. Beginning in January, some nights feature krewe parades, while others have a softball tournament and Cajun cook-off. St. Louis’ Fat Tuesday event has the flash-for-beads tradition that New Orleans made famous. However, the days leading up to the big event also have family-friendly pastimes such as the Pet Parade and Wiener Dog Derby. And you don’t need to be in a secret society to have a float in the annual parade -- all you need is a group of friends plus the willingness to build a rolling spectacle and pay the entry fee. This year’s parade theme celebrates cinema with float decorations inspired by "Ghostbusters," "Anchorman," and more.
Anyone who longs for the Martedi Grasso cotillons of yore will want to check out Venice’s costumed balls and themed parties. Some say the celebration originally commemorated a military victory when Venice was a city-state. When Mardi Gras took off in the 11the century, events occurred over two months. Now, they are focused on the two weeks before Ash Wednesday. Between the 11th and 18th century, Venice’s Mardi Gras grew into a baroque festival with ornate masks made out of porcelain, leather, or glass. In 1797, under the rule of the king of Austria, the extravagance was banned and the elaborate handmade masks had to be hidden away. A century later, the festival returned in covert dinners and galas. Relaunched as an international festival in 1979, the event now draws three million people from around the world for feasts, costume balls, costume contests, and The Flight of the Angel, when an unknown guest of Venice flies from the San Marco bell tower to the nearby square.
It's not surprising that this theme park-focused city turns Mardi Gras into a crowd pleaser. Universal Studios recently expanded its celebration to last 49 nights, with a parade every day. New Orleans bands and Cajun food are also a part of the festivities. In 2016, the theme park also enlisted national acts like Diana Ross, Fall Out Boy, Adam Lambert, and T-Pain to be a part of the seven-week shindig. Plus, there are themed floats that celebrate Carnivals from around the world, including Rio Di Janeiro and Venice.
In 1894, the former French colonists of Quebec combined a tradition of celebrating before Lent with a snowy climate to create the Winter Carnival. It adapts Mardi Gras into a festival with parades, ice sculptures, sports, and outdoor banquets. The two-week celebration is a grab bag of events, many of which don’t resemble any other Fat Tuesday parties, but are still plenty fun. For adults, there are singles nights and liquor tastings, and kids of all ages get plenty of opportunities to play (think giant snow slide, life-size bowling where you’re the ball, and a sledding track). Art enthusiasts will appreciate the snow sculpture competition and ice palace filled with graffiti murals. For traditionalists, there are several night parades, but don't expect typical European mask imagery. And when it comes to food, you won't find blackened catfish, but Quebecois fare offers a hearty take on traditional French cuisine and is quite good in its own right.
More from Oyster.com:
- Mardi Gras: 7 New Orleans Hotels with Amazing History
- The 5 Times You Should Definitely Not Visit Some of the World’s Most Popular Destinations
- 5 Awesome Bachelor Party Getaways That Aren’t Vegas
Read the original story: Where to Celebrate Mardi Gras (Besides New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro) by Neil Gladstone, who is a regular contributor to Oyster.com