Building Block: Carnaval Parade, Madrid

by Alissa Greenberg
Alcala Gate, Madrid
Alcala Gate, Madrid

Vibrant music and parades full of acrobats, days of unchecked partying, costumed groups roaming the streets: that may sound like Mardi Gras, but it is actually that holiday’s kissing cousin, Carnaval. Most famously celebrated in Brazil, Carnaval (like Mardi Gras) is thought by many to be a descendent from the Roman holiday Saturnalia. It is observed throughout Europe, in Spain, Portugal, and many Mediterranean islands during the week leading up to Lent. Within Spain, the southern Andaluz city of Cadiz is the most famous place to take in Carnaval’s insanity—and the adventure is well worth the trip and a future post here at 48 Horas—but many other cities in the country’s center and south host celebrations, as well.

Of course, Madrid is hardly a city that sits back and let others have all the fun, and a whirlwind Madrileño Carnaval is a worthy addition to any February Madrid visit. (Check on specific dates, as Carnaval falls differently every year.) Festivities start on Saturday evening with a spectacular parade that snakes through Old Madrid, beginning at Plaza Villa and wending its way past the famous art deco landmark Edificio Metropolis–which is itself worth a visit for its elegant plasterwork and the solemn rooftop angel surveying the city–toward Plaza Cibeles. Here, there is often a concluding performance and a truly impressive array of fireworks.

This year’s Madrid Carnaval parade was an elaborate affair, especially given rumors that the budget (like those of many Spanish cultural events these days) was drastically cut from previous years. An opera theme paid tribute to Verdi and Wagner and lent the proceedings a Gothic elegance: opera singers serenaded parade-goers from atop oversized thrones; stilt walkers in long-nosed Venetian masks stalked parties of masked actors in period clothing; choreographed horseback riders jousted and pranced; and a giant dragon with glowing eyes blasted “Ride of the Valkyries” (with live accompaniment from a drum set inside its belly.) The stand-out piece was a ghoulish ghost ship float, complete with shambling zombie sailors and dancers twirling blue cloth to create a stormy sea, a giant skull with stringy hair rising where the mast should have been. And sprinkled in between the floats were groups representing clubs from all over the city, from sports leagues and dance schools. The most remarkable of these were the groups in traditional Carnaval costume from all over the South American continent—Honduras, Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil—celebrating the holiday with their bodies, dancing despite their sandals through the freezing February night, and spreading their happiness and warmth to the cold parade watchers, as well.

(Plaza Cibeles is most easily accessed from the Gran Via stop on the Madrid metro. If you’re interested in other Carnaval events in Madrid, stop into the tourist office in Plaza Mayor, where they often have printed schedules for visitors to take. And keep an eye out for chirigota troupes– costumed singers who roam the streets and bars of Spain during Carnaval singing funny and often satirical songs.)

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