Thank you once again to Josef Butler, who gives his view of Carnival in Madeira.
Carnival in Madeira: Is it worth experiencing?
While contemporary connections will draw to mind near-naked Brazilian babes, the origins of carnival can be found in pious Catholic faith. The public celebrations that we refer to as carnival today mark the beginning of the Lent, the forty-day period preceding Easter during which Christians honour Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross by forgoing earthly pleasures and examining their own spiritual wellbeing. While the gluttony of carnival is intended to deliberately contrast this period of penitence, it observably isn’t necessary for most people to be aware of the impending six weeks of Lent to enjoy carnival; for most people, including the thousands who line the streets of Funchal, carnival merely represents an opportunity to have a good time.
The Portuguese interpretation of carnival was not particularly distinct until the beginning of the period of discoveries at the start of the 15th century. Only when the Rio Carnival became internationally famous in the middle of the 18th century did carnival become a uniform and dominant event across the Portuguese territories. This Brazilian fusion of cultures from different sides of the Atlantic can now be observed at carnivals from Lisbon to Madeira, the alien quality of the music and costumes emphasised on the island by their difference to other notable street parades, such as those that can be seen during the wine festival. However, it worth remembering that the origins of this culture of carnival can be traced to Madeira, where these period prior to Lent was punctuated by small ships known as Caravels transported goods through Madeira to the New World.
The Madeiran carnival, often claimed to be one of the best in Europe and the biggest Portuguese carnival outside of Brazil, begins in earnest in Santana with a series of feasts at the beginning of February. The festivities move south to Funchal in the second week. While it is apparent that carnival is underway throughout the city, from the epidemic of Poncha stands to goons in fancy dress, the highlights are to be found on Avenida Arriaga. This seafront road is home to a series of parades, the two most famous of which are the themed Saturday parade and the Trapalhão parade the following Tuesday. From a personal point of view the latter is more worthy of recommendation. Trapalhão roughly translates to ‘Bumbling’ or ‘Clumsy’ in English, with the inhabitants of the island using the parade as an opportunity to satirise and poke fun at the more eccentric aspects of Madeira Island. The Saturday parade is far more representative of the typical, paint-by-numbers Rio-style carnival. The alleged theme of this year’s parade was The Great Gatsby, although this was difficult to discern without prior knowledge. No doubt 2018’s Six Centuries of Joy, celebrating the 600 year anniversary of the archipelago’s discovery by Portuguese sailors, will be almost indistinguishable to the previous years. Away from the crowded sea avenue you can enjoy themed nights of drinking, from the historically inaccurate and unimaginative Hippy Night to the more-fun-than-you’ll-give-it-credit-for cross-dressing night on the first Friday of the celebrations.
While carnival in Madeira is clearly a big deal for a lot of people, it pales in comparison to its Brazilian counterpart. The world-famous Rio Carnival attracts tourists from all over the world, with an estimated two million people per day lining the city streets. As an example of anecdotal comparison, around two tourists per day enquired at my place of work during the Madeiran carnival as to what was going on and why some of the streets were blocked off.
The Rio Carnival certainly enjoys a significant advantage in terms of mind-share and visibility, being one of the central pillars of Brazil’s tourism industry and having been prominently featured in popular culture. While it is significant that Brazil was responsible for creating the form of carnival we experience today, the true reason why it is the more successful season may be purely down to practicality. Carnival is traditionally held just before Lent in February or March, when Rio de Janeiro is lucky enough to experience an average temperature in the high twenty degrees centigrade. While Madeira is famous for its pleasant climate, February is a month defined by rain, wind and weather warnings. Imagine the scenes on Copacabana beach, but against the backdrop of a howling storm and it isn’t so difficult to understand the disadvantages Madeira faces. There is a reason why the Notting Hill Carnival is held in August, and it has more to do with British weather than the 1960s London Free School summer festivals that preceded it.
Whether or not Carnival in Madeira is worth experiencing is entirely dependent upon your own circumstances and expectations. For those who are interested in experiencing a Lusitanian carnival experience, it is a much more difficult recommendation than Rio de Janeiro. Therefore it is hard to recommend on the same grounds as the New Year celebrations, which has been a core feature of Madeira’s tourism sector for decades. However, the number of tourists from north-western Europe who seem unaware of carnival in Madeira does seem surprising, given the popularity of this season with those holidaymakers. So in summary, while it is difficult to recommend Madeiran carnival for its own sake, if you happen to be in Madeira during the first few months of the year it is a week worth marking out on your calendars.
About the Author
Josef Butler is a tour guide and editor working in Funchal. For more information on tour guides visit madeiranheritage.pt or call +351291705060.