5 Places to Celebrate Carnival in France

France, Aude, Limoux, masked Pierrot in Carnival
Brigitte MERLE / Getty Images

Home of the original Mardi Gras celebrations, France is one of the best countries in Europe to experience the colors and general madness of Carnival. In the weeks before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the Christian fasting period of Lent, people celebrate by going wild in the streets. The party also has the symbolic importance of marking the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring.

Each town has its own way of celebrating, but music, costumes, and grand flower displays are usually the constant no matter where you go in France. However, some French towns have traditions that are more unique than most.

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Limoux Carnival in the South of France

Masked people walk in the historical centre of Limoux

RAYMOND ROIG / Stringer / Getty Images

As the world's longest-running carnival, this three-month event takes place in the town of Limoux, which is located in the southern province of Languedoc-Roussillon. Celebrations here differ from other carnivals in that it's more about local folklore than taking part in a universal parade.

Bands play traditional music on trumpets, clarinets, basses, double basses and bass drums are led by the bandes de carnavaliers, bands of revelers, through the arcades of this pretty and ancient town. The traditional costumes include many interpretations of Pierrot, a buffoon-like mime character. The weekly parades mainly take place on Saturdays and Sundays in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

In 2020, Carnival in Limoux begins on January 19 and finishes on March 29 with La Nuit de la Blanquette, the night when the straw effigy of King Carnival is burned at the stake in the main square. He is the scapegoat who takes the blame for the "sins" people have committed during the festival and burning him marks the beginning of Lent.

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Dunkirk Carnival in the North of France

Dunkerque Carnival in the north of France

Dunkerque Tourist Office

At France's northernmost point, the beach town of Dunkirk holds the biggest and most popular carnival in northern France, running from the end of January to the middle of March. The city's unique traditions date back to 18th-century farewell feasts which were given in honor of the cod fishermen who were about to depart for Iceland.

The festival culminates in the three days before Ash Wednesday (February 23 - 25, 2020) and the action revolves around the fisher bands who confront each other with songs as they parade the streets. A drum major leads the musicians dressed in yellow raincoats while the crowds sing traditional songs. When the parade finishes up at the Town Hall on Place Saint-Valentin, the people chant and demand "what they deserve," which happens to be 240 kilograms (992 pounds) of fish. At that moment, a downpour of herring falls down on the crowd.

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Strasbourg Carnival in Alsace

Preparing for Strasbourg Carnival in Alsace

Courtesy of Ville et Communauté urbaine de Strasbourg

On March 1, 2020, the streets of Strasbourg will light up with over 40 floats as over 3,000 participants parade from the Quai du Général Koenig to Place Kléber, an event that lasts two hours. The parade passes through the city's most famous squares like Place d'Austerlich and Place Gutenberg, so there are many good spots to view the floats as they go by.

After the parade, there will be many events going on in the city like costume balls and live performances. Around the town, many bars and cafes will be open and filled with celebrators looking for an after-party. Because Strasbourg is on the border of Germany, the Carnival celebrations here offer a blend of French and German traditions. For example, the Strasbourg parade is more likely to feature fairytale characters like princesses and forest monsters.

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Mulhouse Carnival in Alsace

Mulhouse Carnival Cavalcade

Courtesy of Mulhouse Tourism

Taking place from February 27 to March 1, 2020, Mulhouse is a city that erupts in fun in Southern Alsace and attracts visitors from all over Europe. Because the town is located near the borders of Germany and Switzerland, there's a cross-cultural flavor to all the parades that march past the town hall. Technically, it's a Fasnacht style of Carnival, which means the majority of the partying takes place on the night before Lent.

After a parade that runs late into the night, bars and restaurants tend to stay open even later and many enduring revelers often stay out until sunrise.

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Nice Carnival

Nice Carnival at night

Courtesy of Office du Tourisme & des Congrès de Nice

In the city of Nice, the tradition of Carnival is one of the oldest in the world, with the earliest references dating back to the year 1294. Daily and nightly, the city erupts with parades and floats culminating in Mardi Gras on the night before Ash Wednesday. In 2020, the festivities will take place from February 15 to 29.

The parade begins with the arrival of the Carnival King and his Corso Carnavalesque (Carnival Procession) in the Place Massena. Then, spectators can expect parade floats, giant puppets, musicians, street artists, and dancers from all around the world. At the end of the parade, the king takes the keys of the city and declares the beginning of his reign of extravagance and excess.

Other spectacles during the Carnival include the world-famous Bataille de Fleurs, when flower-covered floats parade through the city throwing flowers to the crowd, and the last night of the festival when an effigy of King Carnival is burned and fireworks soar over the bay.

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