Have you ever thought about which Carnival you would like to see one day? Discover new customs, enjoy the euphoria of the festival, and just have a smile on your face. Well, let me tell you that you don't want to miss the ones in Croatia, because they know how to celebrate this time of the year. And since Carnival season has started here in Croatia, let us explain to you how it all started and how it has become one of the biggest in Europe.
The most famous Carnival of Croatia takes place in Rijeka. At its beginning there were only three masked groups walking through Rijeka’s Korzo and now there are more than 100 groups, and it brings around 100 000 people together. During that time there are no worries, the only question that may concern you is what costume or mask you will wear. The seriousness and general life troubles are left at the doors of the city, and you will only feel and notice smiles and happiness on people’s faces. Through these celebrations the locals show their traditions and culture to the visitors. For some, the inhabitants of Rijeka have even created the “Fifth Season”. The time of the year when Carnivals become a real lifestyle. Everyone takes this period to heart and prepares their costumes well in advance and some take days off to be free to enjoy all the festivities. Let's not forget that the preparation of the festivities does not only take 24 hours, but it is also a long process that starts the day of the closing ceremony of the Carnival. Some people like to push the boundaries of the possible and imagination to its limit when it comes to costume and wagon ideas for parades. At no other time of the year will you see so many people, so many colours and so many masks. You will also notice that they carry on the tradition of centuries of trick or treating.
The internationally known Rijeka parade is a good mix between old traditions and groups and much more contemporary and urban groups. Among all the participants you will find mainly locals who through their masks try to express their feelings and make fun of the current political situation or review the social events that marked the past year. In Croatia there are several ways to speak about the Carnivals such as Karneval, Maškare, Fašnik or Poklade. The Carnival festivities include long parades, music concerts, dances, torches, great food, lots of flowers, confetti and impressive fireworks. You will find the Carnival spirit everywhere. And let me also point out that the Rijeka’s Carnival was listed as one of the 24 most exotic events in the world by the Sunday Times. An important custom that takes place during this period in Rijeka is the charity ball. And I am sorry to inform you that there is very little chance that you will be invited to this event as it is an extremely exclusive ball. It is held on the evening of the main parade and in a luxurious setting. You will mostly find nobles, rich people, and famous European people there.
The Carnival festivities begin when the mayor of Rijeka hands over the symbolic town keys to the Carnival Master or Meštar (pronounce it like this: meh-shta-rr) and he becomes the mayor of the city during Carnival time. After that, there is the Rijeka Carnival queen pageant. The Master holds an election where women of all ages are all dressed up and have unique masks. And in general, Croatian Carnivals start this way. Finally, to close the end of the Carnival, there is an important tradition that consists in burning a huge man-like doll, called Fašnik in Northern Croatia, Krnjo in Dalmatia and Pust in Primorje. It is blamed for all the unpleasant events that occurred the previous year and this takes place on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Another very important Carnival tradition here is the Zvončari. They are also called bellringers and are dressed in sheepskins; they hide underneath animal masks and wear bells. They are known to walk around the cities and push away the winter and all the bad things that happened and to welcome the spring. This tradition has been included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, since 2009.
Even though, as mentioned above, Rijeka is where the most popular Carnival is held, you will find them everywhere in Croatia. In every town and village there will be different festivities. Let’s take the example of the city of Opatija. It has had a very strong Carnival culture for centuries and it all started when the Zvončari dressed up as wild animals and tried to scare the Turkish soldiers in the forests. Since then, they also have a special event that takes place during the Carnival, the Balinjerada race. It is the Carnival Parade race with self-made vehicles on ball-bearing wheels and it has been going on for about 30 years. However, with the COVID situation some Carnival events have been and may be postponed (such as the main events of the Rijeka’s Carnival), and for some there might be a maximum limit of participants and spectators.
I hope you now see the potential of these Carnivals and the fun, joy, smiles and good humour they can bring. Croatians know how to celebrate this time of the year, and the only way for you to judge is to come and see for yourself. And you will see, you will have stars in your eyes because the atmosphere is so incredible. And I guarantee that you will not forget this experience. So, are you ready to party and become whoever you want to be?