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Limassol, Cyprus: Coolest Carnival outside of Rio?

By Robin Gauldie, for CNN
updated 3:29 AM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
Limassol Carnival satire: this year's carnival
Limassol Carnival satire: this year's carnival "king" is surrounded by euro signs, symbolizing Europe's economic crisis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dazzling Limassol Carnival is Cyprus's liveliest event
  • Roots may go back to festival of Dionysus, ancient god of wine
  • Carnival specializes in political satire -- Angela Merkel had her own float last year

(CNN) -- They call it "Stinky Thursday." In Greek, "Tsiknopempti."

It's a lot more appetizing than it sounds.

Tsikna describes the mouthwatering aroma of lamb and pork, seasoned with rosemary, as it's grilled or slowly spit-roasted.

Every February this smell fills the air in Limassol, Cyprus.

It's a signal that Limassol Carnival, the liveliest, most colorful event of the year on the island, is around the corner.

Limassol's big festival -- running this year from February 20 to March 2 -- has to be spectacular to stand out.

Cyprus's calendar is crammed with festivals celebrating everything from wine and food to drama and dance.

Colorful carnival helps to usher away the winter blues.
Colorful carnival helps to usher away the winter blues.

Cure for the winter blues

For many visitors from colder climates, Carnival is a welcoming, dazzling antidote to the winter blues.

"Limassol Carnival makes us forget our problems for a while, have fun and laugh with our hearts," says Limassol-born photographer Marios Vrioni.

Vrioni now lives in Lefkosia, the Cypriot capital ("Nicosia" is often used in English) but returns to his native city every year for Carnival, along with a group of friends.

MORE: 10 unique things about Cyprus

Greek Cypriots like to claim Carnival comes from their Hellenic heritage.

Some say it goes all the way back to pre-Christian times, to the ancient Greek festival dedicated to Dionysus, god of wine and merrymaking.

In its present incarnation it's a legacy of the Venetians who ruled the island in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a special Cypriot spin.

Poking fun: Angela Merkel got her own float last year.
Poking fun: Angela Merkel got her own float last year.

Big blast before Lent

Like Carnival in Venice, Cyprus's version is part of a long Christian tradition of enjoying a final blast of self indulgence before the austerity and fasting of the Lenten period.

It begins 10 days before Lent, at the beginning of Kreatini or "meat week" -- the last chance for devout Orthodox Cypriots to tuck into a tasty platter of grilled souvla, or even a humble kebab, until Easter.

Everybody gets in on the act, with the city's brass band and groups of drummers and mandolin-toting kantadoroi "serenaders" accompanying the Carnival King (or Queen).

That monarch's entrance parade opens the festivities on Shrove Thursday.

More musicians and dancers fill Limassol's streets and squares throughout the event.

READ: 11 essential tastes of Cyprus

"I've been going to the Limassol Carnival for the past three years," says Limassol resident Penelope Hearns, who runs the Cyprus Expat website.

"It's smaller [than a Carnival like Rio], but for me that's part of the charm -- it's accessible, friendly, and everyone can join in," Hearns says.

"And you don't have to book a room or tickets years in advance -- most of the events that the municipality puts on are free."

Could you handle the heat? Eight hours in costume.
Could you handle the heat? Eight hours in costume.

Grueling parade

Dressing up for the parades can be grueling, though, Hearns says.

"Those costumes can get very hot, and the Grand Parade lasts for seven or eight hours."

Traditionally, the parades have an element of satire, with Carnival floats and costumed marchers making a colorful comment on current affairs.

Kleon Alexandrou, Limassol Municipality's carnival organizer, says that since the event's rebirth 120 years ago it's turned into "possibly the only Carnival parade in the world that focuses on satirizing the current economic, social and political issues of the country."

The Carnival "monarch" in 2013 was the "Queen of crisis ... and bliss" -- a reminder to keep smiling even during difficult times.

A vast papier-maché effigy of German chancellor Angela Merkel -- blamed by many Cypriots for the country's economic troubles -- had a float all to herself.

Balladeers, too, sing comic songs that take the mickey out of politicians and world figures.

A previous \
A previous "Queen" of the pre-Lenten burst of revelry.

Generosity rules

Generosity reigns throughout the carnival period.

Participants in the Serenaders' Parade -- which takes place on the last Saturday of Carnival -- are plied with local wines to encourage them to join in the singing and dancing.

During the second week -- Tyrini, or "Cheese Week" -- local tavernas and delis compete to offer free samples of cheesy treats such as bourekia, deep-fried pastries filled with spiced and sweetened anari cheese.

MORE: Italy's Academy of Silence wants you to travel -- quietly

Events take place in Limassol every day during carnival season.

Limassol Municipality hosts at least five masked balls, including an open-air ball on Heroon Square in the city center, and others in the grand ballrooms of the city's big hotels.

Cyprus has plenty of places to outfit yourself for Carnival.
Cyprus has plenty of places to outfit yourself for Carnival.

Rent a costume

There are plenty of places to buy or rent colorful outfits and elaborate masks.

For most visitors to Limassol, the high point is the second Sunday of Apokreo.

On this final day of celebrations, the Grand Carnival Parade of elaborately (and eccentrically) decorated floats accompanies the "royal" entourage along Archbishop Makarios III Avenue, accompanied by as many as 100 teams of costumed carnivalists.

READ: Safari in Europe -- Bear, bison, big game

Each group chooses a different costume each year. Some are bought off the peg, others are lovingly hand made.

Clowns, cowboys, pirates, dragons, ancient Greeks and medieval knights are popular themes, and you can expect to see bands of film and pop stars along with characters from the year's hit movies and musicals.

You\'ll look out of place if you don\'t dress up.
You'll look out of place if you don't dress up.

Village People, Lady Gaga

Last year's parade featured the surreal sight of hordes of Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga lookalikes marching alongside Village People-style construction workers and characters from "Phantom of the Opera" and the "Toy Story" films.

Most people watching the parade will be dressed up too, or at least masked, so even as a spectator, you'll feel undressed in everyday wear.

At Magazaki Costumes (Gregory Afxentiou 24, parodos Agias Filoxeas, Limassol 3012), you can get fitted out as an 18th century duke or duchess, a traditional Cypriot dancer, a cowboy or a 1920s flapper.

More information on the Limassol Carnival is available on the official website.

MORE: 9 top Greek islands

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