Host Kelly Regan is joined by a handful of travel experts to discuss some of the world's best pre-Lent festivals. Frommer's guides' Melinda Quintero talks about the family-friendly Carnaval in Mazatlán, Mexico and the artsy grass-roots festivities at Carnevale in Viareggio, Italy. Frommer's editor Marc Nadeau shares his experiences at an island Carnival on Curaçao full of fantastic sights, sounds and costumes. Want to stay close to home? Frommer's New Orleans author Mary Herczog gives us the low down on this year's Mardi Gras and reveals how to get involved in alternative celebrations.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Mexico: Carnival in Mazatlan is more toned down, more family oriented. See carnavalmazatlan.com.mx.
- Italy: Canival of Italy & Europe, in Viareggio, is much like the Mazatlan celebration in its more local feel. See www.viareggio.ilcarnevale.com.
- Curacao: Dress in costume and join in on the parade. See curacaocarival.info.
- New Orleans: Mardi Gras, dress in costume, however simple to join in on the experience. See www.mardigrasneworleans.com/arthur/ and www.nola.com"
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, Editorial Director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.
Today we're talking about the various Mardi Gras and Carnival celebrations around the world. As many of you know, Fat Tuesday is usually the zenith of all pre-Lenten celebrations. In 2007, it falls on February 20th. If you're looking for ideas about where to go, either this year or maybe next year, or in years to come, we have some expected and not-so-expected ideas to pass along to you.
My guests today are Melinda Quintero, who is an Assistant Editor here at Frommer's, she's going to be talking about Mexico and Italy; Marc Nadeau, an Associate Editor here at Frommer's, and he's going to be talking about Curacao. We also have with us, Mary Herzog, who writes about New Orleans for Frommer's. Her new book, "Frommer's New Orleans 2007," is on sale now.
Mary, Marc, Melinda, welcome, thanks for being here.
Mary: Thank you.
Melinda: Thank you.
Kelly: So, Melinda, I'm going to start with you. You recently wrote an article for the frommers.com website about your trip to Mazatlan, Mexico for Carnival. Tell me a little bit about Mazatlan and what you were expecting, versus what you ended up experiencing, because I think it kind of surprised you, your whole experience there.
Melinda: Yeah, well it was definitely a surprise. I thought Mazatlan was just another big, luxurious resort on the coast in Mexico and it would just be spending time at a resort on a beach, which is fine you know, no complaints there but I was really surprised to learn that Mazatlan had a really nice and compact and really interesting historical center. That Mazatlan was its own city. That it had beach resorts, but that it was its own functioning city, without necessarily relying on the resorts. That was really great.
The downtown was really interesting. There were markets, and cathedrals, and great restaurants, and shops, and it was really lively.
Melinda: So it was more of a cultural trip than I was expecting.
Kelly: And how did that play into the Carnival celebration? I think people expect this image of kind of wild revelry, a drunken sort of Rio de Janeiro festivities, so tell me about the Carnival experience in Mazatlan.
Melinda: Well, the Carnival in Mazatlan, they say, is the third oldest Carnival celebration in the world. And so, as it happens, Mazatlan is sort of a central hub for all Mexicans to go and celebrate Carnival. So it's actually kind of a magnet for Mexican families to go to and celebrate in their own country, if they don't have opportunities to travel to New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro if they wanted.
What happens for Carnival, for the big celebration, the whole city is packed to the gills with either people from Mazatlan or people who have come to visit from all over the country.
Melinda: But it's predominantly families and younger people. So because it's families, the atmosphere is geared much more towards a general, all-access revelry.
Melinda: [laughs] The street that the Carnival celebration is held on, it's right along the beach, and they have six or seven different bands playing, and people are dancing and just having a great time walking up and down. There's children there, there's adults, there's elderly people, there's everyone of all ages, and it's not debaucherous.
Melinda: It's just people out on a really great night, having a great time together.
Melinda: And the parade is, I would imagine (I've never been to the Carnival celebrations in New Orleans) is much more scaled down.
Melinda: So the people, they're just much simpler. The people that are in the parade are just people from the town. They're in dance troupes, or the firefighters, so it feels much more like you're watching a small town parade. People are cheering on their family and friends, so it's a little bit more of a local feel instead of a huge, international celebration.
Kelly: Celebration. And you said there's lots of fireworks, as well.
Melinda: Yes. They have this really interesting fireworks display that commemorates naval battles. They have a Mexican naval frigate out on the ocean, and from the beach side, they set off fireworks that are supposed to be battling the ship in the ocean.
Kelly: Oh, that's great.
Melinda: They spit fireworks back and forth. But there's nothing barring you from where they set off the fireworks...
Melinda: ...so it's really very heart-stopping. You get ash in your hair, everyone's oohing and ahhing and screaming. It's really exhilarating.
Kelly: Right. That sounds like fun.
Kelly: Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, you wrote an article about this experience for the frommers.com website, but if people want to get more specific information about Mazatlan or the Carnival in Mazatlan, where do you suggest that they go?
Melinda: There's a big website that gives the whole calendar and everything, so the website that you could go to would be www.carnavalmazatlan.com.mx. So they'll have all the events and everything that you would need.
Kelly: OK. And then you also had another beachside Carnival experience, and this one was in Italy, in a town called Viareggio. So why don't you just briefly describe to people where it is, where Viareggio is, and what you felt was special about that as well.
Melinda: Sure. Viareggio is a town that's on the coast of Italy. It's in Tuscany. It's pretty much due west of Florence, about 55, 60 miles. It's an hour and fifteen minutes on the train, they have trains that go all the time.
When I was living in Italy, I would go there just to go to the beach during the summer, and then obviously during the winter you're not going to go to the beach, they had this huge Carnival celebration there. Aside from Venice, it's one of the most well known Carnival celebrations in Italy.
Melinda: They call it the Carnival of Italy and Europe. I'm not sure how much Europe is aware of this celebration...
Melinda: ...but it's supposed to be about Italy and about all of Europe. The floats there are gigantic; they're really, really huge, and all politically charged.
Kelly: Oh, interesting.
Melinda: So if you're interested in Italian politics or European politics, there are effigies of various political figures, and Bush is often featured.
Kelly: And you said they're animatronic, too, right?
Melinda: Some of them are animatronic. Some of them are dressed up like clowns, and then it's also sort of artsy in a way. There's lots of "Spring," you know, like there'll be a representation of "Spring."
Kelly: Sure, sure.
Melinda: So it's not just people dancing around, it's a little bit more thematic. So you can go there, they have this huge parade every Sunday and they have it on Fat Tuesday in February. With your train ticket, you can get in, and people just line up along the street, all Italian people exclusively, it seems like. Nobody knows about it, because everyone thinks about Venice.
Kelly: Right, and Venice has a very different feel, because it's very formalized and there are these big balls...
Melinda: And the masks.
Kelly: ...and the masks, and things like that. And this feels, actually, similar to the Mazatlan celebration, where it's more, kind of, grass roots, more sort of local.
Melinda: Yeah, and it's been going on for a good chunk of time as well. It's just people, they're there to have a nice celebration. The floats are really funny, and if you just happen to be in Tuscany, which most people probably are around this time, it's a really quick jump on the train and a nice afternoon you can spend reveling together with Italians and Tuscans.
Kelly: [laughs] OK. Well I know that we mentioned the Viareggio in our books Florence and Tuscany Day by Day and also our Frommer's Florence Tuscany & Umbria book. But again is there a website that people could go to to get information?
Melinda: Yes, of course. There is a very good website. It's the Carnival Viareggio is sort of it's own entity. It's like it's own, like the Rose Parade in Los Angeles, it is its own organization so they have their own website and that one is www.viareggio.ilcarnevale.com, which is Italian for carnival. But if you just look up Viareggio and then type in Carnival it will come up.
Kelly: Yeah. That would be pretty easy to find.
Melinda: Yeah. It's pretty easy.
Kelly: OK. OK. Great. Well we are going to hop across the Atlantic and we are going to get to more of an island type celebration. Marc, when you went to Carnival you were in Curacao. So I am curious about how you feel that this kind of island aspect of Carnival was and what the feel was to go to a small Caribbean island to participate in the celebration.
Marc: Well I mean the feeling was really terrific. Well just leaving cold gray New York behind and getting to the vibrant Caribbean country is really beautiful. I guess my favorite thing about it is you have this great Caribbean spirit so everybody is really lively and people are celebrating and you have beautiful costumes and floats for the parades. But you have Dutch's efficiency built in.
Marc: So everything is very organized.
Marc: And very clean. So that was a big relief hearing sort of horror stories from friends who have gone to Brazil and Trinidad. So it was really....
Kelly: Because Curacao is a former Dutch colony.
Kelly: So there is still that influence that exists there.
Kelly: Yeah. Oh interesting. So would you say that the celebrations really followed a similar theme like lots of music and dancing and floats and parades and things like that?
Marc: Oh definitely. Carnival is the big thing in Curacao so as soon as one Carnival ends they are planning for the next one.
Marc: So they are constantly all year having contests who are the big singers are for the different troops. And it is a big honor to be featured there. So the amount of planning details that go into it are just really astounding. So you have the floats, which are really intricate. And it's really interesting as a visitor because you can actually sign on to participate with a troop.
Kelly: Oh wow.
Marc: And depending on your budget you can spend anywhere from just over $100 to over $750. But with this you get a costume that is tailored for you and they have breakfast and sometimes dinners afterwards but most importantly you get the right to march along with them. And you just follow the parade around and you follow the band.
Marc: And they have a little mini float that follows the big float that is just full of alcohol.
Marc: And by the time you feel like you are going to collapse from the sun and the booze they come around with food.
Marc: So it's really like the Dutch efficiency. It really takes care of you.
Kelly: Right. Right. It's like the hospitality wagon part of the float.
Kelly: Yeah. So you did this and you had a costume. So tell us a little about your costume. Because it sounds like it was pretty fantastic.
Marc: Yeah it was pretty fantastic. Every float had a theme. So last year there was a float that had Valentine's Day themes and everybody was dressed as a heart. So I marched with Tepatine, which is a great group. Their singers are renowned throughout the island. And their theme for the year was pinatas. So we were kind of human pinatas in a way.
Kelly: You were dressed as a human pinata?
Marc: In a way. In a way. We had all these little candies and noisemakers pasted on us and....
Marc: The colors were great, they were like fluorescent green and purple and pink and we felt like court jesters it was really like something else.
Kelly: That's great. Nobody was hitting you with sticks were they?
Marc: No thank goodness no.
Kelly: Well that's good. That's good. Well yeah, it sounds like it is something that just kind of seizes the imagination of the whole island while it's going on. And so if somebody wants to get more information or try and start to plan a trip about it, Curacao is covered in our Frommer's Caribbean guide but is there a website that people can go to to get more information?
Marc: Yeah definitely. The website www.Curacaocarnival.info and that is a great source and you can actually sign up with a different troop there and they have forms that will take your measurements to they can make some costumes for you.
Marc: And a really great thing is actually about a week before the main event they have a children's parade.
Marc: So it's a really accessible event for the family.
Marc: So you can get costumes made for your kids and it's to really to throw in an experience.
Kelly: Oh that sounds fantastic. Yeah. Yeah. And you will be writing an article about this experience for the frommers.com website as well. People can check back in to get more detail about Marc, The Human Piata. [laughs]
Kelly: We have talked about some different celebrations that you might not be aware of but I wanted to bring Mary into our conversation because Mary covers New Orleans for Frommer's and you are the veteran of many, many Mardi Gras celebrations. What is the mood like in New Orleans as we are leading up to this year's Mardi Gras?
Mary: Well it's mixed as almost exactly as it has been since August 29, 2005 in that there is just so much that still has to be done and there are still some tremendous problems with the city but at the same time there have been some wonderful leaps forward. People are quite elated because just yesterday Mandinas, which is one of the oldest and most venerable restaurants in the city, reopened after taking on a number of feet of water during the flood.
Mary: So the fact that they were able to come back and rebuild and they actually took advantage of their reconstruction to restore the interior to restore the interior to its original 1930s look. The fact that they were able to come back. That they stuck it out and they've returned. These are the sorts of things that the residents of New Orleans really hang on.
Mary: And there are a number of people who have after a year of trauma and issue and difficulties have managed to rebuild their homes in some of the worst flooded neighborhoods and have returned to those homes. There is almost like there are two cities going on. There is the city of New Orleans itself as an entity, which has trouble with infrastructure, and all sorts of other problems which are being covered in the media. But there is also the city of New Orleans that the people there who are making this very determined, very admirable, and courageous stand battle for their city and their culture.
Kelly: I can definitely see that. The troubles haven't totally gone away but if anything this is an opportunity for the people to kind of press pause and to celebrate the fact that they are still around.
Mary: Mardi Gras is always the party of the year for a city that will throw a party just because there is a day with a Y in it.
Mary: So they have been looking forward to this party since last year's party and its going to be different than last year's because last year they were making a statement and blowing off steam in a confluence of emotions and circumstances that simply can't be replicated.
Mary: So the good news is this Mardi Gras is going to look like any other, any old Mardi Gras and that's actually really good news because what we are trying to do is get things back to normal over there.
Kelly: Sure well can you tell me if there is anything that is planned that is kind of a little bit different this year or any kind of new things that are happening.
Mary: No because again New Orleans isn't so much about the new. It's about the continuity of the old and in this case it would be about the return as much as possible to the old traditions because that is what makes they city of New Orleans feel comfortable.
Mary: On the other hand, there's been some information like Pete Fountain, the venerable jazz musician, who usually leads a walking parade on Mardi Gras morning, between Rex and Zulu. It's called "The Half Fast Walkers." He wasn't able to do it last year because of poor health. He's back, and he's going to be marching well, probably riding -- with his parade this year.
So it's things like that, it's the return of that sort of thing. One of the things that people need to look for if they go to Mardi Gras, if you want to experience something just beyond the parade, which mind you, is an incredible way to spend the day, is you can look for some of the other little not exactly secret societies but private societies obviously private societies are in the parades as well but these are smaller ones, that that throw their own particular alternative Mardi Gras celebrations.
So, the classic thing to do is to drive around certain areas looking for Mardi Gras Indians: groups or clubs of black men who dress up in elaborate fanciful, almost showgirl variations on Native American costumes, which they hand-stitch these laboriously throughout the year, starting on Ash Wednesday. They debut their new suit, as they call them, on Mardi Gras. A good place to start looking for the Indians would be Saint Augustine's Church in the Treme, because they'll almost certainly... Probably pretty early in the morning, you can actually call the church at Saint Augustine's and ask them. Start with the kickoff off of at least one of the tribes, and after that, you just have to drive around the neighborhood and look for feathers and listen for drums.
Another possibility is to go off into the Marigny in the Bywater in the morning and look for the Society of Saint Anne, which is a walking crew of people who also spend all year long making their costumes, which look like these bedazzled and sequined variations on Renaissance fair garments. They're extraordinary works of art. They walk very slowly from their starting point all the way through the Bywater and the Marigny and then into the quarter, usually landing at Canal in time for Rex. So it takes a long time because there's a lot of drinking to be done along the way.
Mary: And again, you just have to look for them and you'll bump into them. And then a sure thing, if you want an alternative to celebrations is, usually after Rex once the main parades of the day have ended, a lot of people head to the Marigny, the Frenchman's Street and the Marigny, and they just gather there in their costumes and they drink and they dance and they do drum circles and it's the best opener party in the whole neighborhood.
Kelly: That's happening on Fat Tuesday?
Mary: That's on Fat Tuesday. All of this is on Fat Tuesday, and that would be starting about four o'clock in the afternoon. Again, there's no particular starting time because these are largely spontaneous gatherings.
Mary: But by six o'clock, it would be really starting to get going, or really going, and it goes until people just keel over from exhaustion.
Kelly: [laughs] Right, right.
Mary: And then everything ends at midnight. At least officially its supposed to end at midnight because that's the end of Mardi Gras and its now Ash Wednesday, so you're supposed to stop at that moment. And the cops sort of encourage people to do so.
Kelly: Right. They will encourage people to start the Day of Atonement.
Kelly: There's a whole chapter in the New Orleans book devoted to Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and the big New Orleans festivals. I guess I'm curious about, having been through so many Mardi Gras celebrations as you have, I'm curious, what's your best piece of advice you can give to somebody who's coming to Mardi Gras?
Mary: Wear a costume on Fat Tuesday.
Kelly: [laughs] OK.
Mary: That's the day you become part of the celebration, rather than an observer. You want to be a participant. You don't want to come and watch this giant piece of street entertainment as if you were just an audience member. You want to be a part of it. So wear a costume, even if it's a cheap mask from your local costume store or left over from Halloween. You're going to feel so much more alive and so much more a part of things and so much less like a dorky tourist. You're going to have so much more fun. A mask allows you to do things that you wouldn't necessarily do if your identity isn't obscured. Right?
Mary: That was the whole point of masking a carnival in the first place. You really want to be the fun of it. When you see all of these people who have gone to so much trouble to come up with artistic, creative, complicated or satirical costumes, and have spend however many hours they have constructing it, you kind of feel like an outsider. But if you just put on something and join in, you have a much better time.
Kelly: Yeah, let me...
Mary: Bring a costume. Get one there. Even just a cheap piece of plastic on your face will do it.
Kelly: In many cases like this, just not with Mardi Gras but there's costume parties or things like that, it becomes a little bit of a come-as-you-are, not... The chance to merge into a completely different identity and sort of...
Kelly: ...have the freedom that comes along with that. That's great advice. For people who want the most up-to-the-minute information about this year's Mardi Gras, next year's Mardi Gras, as soon as that information is available... Obviously you have a lot of great information and advice in the New Orleans guide, but you have a specific website that you'd like to recommend to people, I think?
Mary: Well, there's actually two. The first one is Arthur Hardy's website. Arthur has been covering Mardi Gras for decades, and he's one of the two greatest experts on the New Orleans carnival celebrations. His site is an invaluable resource, and answers almost every question that you could come up with about how to get yourself going on Mardi Gras, in addition to having the kind of information that our book can't carry up-to-the-minute parade routes and times. Starting times. You have that URL I think, Kelly.
Kelly: I do, I do. It's www.mardigrasneworleans.com/arthur/. And so that's Arthur Hardy's website that you just mentioned. And then you said there's another source you'd like to recommend?
Mary: Right. There's www.nola.com. And that's a combination of the Times-Picayune, the local paper online, and other resources, and they of course will have even more information about... This is when Rex will be doing this, or so-and-so has announced plans to do that. They might have even more information about parades and celebrations. Even more up-to-date because they're a newspaper. Between the two, you should have all the information that you need. Plus the Frommer's book, of course.
Kelly: OK, great. And one final quick question: What's your costume going to be this year?
Mary: I have to make a terrible confession. I am not going this year.
Mary: I am in deep and terrible denial about it. So much so, that at that moment, I was just going to make something up.
Mary: So instead I'll tell you what I wore last year.
Mary: Last year I put on pair of Candy Persom coveralls, the kind of things that you use when you're cleaning out a big mess, and I covered it in very carefully designed paint black and brown and green paint and little fuzzy balls, to replicate the mold that I'd found all over the bottom of our house and so many houses in New Orleans. And I stuck a bunch of gold nuggets, spray painted gold nuggets, to a hat on my head, and I wore a sign over the whole confection that proclaimed me the great mold rush of '05.
Kelly: [laughs] Oh, that's awesome. That's awesome. Well, that was a good costume for the year, and I think it's time for you to get cracking on your costume for next year.
Mary: Oh, you bet. There's a song that the Mardi Gras Indians, the Wild Magnolias sing, "Every year at Carnival time we make a new suit." So I got to get going on mine for next year.
Kelly: Get going on your new suit. That's great. Well, that's all the time that we have for today. We've been discussing various Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations around the world. I have been talking with Melinda Quintero and Marc Nadeau who are editors here at Frommer's, and also Mary Herczog, who covers New Orleans for Frommer's and is the author of our new book, "Frommer's New Orleans 2007," which is on sale now. So Melinda, Marc, Mary, this was a great conversation. I really enjoyed our chat. Thanks for being here.
Mary: Thank you.
Melinda: Thank you.
Kelly: All right! Join us next week for another conversation of all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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