It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.
I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.
The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.
This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.
Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.
People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.
Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.
I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.
At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.
The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.
It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!
The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.
Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production
The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both
The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.
Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation
This is not a night for introverts.
The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.
I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.
The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.
It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.
I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.
For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods
Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.
For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.
Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…
The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days
Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?