Last weekend was a full of feting, including house parties on both Friday and Saturday night, one of which went until 5 am and one which was a housewarming in the middle of the Ardèche countryside. But the most ostentatious celebration was the Carnaval in Romans-sur-Isère, a town just northeast of Valence in the Drôme department. Romans is well-known for its shoes and even has a museum dedicated to shoes, but I am saving that for another trip because Saturday was all about homemade costumes and fire.
It seemed like just about everyone I know in Valence had made it to Carnaval. It turns out I didn’t bring any costumes in my suitcase from the States though, so I failed at disguising. I did try for a “Watchmen” theme at the Friday night Carnaval-inspired party with a clock shirt and my owl-shaped camera case, but no one there was as nerdy for me. I did see “Watchmen” last night because it came out in France before the States. I totally thought it was going to be sold out because it was opening night, but there were only about 20 people in the theater. I will save my comments on the movie itself until it’s out in the states.
When we first got to Romans, we spent some time wandering around and seeing street bands and dance groups and even young circus performers. We also checked out the old part of town, which is surprisingly charming.
You might wonder what Carnaval is all about. It is the French version of Carnival, which is celebrated every year before Lent in most Catholic countries. It’s basically Mardi Gras, which started from the French and Spanish influence in New Orleans. People dress in costumes and have a giant parade as a last big party before the somberness and sacrifices of Lent leading up to Easter. The Carnaval de Romans is the biggest in the Valence area and has a parade each year where at the end a giant “Carmentran” made out of what appears to be papier mâché is burned. More on that later. This Romans celebration has been around for hundreds of years, and had an unfortunate bloody event in 1580 where between 20 and 30 people were killed as a result of tensions between the rich and the poor. The 2009 Carnaval de Romans was violence-free from what I witnessed and I didn’t even see much drinking. I did however see many fabulously homemade costumes.
I remember when I was at the University of Oklahoma and the fraternities and sororities would spend ridiculous hours on their homecoming floats until they looked perfect enough for the Macy’s Day Parade. I loved how at the Carnaval de Romans everything was so unpretentious. Many people’s costumes consisted of blank CDs and plastic bottle caps and their floats were on wagons or even shopping carts. I don’t think I saw one car in the parade.
There was no theme to the Carnaval and the parade was wonderfully eccentric, with Spartans on bouncy stilts, ABBA-inspired pig-faced people, fake strikers, and other ambiguous hordes of costumed people. The centerpiece of the parade was the Carmentran, seen above. A new one is built every year and its destruction is supposed to represent the elimination of all of last year’s problems. I think it’s a lion/human hybrid, and as you can see he has been attacked with silly string. Silly string and confetti were being sold on the streets and children were allowed to run loose attacking strangers. A charming child threw confetti in my face.
We watched the parade from a rather steep part of the road, so it was exciting to see if people would maintain control of their wagon floats. They all made it down safely. There were a lot of people on stilts of varying heights and some, like those worn by the above Spartans, that seemed like pogo stick cousins.
My favorite part of the parade was this six-headed dragon monster that spit water on the crowd. But later he would shoot fireworks out of his many-mouths. For what purpose? Oh, you will see.
After the parade was over, we got one euro Nutella crepes before walking to where the Carmentran would meet its end.
My pictures are not going to do justice to what happened next. First, there was an over-the-top performance with acrobatics and dancing and singing, all leading up to the point when the Carmentran was dragged onto a bed of sand and the six-headed dragon entered the grounds. The dragon then shot fireworks out of its mouths and set the Carmentran on fire. Which would have been ridiculous enough, but the Carmentran’s head was also full of fireworks that exploded everywhere. You can kind of see one of the dragon heads in the left part of this picture.
In what must have been minutes, the Carmentran was completely covered in flames and ashes were flying everywhere. I can’t imagine a small community event in the States ending so spectacularly. Thank you France!