Forget Venice, New Orleans and Notting Hill - if you really want to experience the most vibrant, most exciting of carnivals, you need to head to the city of Salvador, in Brazil's Bahia region
It was crazy. Wherever I looked there were people. Thousands and thousands of them. Some dancing to the fantastic rythms, some watching the dancing, some drinking and watching the people watching the dancing, and some doing, well, things better left to the imagination. But all of them having an absolute ball. This, my friends, is a February evening in Salvador and it can only be carnival Brazilian-style.
The four days before Ash Wednesday are the cue to begin carnival in Brazil. Clearly, many years ago, someone decided that with New Year celebrations over with, life was getting far too dull, so why not have another bash with Lent coming up? So, believe it or not, all the colour and madness are to celebrate a serious religious event!
The mention of Brazilian carnival instantly evokes images of Rio and a fantastic parade of beautifully adorned people wearing stunning costumes. And that’s true – for Rio, because it is probably the biggest, and the most famous in the world. But carnival, or carnaval in Portuguese, is a national event in towns and villages all over Brazil, and in Salvador in particular, it is something unique and special.
Salvador is in the Bahia region of Brazil. It's a region of fantastic beaches and beautiful sea but it’s also steeped in African culture, courtesy of the 1.3 million African slaves that were imported into Bahia before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888. That's double the number imported into the entire USA. The slaves were brought in to work the sugar cane, rubber and coffee plantations and they and their descendants have made the area what it is today. This is a place where reggae is revered, and it is also where samba originated; the food is Afro-Caribbean and it’s the home of capoeira dancing, a combination of martial arts fighting and ballet.
To really get a glimpse of Salvador’s past, you need to take a stroll around the old city, or the Pelourinho as the locals call it. It really is the old heart of Salvador, with colourful colonial-era buildings and winding cobblestone streets: the perfect backdrop for the street celebrations of Carnaval - but more of that later. Tuesday nights are special here; they’re called benção, which means blessing, and celebrate the time when bread was given out to the poor on Tuesday evenings, which, of course, heralded much joyous celebration. So a time for much drinking and dancing is a Tuesday night, particularly at the beginning and end of the month, for some reason. The summer months between December and March are the busiest times but, of course, the most interesting!
Which leads us rather perfectly into Carnaval, which always take place in February. Salvador’s carnival is a true mass street event running over six days, where blocks (or blocos, as they are called there) of dancing revellers parade behind trucks laden with live bands belting out various mixes of samba, reggae and rock from massive sound systems loud enough to waken the dead.
Nowhere else in Brazil does it quite this way.This heady, intoxicating mix of bands, booze and dance is enough to send the assembled throng into a state of almost untold abandonment. It’s a pretty awesome sight to see nearly a million people in the streets of the Old City (and we’re talking about morning to night, and, well, morning again really) in what looks like total chaos, but is actually a very well organised affair. You gain admission to a bloco by buying a unique T-shirt that qualifies you to be ‘behind the rope’. Obviously there is great demand for these T-shirts and as they’re pretty expensive, naturally there’s a black market for them. Be warned: many fakes abound.
The city sets aside around 15 miles of streets in three circuits for the event, with the Campo Grande circuit being the oldest and most prestigious of the three. Those without the precious T-shirts (called Popcorners, because they pop up and down) line the route and wave and dance along with everyone else.
I was one of the lucky ones though. Not only did I have my bloco pass, I actually made it on to the top of one of the trucks and just watched it all play out around me. There were people as far as the eye could see, just feeling good and partying hard. You may have been to Mardis Gras, or the Notting Hill Carnival, or even Venice, but I can assure you that Carnaval here is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before in a lifetime of trying. Salvador is said to present Carnaval in the traditional way it was meant to be. In fact, there is a real vibe in this region of doings things in traditional ways, from the food to the fun. Salvador has its roots just where it wants them. And we’re all the more thankful for it.