Floats, masquerades, parades in Venice and themed dance groups in Nice; it's celebration time just before Lent.

February is typically a miserable, grey, cold month in Europe. The one redeeming factor is that it is also the month of Carnival and many cities across the Continent celebrate in style. Carnival is a festival that precedes Lent (a Christian/Catholic ritual that comprises 40 days of fasting and other penance) and carnivals often involve parades of floats, masquerades and a general sense of letting one's hair down.

Carnivals are held in cities across the Continent and come in all shapes and sizes, with each city celebrating in its own distinctive style. There are carnivals held in France, Germany, Portugal and Spain, among others. Over the course of the last three years, I have been to two carnivals – the world-famous one in Venice, Italy, and the largest carnival in France which is held in Nice in the south of France.

Extravaganza in Venice

The Venice carnival is a wild Baroque extravaganza that spans eight days before Lent (the dates this year are given as February 26 – March 8, with some pre-carnival celebrations during February 19-20). It is one of the oldest carnivals in the world, reputed to be dating back to the 13th century. Though the celebration of the carnival declined over the years, and was outright banned during Mussolini's leadership in the 1930s, it was revived in the 1980s and quickly became one of the biggest festivities of the year, drawing millions of visitors.

The calendar of events during the Venice Carnival can be found at tourist offices and online at official Venice Carnival website (http://www.carnevale.venezia.it/). In the evenings during the festival, there are costumed balls in the city. Entry to these balls is expensive and you should buy tickets beforehand as they often get sold out. There are also a number of free parades during the day and masked and costumed carnival goers mingle with the crowds and strike a pose or two on the endless bridges and squares of the city. Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), the biggest square in Venice, provides a wonderful centre stage setting for the lush costumes and the pomp and grandeur of the festival. It is a sight to see.

Practical information

However, be warned, that tourists vastly outnumber costumed carnival participants and while Venice is always enchanting, the surge in visitors during this period makes finding accommodation or seeing the sights extremely difficult. Book your accommodation well in advance and for better deals, explore accommodation options outside the city that provide shuttle service to the city. And, while in Venice, give in to the carnival spirit, buy a mask, join in the revelry and go where the crowds take you.

In Nice

The Nice Carnival also dates back to the 13th century and these days it attracts over a million visitors to the city for the festivities. The carnival in Nice is an altogether more staid and organised affair than the Venice carnival with a yearly theme that provides the inspiration for a succession of stunning carnival and flower parades along the Mediterranean. The carnival period runs for two weeks every year, with a repetition of the same parades over the days. The carnival parade comprises marching bands, themed dance groups, traditional floats with giant-sized Papier-mâché figures that are mesmerising in their size and detail and flower parades that are a heady concoction of hundreds of flowers arranged wonderfully on the floats. The flower parades are led by antique colourful cars and beautiful young women stand on the flower floats, waving and throwing flowers to the crowds. During the evenings, the Papier-mâché figurines from the day's parades are lit up and paraded through Place Massena in the centre of the city. This was my favourite part of the carnival to see the giant sized figurines glowering against the night sky, hemmed in by the ochre-toned buildings of Place Massena and with a spinning shiny giant carousel in the background.

For tourists

You need to buy tickets for the Nice parades which are very reasonable. There is a useful website—http://www.nicecarnaval.com/en/index.php - that gives you background to the Nice carnival, provides a link to book your tickets online and has accommodation offers. In the city itself, you can book tickets at several handy kiosks near the parade area and get more information at dozens of tourist offices. Unless you have difficulties standing for an hour or two, the tickets to stand by the parade are a better deal than the more expensive ones for seats in designated areas along the parade route as the former allows you up close to the parades where you can cheer them on, take pictures and catch dozens of flowers thrown from the floats.