Masks, music, confetti, strange words whispered in your ear… welcome to the Carnival of Limoux.
Head 30km south from the Aude’s capital Carcassonne, and you can discover Limoux. This seemingly unassuming town, nestled in vineyards in Southwest France, is home to an intriguing annual event. Known as the longest running carnival in the world, each weekend from January to April, the main square Place de la République, comes alive. For around 3 months of the year, bands play, Pierrots dance and spectators drink under the medieval timber archways.
Every year the carnival takes over the town and livens up the winter – it is woven into the town’s identity and all involved prepare months in advance.
The carnival has its roots in the Middle Ages and has run almost continuously for over 400 years. Centuries ago, millers brought flour to the nearby monastery to pay their tax and would throw it and sweets to the crowds. The sweets have now been replaced by confetti (guaranteed to be found in your house for months). The tradition of Carnival let off steam and used up food supplies before Lent.
This annual event takes over the town and livens up the winter – it is woven into the town’s identity and all involved prepare months in advance.
Parades are held in the morning, afternoon and evening. It feels like a vibrant local community is at the heart of the festivities. In the morning, Goudils – people wearing masks, parade through the town. They mock a political event or a chosen theme of the time. This performance feels somewhat like a warmup, with distinctly smaller crowds.
Meet the stars of the show
In the afternoon the Pierrots appear, or Fecos as they are known in Occitan (the language of the region). There are close to 30 different groups or guilds, each with their own distinct costume. The Fecos are undoubtably the real draw for the crowds. All follow a similar slow rhythmic dance whilst throwing confetti over the willing spectators. They make regular stops at the bars and cafes in the square to indulge in a glass of sparkling wine (the famous Blanquette de Limoux) before continuing the circuit with slow, choreographed movements.
Fecos are masked with the entire head covered; they perform to the crowd and create dramatic shapes with their bodies and carabines – a kind of wand made from a reed wrapped in paper which matches their outfits. The musicians follow, providing the Fecos with the rhythm of their elegant movements. Brass, wind instruments, and drums resonate through the square, playing traditional carnival tunes.
After the musicians, the Goudils reappear. They are not attached to any group; anyone can join in. They often wear grotesque masks and provoke the crowd. Anything is allowed during carnival; it is a time for letting go when normal rules are forgotten. For people experiencing the carnival for the first time, it can feel a somewhat eerie affair but spend some time in the town and it becomes apparent that the atmosphere is convivial with all generations getting involved. The daytime is especially light-hearted.
The evening performance has an atmosphere of its own. At night torches made from resin and straw chips illuminate the way for the Fecos.
Under the cover of darkness, a different tone is set with no restrictions. Identities are concealed and strange Occitan words are whispered into the crowds’ ears. Each evening, the same dances are performed.
The carnival culminates in the last night – the Nuit de la Blanquette. The cafes open late and drink and festivities are enjoyed into the small hours. After midnight the carnival king, represented by a straw dummy, is judged and tried in Occitan – he is always found guilty and burnt on a bonfire. The Fecos of the last night take off and burn their Pierrot costumes (leaving only their underclothes and masks – a sight to behold); they dance around the bonfire singing Adieu Paure Carnaval – Goodbye poor carnival). This strange ceremony harks back to the carnival origins that come from pagan times marking the end of winter and the return of spring.
It is well after midnight when the festivities end; the crowds disperse, trampling through confetti filled streets under the light of streetlamps. With many glasses of Blanquette consumed, they wait for another year.