Party Hardy: Celebrating Carnival in the Netherlands

This destination trip report will cover the carnival celebrations in the south of the Netherlands.

Arrival

After my delayed KLM flight from Stavanger to Amsterdam I was happy to have finally arrived in the Netherlands.  As I was rather desperate to catch a certain southbound train in order to arrive on time for the big carnival parade, I was glad once I finally sat down in the train realising I would still make it.

Train to the south of the Netherlands

The train connections from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to many destinations south in the country have been tremendously improved since I last used it some five years ago. A special intercity train now uses the same high speed railway line towards Rotterdam which is also used by the high speed Thalys trains to Paris and the Eurostar to London. These “IC Direct Trains” as they are marketed are however hauled by a normal electric locomotive and don’t reach anywhere near Japanese bullet train speeds of 300kph. Still, at speeds around 160-180kph, they do shave off some 30-40 minutes of the normal travel time.

train dutch netherlands ic intercity
A Dutch intercity train. ©Paliparan
interior dutch intercity train netherlands
The interior of a Dutch intercity train. ©Paliparan

At Rotterdam Central Station it was an easy change of trains to take me onwards to the southern Dutch city of Tilburg where I would celebrate carnival with some friends.

Carnival

Carnival, traditionally a Catholic festival with pagan influences, is celebrated in winter (dates varying each year, but always in February or March) in many countries across the world. We all know the famous carnival in Rio de Janeiro, or perhaps the one in places like Venice, but not many know that some of the best parties can actually be found in the Netherlands.

Don’t take my word for it. Brazilian football legend Romário said that after Brazil the best carnival parties can be found in the Netherlands. And if someone can know it, then it is Rio de Janeiro-born party animal Romário, who got initiated into Dutch carnival traditions while playing at PSV Eindhoven before his big transfer to Barcelona.

Two southern provinces

In the Netherlands, carnival is basically only celebrated in the two southernmost Dutch provinces (North Brabant and Limburg) and in some parts straddling the German border to the east. In North Brabant the festival is known under the basic Dutch translation of carnaval, while Limburgers prefer to say vastelaovend instead, which means “Eve of Lent” in the local dialect.

While local traditions can vary hugely from town to town and there are big differences between the way the people in Limburg and North Brabant celebrate, there are a few factors the festival has in common. Some uninitiated people would say that carnival is all about getting drunk, flirting and partying. While for many revellers these are indeed important aspects and carnival parties can be wild fun – the festival is so much more than just this.

For a total of five days (Friday until Tuesday) the cities and towns where carnival is celebrated come to a standstill. But even as early as three months before, there are run-up parties, lots of preparations and small traditions leading to the main event. Some float builders even work for an entire year on their creations which they show off during the big parade. Especially parade day is a moment which is celebrated equally by young and old who are all on the streets to party, to catch up or just to admire the floats.

carnival parade float
One of the huge floats at the Tilburg carnival parade. ©Paliparan

Role reversal

The idea behind carnival is a giant reversal of roles. For the duration of carnival, the Mayor symbolically hands over the keys of the town to the person elected as Prince Carnival, who heads the Council Of Eleven which organises all main carnival activities but for most also have a big symbolic function. Local carnival clubs also play a huge role in organising parties and smaller events across town.

People on the streets dress up in a wild variety of different costumes. In North Brabant for example, people either dress up in an idiotic or sexy way (for example, in a duck costume or as a sexy nurse) or come with their entirely own creation to wear. Most locals however, dress up in a kind of traditional blue farmer’s overall, which are often decorated with emblems from the carnival club they belong to or other funny patches.

In the city of Tilburg, you will see locals wear orange-and-green scarves or other accessories to set themselves apart from people from different cities, as orange-and-green are Tilburg’s colours during Carnival. In the city of Den Bosch for example, the omnipresent colours are red-white-yellow which you would see there everywhere if you happen to celebrate carnival in that city.

Carnival parade

Carnival suits and parade floats are often designed to criticise society. It is the time where you can freely mock whatever you want: celebrity figures, politics, religion or whatever else you fancy to ridicule. This might not always be easy to grasp for a foreigner as lots of statements involve local politics or funny word plays in the Dutch language, although this is not always the case.

In western Germany, where carnival has many similarities with the Netherlands, the float builders of the famous carnival parades of Dusseldorf and Cologne often will take on world issues. The image below is from a carnival float which was used in Dusseldorf and meant to mock Brexit and British PM Theresa May. It might make you help getting the point what such parades and carnival in general is all about – it is using humour to criticise all kinds of societal issues!

brexit carnival float
A carnival float mocking former British PM Theresa May and Brexit. ©Screenshot

Tilburg parade

At the parade in Tilburg, me and my friends were lucky to have a few crates of cold beers with us, which saved us from the need to buy overpriced beer from the huge queues which form in the cities’ pubs and outdoor stands. In between copious amounts of beer, locals in Tilburg also drink plenty of shots of ‘schrobbeler‘, which is a local herbal liquor, in order to stay warm. Remember that carnival in the Netherlands is no Rio de Janeiro where it is a sunny 30 degrees Celsius! Temperatures can easily hit below zero so it is of the utmost importance to keep on dancing, moving and drinking.

carnival parade tilburg netherlands
The carnival parade in Tilburg, the Netherlands. ©Paliparan
tilburg carnival parade
The carnival parade in Tilburg, the Netherlands. ©Paliparan

In the Netherlands, the last float in the parade is traditionally the one where Prince Carnival and his Council of Eleven stand on top.

prince carnival float parade
The last float of the parade traditionally features Prince Carnival and his Council of Eleven. ©Paliparan

Carnival parties

After the parade, the party really kicks in as all bars, streets and squares in the city centre fill up with revellers drinking and dancing the night away. One aspect which I personally always loved about carnival is how much it changes he mindset of the people. While during normal nights out everybody normally minds their own business, carnival is a time where everyone feels united and goes crazy.

People actually talk with others and seem to be more open-minded, friendly and welcoming than during any other time of the year. Normal barriers break as the entire city, young and old, just combines their efforts in making it a fun week-long party. Even those who are new to carnival would have an easy time making new friends and quickly get accustomed to all the small traditions and local quirks.

carnival party tilburg
People partying on the streets of Tilburg during carnival. ©Paliparan
carnival party tilburg
Carnival parties are held both on the streets and indoors and can last until deep in the night – if you manage to keep up! ©Paliparan

Lots of booze

Needless to say, me and my old pals drank quite a few beers and shots that evening and had lots of fun celebrating, singing and dancing. Unfortunately, for me it would only be one day of partying, as the next morning I already needed to go back to Amsterdam to continue my journey on my big Siberian journey.

carnival party beer booze
Drinking some beer at one of the carnival parties. ©Paliparan

Trip report index

This review is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: Wizz Air economy class from Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A day in the Norwegian capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways night train from Oslo to Stavanger in a private sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. A day in the city of Stavanger, Norway
6. Review: Stavanger Airport North Sea Lounge
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper business class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Celebrating carnival in the Netherlands (current chapter)
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France business class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot business class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot domestic business class lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport
14. Review: Aeroflot business class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Exploring the Siberian city of Irkutsk
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel
20. Review: Domestic business class lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot business class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24-hour stopover in the Russian capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ business class lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport
25. Review: Aeroflot business class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM business class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM business class lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
27. Review: Air France business class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
28. A short stopover in Paris
29. Review: ‘Sheltair’ business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
30. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
31. Review: Old City Hotel & Apartments, Baku
32. Baku: a captivating mix between old and new
33. Review: Azerbaijan Railways night train from Baku to Sheki in a private sleeper
34. Sheki and the Caucasus foothills
35. Visiting Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city of Ganja
36. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku
37. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class lounge Baku Airport
38. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class Baku to Paris (Airbus A320)
39. Review: Air France business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2F
40. Review: KLM business class Paris to Amsterdam (Boeing 737-800)
41. Review: KLM business class Amsterdam to Bergen (Boeing 737-800)
42. Review: First Marin Hotel, Bergen
43. Visiting the Norwegian city of Bergen
44. The Bergen Railway from Bergen to Oslo
45. The scenic Flam Railway from Myrdal to Flam
46. Review: Saga Hotel Oslo Central
47. Review: SAS economy class Oslo to Brussels (Boeing 737-600)
48. Review: Diamond Lounge (non-Schengen) Brussels Airport
49. Review: TAROM economy class Brussels to Bucharest (Boeing 737-800)

Koen

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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