Every weekend from January to March, it is carnaval in Limoux and I arrive in the large town on a cold winter Sunday. Inside the 15th century church of St Martin they are getting ready for mass, but outside in the colonnaded Place de la Republic, crowds are gathering in excited anticipation of the first parade of the day. Tradition dictates that the theme of the first parade is grotesque in style and the scene has already been set by the placement of a stage of prostitute models and a Madam suspended from a balcony, legs spread wide, offering local specialities!
A little later than scheduled, one of the many local groups partaking in the carnaval, Les Femmes (The Women), emerge from one of several bars in the main square. They are dressed in fluorescent colours, with afro wigs and carrying inflatable musical instruments. A brass band accompanies them as they slowly dance to the next bar and then disappear inside. Ten minutes later they emerge and continue their parade to the next bar. They visit five bars in total and it seems more like a pub crawl than a parade.
I return to the square in the afternoon, for a second parade. This time they are dressed in traditional white pierrot costumes, with beautifully painted masks. As they pass, they sprinkle the spectators with white confetti, which settles on the pavement and looks like snow. I’m surprised at how many people are braving the freezing temperatures to see them. I’m driven inside in search of something warm. Limoux is well known for its sparkling wine, blanquette de Limoux, but I opt for the hot red wine and slowly sip it while watching through the window for the parade to pass by outside. However, it doesn’t pass, but instead the bar doors are flung open, allowing in the cold air and the parade. Drinks are lined up on the bar for them and they seem in no rush to go back outside where the spectators are waiting for them to re-emerge.
The third and final spectacle of the day takes place at 10pm and is by torchlight. Much as I want to return and watch, I know that I will be more tempted by the prospect of a warm bed. On Sunday 22nd March, it will be the night of the Blanquette, when the best group, as voted by the local people, will be presented with a prize for all their efforts and the sparkling wine will be flowing in celebration of a successful carnival.