The Carnival of Sciacca in Sicily may not be as famous as the Venice or Rio carnivals, but it is just as much fun.
The day started with such heavy rain there was even talk of calling it all off, but in the end the rain stopped and the festivities started.
All the children were in costume, even though it was so cold that most of them had anoraks and bobble hats over the top. Even the babies in their pushchairs were dressed as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, bumble bees, ladybirds and in one case, Father Christmas.
Among the adults, I spotted a large group of men dressed as brides, complete with wedding veils. Their girlfriends were wearing suits and top hats. I burst into spontaneous laughter when I saw two girls in magnificent, giant feathery headdresses like those worn in Rio de Janeiro: they had stretched matching sequinned bikinis over the top of their tightly zipped anoraks and jeans!
My favourite costume was this Egyptian mummy…..
…until I saw a monk and a nun dancing with their three gap-toothed children, who stole his thunder. The nun had a spreading headdress like a 17th century Dutch painting. I am devastated that my photo of them did not work, so I have reconstructed the look for you in police identikit style:
The Mother Superior told me they were expecting kiddie number four, and had got their cosume idea from Sister Roxana Rodriguez, a nun who gave birth in Italy recently and named her son Francis, after the Pope, to prove she is quite devout really.
“Bless you my child,” said the Mother Superior as we parted company.
Of course this is exactly the kind of naughtiness that Carnival is all about. Back in the old days it was a festival when people broke every rule of their staid and very inhibited society, talking and flirting openly with strangers of the opposite sex, holding hands and dancing saucily – all behind the safe anonymity of their funny carnival masks. To do this any time outside carnival would have led to the ruination of a girl’s reputation and thus ended any prospect of marriage.
To encourage the joking and general risqué behaviour at carnival time, rude foods were invented. They were supposed to use up the rich and luxurious ingredients that were to be forsaken during the 40-day fasting period of Lent. Sicilian cannoli were originally a carnival food designed to look phallic: if you imagine carefully sculpting the cheese at one end, I think they could be made to look unappetisingly realistic.
The cities in Italy each have their own specific Carnival character, derived from characters in Roman comedy plays. They are normally stupid and cheating servants who cause slapstick mayhem. The King of the Carnival in Sciacca is called Peppe Nappa. The children learn songs about him to sing at the party.
Notice the Rod Stewart wig there. Among those not in full costume, silly headgear was the order of the day. There were lots of jester hats, daft wigs and flashing devil horns, but I also saw a horned Viking helmet, some top hats, a feathery Indian head-dress and one man with a large, frondy fern growing off the top of his head.
The best came last, though, when I found Spiderman, queueing up to buy a pancake with Nutella and ground pistachio nuts.
“The trouble is,” he told me, “to eat this, I shall have to reveal my true identity.”