Coastal parts of Montenegro partially close down for the colder seasons with bars, restaurants and places for leisure activities shutting their doors during less profitable months. So it makes sense that local people of all ages would make an effort to attend big events like this one. Many attendees made their way to Kotor solely for this event, hailing from all over Montenegro as well as other parts of Europe.
Excitement stirred in the air as festival-goers ascended on the event. Loud Balkan pop music echoed from the distance as we approached. Among locals, the Traditional Kotor Carnival (Montenegrin: Tradicionalni Kotorski Karneval) is one of the most popular events of the winter. ‘The Burning of the Carnival’ takes place on the last day of the carnival, it is the most dramatic and most long-awaited day in all the festivities. The Kotor Carnival has origins dating back to over 500 years ago and is in fact, a remnant of the former Venetian Republic rule of this region.
The Masked Parade
The carnival begins with The Masked Parade which is perhaps the biggest evidence of the former Venetian rule within this event. The presence of masks (including Venetian masks) and parading events are akin to those which take place all over Italy for Carnivale, during the end of winter. The crowds gathered on the sides of the road by the promenade before the parade began. With arms crossed, adults impatiently awaited the unfolding events while the small children clad in costumes played without a care in the world on the very road where the parade was about to take place. The hum of a motorcycle reverberated through the crowd before the parade began. A small clown sat atop the motorcycle surprising adults and children alike.
The Masked Parade is open for people of all ages. To join the parade, all you need is a group of like-minded individuals and a unifying theme or costume. Locals sometimes use the parade as an opportunity to deliver a political statement with humour, making light of trending local events or a particular individual. For others, it is a chance to demonstrate one’s skills, creativity or to simply let loose and have fun. There were sea creatures, marching bands, witches, baton twirlers, dancers, dragons and people dressed in Venetian style masks and costumes. There were also multiple floats. One of which made fun of the recent electricity price issue, where locals are suddenly receiving unjustifiable, ridiculous bills.
What I found most astounding was that applause was reserved for only one group who marched. They were the pioneers of Yugoslavia, dressed in the attire that young people wore during Tito’s famous parades. These marchers witnessed the socialist society from its early stages to the very end. Evidently, the time of Yugoslavia is still wistfully looked upon by the people who experienced it. The parade ended with the introduction of a male effigy wearing a top hat and glasses. In his hand, was a sign that read ‘goodbye’ in four languages and the title of an old Yugoslavian movie which you could say hints to some form of ‘don’t give up’.
The second stage of the carnival is a trial where a public court battle involving the effigy takes place. The effigy is named, this year he was called Giudice Ultimo Montagnano. Giudice is symbolically the perpetrator of all the bad events that happened to the people of Kotor. The witnesses of the case follow the effigy from the parade, pushing and shoving their way into the Old Town. “Stani” (English: Stop) a small girl dressed in pink shouted at me as I tried to make my way towards the old town, through the oceans of people. When the effigy arrived in the Old Town, colourful confetti exploded into the air, flying into the audience.
In a mix of Montenegrin and Italian, the effigy is accused of crimes which are inspired by true events that took place during the last 12 months. The government, crooked businessmen and other criminals are actually responsible for these ‘crimes’. These events hurt the citizens of Kotor and the trial is an opportunity for symbolic retribution. People chatter amongst themselves during this stage, mostly ignoring this part of the event. They were seemingly impatient for the main event that was to follow. The trial concludes with a guilty verdict. The punishment is death by burning.
Burning the effigy
Again, the crowds followed the condemned effigy to his place of execution. The marching band followed closely behind the effigy, along with dragons and someone who appeared to be St. George. People gathered by the shores of the bay, some sitting down by the rancid smelling water, as I did. The water glistened in the golden lights of the impending sunset. All the events of the Carnival were building to this point.
The dragons danced victoriously around the effigy while the band drummed in anticipation. Gunshots were fired which is typical of special Montenegrin celebrations. Fuel was thrown onto the effigy by the executioner (who also happened to be the judge). ‘The Funeral March’ played by the marching band, indicating that Guidice’s days were numbered and a fiery torch was pressed to the effigy’s fuel soaked body. The second and final applause of the event roared through the bay.
Events in Montenegro are like nothing else in the Western world
Unlike in a lot of the western world, meaningful events in Montenegro are not heavily exploited for profit which is unique in the modern world. Montenegro’s special occasions seem to hold an untarnished sacred meaning. This is something that I find intriguing given that most celebrations were bought to a halt during the days of Yugoslavia. There were 2 stands for cotton candy and a single stall for some masks at this event. As a foreigner, it is always refreshing to participate in Montenegrin celebrations because of this apparent purity. It is something that has to be experienced.
The Kotor Carnival pays homage to Montenegro’s past by continuing ancient introduced Italian traditions and gently nodding towards the long-lost but never forgotten Yugoslavia. It is an opportunity for the people to unite in their suffering and to let go of it cathartically through ceremony. Despite their hardships, they celebrate triumphantly like the resilient nation that they are.
Sickly sweet scents of cotton candy hung in the air, the streets suddenly went quiet. The crowds dispersed as quickly as they formed.
A Quick Guide for Visiting Kotor
For more inspiration and information for visiting Kotor check out my blog post where I wrote about my travels there.
Snooze & Explore YouTube Video on Kotor Carnival 2019
We also created a video on the Kotor Carnival.
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