Rio might own the traditional winter Carnival, but summer belongs to Notting Hill. This charming London neighborhood becomes a delirious shower of sparkles and feathers during the Notting Hill Carnival, which starts Saturday, August 23 this year and culminates with a pulse-pounding parade on Monday. A million people come to this Afro-Caribbean festival every year, but there’s always room for a few more, so grab your friends and hit the biggest street party in Europe for a hip-shaking, boot-stomping good time you’ll never forget.
As you snag a prime parade-viewing spot on the corner, a bone-rattling rhythm starts to echo through the air, which is rich with the intoxicating aroma of jerk chicken and fried plaintains. Before the action kicks into high gear, send one of your pals off to pick some up for the group from a street vendor–the old “I buy, you fly” routine should get them moving–while you explain the very serious history of this very festive event.
The London Carnival began in 1964 as a way for the Afro-Caribbean community to come together, but its roots reach back to the Caribbean carnivals of the 19th century, when recently-freed slaves publicly celebrated their cultures. Back then, it was more than a party, it was a crucial way to revive ancient traditions of dance, song, storytelling, and cuisine after being stifled for so many years. The London party is a love song to those Caribbean roots, and while generations have passed since the first carnivals, there’s still a palpable sense of release among participants, who dance and sing their hearts out even if it’s raining. The Sunday parade features child performers and younger audiences–perfect for bringing your family–but Monday is the real deal, which is what brings you here with your besties.
You can feel the anticipation as the streets fill up with performers and enormous sound systems to carry those all-important beats to the masses. You’re still savoring the gooey-sweet plantains when crowd starts to roar. The first float, decked out in bright purple and green swirls, is coming down the road. The rhythm is infectious and the dancers are stunning as they shimmy, strut, and sway.
You’re suddenly surrounded by a flock of women wearing beads, feathers, and rhinestones, and you manage to pose for snaps with a gilded teal and tan peacock. A black, flame-winged Pegasus passes by as the deejays spin soca, calypso, reggae, samba, ska, and other “island riddims” and steel bands play drums as they move down the street, never missing a beat. The most extravagant troupes flutter around in giant tropical bird and butterfly outfits, wreathed by enormous feathery wingspans. You could easily fill a memory card with photos, but take time to experience the moment for yourself, allowing the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors to transport you to some verdant tropical island.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, people begin to dance in the alleys and nooks of Notting Hill, while the parade streams down the streets till dark. Confetti rains down from the skies, and you, lost in the rhythm and the spirit of fun, start up a conga line of your own.