The Sambódromo | Samba schools | Rehearsals | Carnival balls
Bluffer's guide to carnival | Bloco calendar | Bloco survival
Forty-six days before Easter (hence it, too, falls on a different date each year), across Brazil samba schools ranging from the 85 year-old, multi-million giant Mangueira to the most provincial community gathering get their chance to show what they are made of and parade in front of the masses. Each city may have its own little eccentricities and charm, but flying the carnival flag globally is Rio's two-day extravaganza, a dazzling display of colour and sound that has captured the imagination of the planet.
And for good reason. A year's worth of highly secretive blood, sweat and tears goes into each school's theme, costumes, music and choreography, the slightest chink in the armour costing precious points from watchful judges. Things may have progressed greatly from the 1930s when the parades were first formalised and overtook the street blocos in prominence, most notably with the construction of the purpose-built Sambódromo in 1984, but the rich history remains intact, even if few revellers will be denying themselves for forty days afterwards, though a few probably should.
Friday and Saturday of Carnival see the Grupo de Acesso A parade down the Sambódromo, the Oscar Niemeyer-designed concrete behemoth that, when empty, couldn't look less Carnivalesque if it tried. Built on a 700-metre stretch of Avenida Marques de Sapucaí (hence its nickname, Sapucaí), it was renovated this year to extend the capacity to 75,000, with tickets priced according to designated blocks along the route where the view is best or nearest the judging panels where the show is really laid on.
There are no fewer than nine 'divisions' in all, with only the winners gaining promotion to the Grupo Especial the following year. Sunday and Monday is the turn of the big boys, this year with thirteen in all after the decision was made not to relegate anyone in 2011 due to the fire that tore through the Cidade do Samba. For the winners, the glory and adoration of the people and then the chance to revel and do it all again the following Saturday in the Parade of Champions.
The samba schools
The epicentre of the action, the samba schools are in it for the big prize and spend the best part of a year getting ready for parade day, individually crafting the thousands of costumes and building the floats to tell the story as created by the carnivalesco, the creative mastermind. A lot hinges on his vision, as well, of course, on the musicians and the song chosen months before and then practiced relentlessly. These rehearsals are public affairs and each school hosts their own, usually midweek and at the weekend, to help prepare and get the public fired up for their performance and familiar with the song.
Street carnival: the blocos
The flipside of carnival, and one that has become as important as the parade itself for the loose and the lively, are the blocos, local neighbourhood street parties ranging from the smallest bunch of oddly-festooned loons with trumpets to the mighty Monobloco, who last year pulled over one million lairy samba lovers to Centro at 9am for a parade down Avenida Rio Branco. Each year there is a new word-of-mouth hit (like last year's Sargenta Pimenta who did four hours of samba'd up Beatles and brought Botafogo to its knees), a 'were you there?' moment (the couple having sex on the Fasano Hotel balcony as thousands danced past) and the dependable classics (Céu na Terra and Banda de Ipanema to name but two), you just have to get amongst the action.