Behind the mask

700 years of crazy carnival traditions in the Czech Republic

It’s a little before 6:30am in early February; I’m an hour and a half’s drive southeast of Prague and the land is still cloaked in darkness. In the headlights fir trees crowd the road, but for the first time since leaving the city I can sense the vastness of the rolling Czech countryside beyond. As the car crests a hill, the road dips away to reveal a stunning view: a crescent of moon sits low in the pre-dawn sky. Around it, planets shine in rare alignment; Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and Mercury stretch away in a curve towards the horizon.

The landscape seems poised, as if on the cusp of something dramatic. It’s a fitting start for a day of carnival.

Half an hour further along narrow lanes and around hairpin turns, the sun is up over the farming community of Vortová. Outside the pub and village hall preparations are already in full swing: people hurry in and out carrying great canteens of food, bottles and bits of costume. The mayor, Ladislav Šmahel, approaches with a hearty handshake. Gesturing that he speaks no English, he ushers me towards the hall and tips an imaginary glass. ‘Pivo,’ he says. Beer.

Through two sets of doors a large room is filled with music and laughter, and I instantly lose the mayor in the throng. Villagers are gathered around men as they finish dressing into bizarre homemade outfits. Raised on a stage behind, four old men kick out a bass-drum beat and blow brass instruments. Suddenly a man decked all in white with a string of sausages around his midriff appears and inspects me through a grotesque padded facemask. Then he turns, cracks a whip and screams out a high ‘li-li-li-li-li’ cry, sending the crowd into cheers. A slap on my shoulder and the mayor is back arm in arm with Alex, a local translator.

Welcome to masopust!” Alex shouts over the din. ‘Are you ready to have some fun?’ It’s about change,’ bellows Alex as the band kicks into another brassy burst. ‘The season is starting to turn and this was the really important time. You wanted to make sure the crops would grow, that your animals would be healthy, that the community would bind together and do well in the year ahead.’

As the carnival’s characters file from the hall to gather in the streets, I see flashes of what he’s saying in the flower-festooned costumes or ‘masks’. Three men (known as the ‘Mares’) have horse heads protruding from their frilly waistbands; two others are dressed almost entirely in straw, looking like they’ve just risen from the fields. Alex explains that the man who gave me a fright in the hall is one of the ‘Ras’: ‘In English they are known as the knacker?’ He says. ‘Something like a witch doctor and a butcher. In the olden days, they scared off wild animals or killed sick livestock. Today they make sure people are healthy, checking your heart…and your other organs.’

Before he can elaborate there is a flurry of shrieks and whip-cracks. The Mares whinny and stomp forward; the other masks fall into order behind, jogging up the road with the band bringing up the rear. I find myself running alongside. Beside me are four men in colourfully dressed costumes: red or blue tunics with lace collars, red dots on their cheeks and cone hats flowing with rainbows of ribbons. These are ‘Turkmen’ or dancers. As with all the performers, each man has a specific role to play and it can takes years to perfect their part. Behind them is the ‘spotted’ man or ‘joker’ dotted with colour and his ‘wife’ – a serious looking man decked out in a black dress, red ribbons, earrings, rosy cheeks and hat.

First stop is Mayor Šmahel’s house where he grants permission for the masopust to begin and reads out each mask’s duties. Plates of schnitzel and doughnuts are washed down with shots of slivovitz, a potent, clear plum brandy made from damsons. Then we’re off again, up the hill, into snow-thick fields glistening gold with the rising sun.

Ahead, the spotted man and his wife are knocking at a door to a beautiful cabin layered with dark wood struts. ‘The masopust visits the outlying houses of the village first,’ Alex explains. ‘But they visit every house eventually, blessing all.’ A man answers and hands over some money to the wife who signals for the band to strike up. The Turkmen jig and spin in something reminiscent of Morris dancing while, at the rear of the parade, things take a turn for the mischievous.

Two men in chimneysweep masks, decked in black from head to toe, draw black stripes on people’s faces for good luck and chase after the snowball-lobbing children. Meanwhile the Strawmen – with their masks representing the land’s fertility – turn their attention to the women, handing over a straw from their costumes to ensure that the farm’s animals breed well and crops flourish. To much amusement, they also attempt a tumble in the snowdrifts with any willing partner. Then it’s more trays of smoked pork, pastries and tumblers of slivovitz to toast the procession.

Weaving this way from house to house, we follow a ritual played out in these hills for centuries. And from toddlers to the elderly, it’s clear the whole village is swept up in the wave of joy and performance. It’s impossible not to feel part of it.

Carnival brings us together', Alex tells me.

The masks change people and this makes everybody act in a way they never would in normal life. You are free. During masopust rules are inverted. Disagreements settled. And in the morning, all is forgotten. This day of release keeps everyone in harmony for the rest of the year.’

But carnival in the Czech Republic wasn’t confined to the countryside. From these earthy roots, the tradition of theatricality, excess and wearing masks bloomed into something quite different in the hands of the city-dwelling aristocracy and ruling empires of Europe.

Two hours later I’m back in Prague walking along the cobbled streets of the Old Town under a clear blue sky, marvelling at a dizzying array of Baroque architecture. It was here that the Italian Renaissance first spread into Northern Europe and – with the buildings, art and music – came the fashion for the kind of grand masquerade balls made famous in Venice. Although masopust parades had been celebrated on these streets since the medieval period, the masked balls of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries saw a new level of luxury, extravagance and artistry. Hosted by the nobility in Prague’s many palaces, these were intimate soirees for the elite involving ornate costumes, elaborate masks, music, dancing, opera and the finest food and wine.

In the downstairs studios of the Clam-Gallas Palace, one of Prague’s most impressive historic venues, I meet Zlatuše Müller, co-director of ‘Prague Carnevale’ – a high-end, 12-day programme of events dedicated to restoring the historic glories of the Baroque period when Prague was party city of the Habsburg Empire. As well as dances, exhibitions, performances and opera recitals, it culminates in the lavish ‘Crystal Ball’ – a dramatic recreation of a masked ball held at Clam-Gallas, attended by the city’s current high society.

When I arrive, Zlatuše and her team are busy with preparations. Racks of costumes line corridors, vases of lilies perfume the rooms, tailored breeches and tunics are being decorated with ribbons and brooches. Anna, a lady in her sixties, is being fitted with her costume: a lace-bound corset, ribbed skirt and powdered wig. After her make-up comes a beautiful red mask with gold detail over her eyes. Transformation complete, she instinctively sashays to the mirror, bows, flicks open a fan and offers her hand to me to be kissed.

“When you wear a mask, you become transformed,” says Zlatuše, looking on. “You spontaneously adopt the role. In the Baroque period these masks allowed the nobility to change. So, if you were rich, you might become poor. You might become the fool or spend the night incognito – which allowed you to behave as a totally different character.”

To illustrate, Zlatuše tries on an iconic ‘Bauta’, the protruding, beak-like, wax-white mask covering the face down to the lower jaw; a favourite of the famous lover Casanova – himself a Prague resident in his later years. The Bauta is one of many stunning examples of craftsmanship laid out on a table in front of me. This is because on top of directing events, Zlatuše and her husband, Rotislav, are the driving force behind the boutique atelier ‘Franzis Wussin’ – Prague Carnevale’s official costumier and mask-maker. Their wares range from full facemasks (designed to alter the voice) to silver and gold eyewear edged with Baroque rolls, reminiscent of elaborate picture frames. All are replicas of masks created and worn in this city, and all are made via the same processes as used three hundred years ago.

Making the masks

“We first press papier mâché in casts,” Zlatuše says, showing me a simple, unadorned version. “It has to be papier mâché because it lets your face breathe. Your sweat softens its structure so it reforms to fit your face exactly. It becomes unique to you.”

Eyeholes are cut next and the mask is blacked with special paint inside and out. Once it is dry, fabric is added or there is further painting, before the final decorations, such as Bohemian crystals, pearls or brocade.

It takes a week minimum to make a mask,” Zlatuše explains. “But you can’t rush it. That’s the only way to ensure authenticity and quality. It’s a pleasure to do this, to create something beautiful that changes the way you are and the way you experience the city.”

A huge crowd has gathered in Loreta Square. Cars are at a standstill. A helicopter hovers above. I am caught up among revellers bedecked in an array of outfits that seem to reflect every aspect of Czech carnival’s incarnations – from pre-Christian rural ritual to modern street party. One man is dressed entirely in green and draped with grapes, another echoes the Mare masks of Vortová by sporting a horse’s head on top of his own. Elsewhere I see people dressed as robots, mime artists, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, even a geisha, and – as you’d expect – many wear Baroque attire with expensive masks and wigs.

At the head of the procession is a group of men dressed in Austro-Hungarian costume squeezed into an old open-top car. Bands play, drummers hammer bass drums and the throng moves down the streets as one: a loud, proud, multicoloured manifestation of time and tradition. Accepting a large shot of slivovitz and a homemade mask from a man dressed as bird, I decide there’s only one way to end the day. I take the advice Zlatuše offered as I left her at the Clam-Gallas palace:

“Wear the costume; keep the mask and open your heart to what will arrive. That’s it.”

When is it?

Across the Czech Republic the Shrovetide carnival celebrations of ‘masopust’ run between Christmas and Easter every year, usually from the end of January to the end of February or beginning of March. Wrapped up with ancient fertility rites, it covers the build up between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, literally translating as “Farewell to Meat,” an etymology it shares with Carnival. But it is also known as ‘fašank’ and ‘ostatky’, depending on location.

Where is it?

Most Czech cities, towns and villages hold some sort of masopust celebration – although precise times and events vary. Most neighbourhoods across Prague have their own events, taking place either on local squares, streets or pubs. The largest and most popular take place in Žižkov and Malá Strana. The Žižkov Masopust – the longest-running – features a market gathering on náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, a parade through the streets and market serving traditional food and beers from several microbreweries. Hundreds also turn out for Malá Strana masopust, a street parade that meanders through the cobbled streets down from Prague castle to Kampa Park, and it is one of the best ways to see the city. The procession, which doubles as a pub crawl, begins at the famous centuries-old watering hole, U Černého vola (At the Black Ox), at 2 p.m., and then winds its way down with stops at five other pubs before ending at Kampa Park, located on an island just next to Charles Bridge.

Also in Prague, and running between 18th and 28th Feb 2017, is the Bohemian Carnevale, which revives the Baroque masked ball traditions – the masopust celebrations of the Czech aristocracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries – culminating in the grand masked ball held at Clam-Gallas Palace. Expect street parties, opera recitals, parades, dancing and shows spilling onto the streets of the Old Town.

In the village of Doudleby, near České Budějovice, the traditional masopust masks are particularly noteworthy, thanks to their preservation by folk troupe ‘Doudleban’, which also processes around local villages and cities, complete with a cannon.

For a true taste of community spirit, boisterous partying and flashes of ancient Pagan rites, the authentic masopust celebrations of the UNESCO-listed villages of the Hlinecko region – Vortová, Studnice, Hamry, Blatno, Podhradí, Vitanov and Stan u Hlinska – are unmissable. These are usually all-day processions starting at 7am and lasting well into the wee hours, involving slivovitz, doughnuts, pork schnitzel and much frivolity. But all are very welcoming to visitors. Check local village sites for details.

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