Mardi Gras, Carnival celebrations around the world

Most New Orleanians view our Mardi Gras season as a time for parades, street parties and Carnival balls (unlike some tourists, who seem to think of it as a chance to drink too much and do whatever it takes to get beads). But there must be a million ways to both see this last bash before Lent and celebrate it. Read on for just a few ways in which different places observe the free-for-all that is carnival.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As the mother of carnaval celebrations, Rio really may be the "greatest show on Earth." In the peak of the South American summer, the four-day celebration is highlighted by extravagant parades.

On Sunday and Monday, more than a dozen samba schools will compete in categories of costumes, choreography and percussion in the massive Sambadrome. Tickets are available to tourists, but at a hefty price. However, outside the Sambadrome, other bandas, some with as many as 10,000 participants, take the street carnaval to every neighborhood in Rio.

After dark, many of the city's clubs host wild and raunchy balls with uninhibited dancing and drinking into the wee hours. Other balls are ritzy, and the gay drag queen ball is one of the hottest tickets in town. While some parties are private, most hotel concierges can arrange admission. Visit www.ipanema.com For an excellent just-facts-folks site, and type in rio de janeiro, brazil.

Cadiz, Spain

Nestled in the coastal province of Andalucia, this otherwise tranquil colonial town changes radically during carnival. Established as a major port during the 16th century, Cadiz imported the celebrations of Venice, and now is renowned for its papier mache figurines and satirical songs.

While carnival was abolished numerous times during Spain's history, it always has thrived in Cadiz, where locals traditionally roast prohibitions and politicians with irreverent observations. Parties, parades and processions run a week before and after Shrove Tuesday; singing groups, often with 40 or more members, roam streets, mocking current events and prominent figures.

It all leads up to Concurso del Falla, a competitive song fest in the elaborate Gran Teatro Falla. In the nearby Plaza de Catedral, some of Spain's most popular rock groups perform while firecrackers pop all over the city.The main events and parades take place on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Shrove Tuesday.

Check for details.

Venice, Italy

Traditions behind the Carnevale di Venezia reportedly go back to Roman times, with some accounts mentioning a two-month party in the 1100s. Some stories say it reached its peak in the 18th century, then dwindled. Most histories report that carnival masks were popular, so both the aristocracy and the common people could mingle freely (the words "rapid moral degeneration" crop up in one story), but a dozen accounts differ in its temporary demise: Some say Napoleon Bonaparte stopped it in 1797, others that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini banned it in the 1930s.

Whatever, all agree it was revived in 1979 by some non-Venetians, and embraced by local merchants and the hospitality industry. These days it's one of the world's most elegantly elaborate carnivals, with exquisite and regal -- and haunting -- masks and costumes.

The Venice carnival is the 10 days before Ash Wednesday, when a variety of events turn the city's streets and canals into one big stage. While the masked balls are more popular with the wealthy, the "Rummellai" (popular carnival) includes street plays, concerts, folklore and dances. There is also a water procession with masked rowers and decorated boats as well as nightly fireworks that light up the Grand Canal. The simultaneous "official" carnival ends with a grand ball on Shrove Tuesday in St. Mark's Square.

There's good information at www.guestinvenice.com/homeeng.asp; Venice's official home page (click English and then Travelbook).

Dusseldorf, Germany

Germany's carnival is known as fasching, fastnacht or karneval, a weekend holiday celebrated in many cities, but Dusseldorf's massive Rosenmontag parade the Monday before Shrove Tuesday often draws more than a half-million revelers. The city crowned its first carnival prince and held its first Rose Monday parade in 1825, and has interrupted the annual celebration only in times of war and national emergencies.

Dusseldorf's celebration is best known for its Alt Weiberstag (Old Hag's Day) and schmutziger Donnerstag (Dirty Thursday). On Old Hag's Day, women run through the streets with scissors to snip off ties and playfully harass men in exchange for kisses. The partying traditionally lasts all weekend, ending with Rose Monday's parade. Other parades and parties go on the previous two weekends, all winding down on Ash Wednesday, when it's the custom for families to gather for fish dinners.

There's not a whole lot of information about the German carnival, but for tourism information, check www.germany-tourism.de. Unfortunately, there is no English translation yetonwww.duesseldorf-tourismus.de (click on the British flag, which usually means an English translation, and "comming soon" pops up).

Rethymnon, Crete

One of the more significant carnival celebrations in Greece takes place in this small island town, where locals costume, drink, eat and dance into the early morning. Revived by locals in 1960, this carnival evokes the time when troubadours toted mandolins and includes communal treasure hunts.

Competing dancing groups weave through the markets and locals toss confetti from balconies. There's a street party on Shrove Tuesday and a parade with more than 5,000 masked revelers at night. Catch a glimpse of the action.

For information about Rethymon.

Oruro, Bolivia

One of the more obscure carnivals in the Americas is Oruro's devilish celebration, a centuries-old tradition that has survived since pre-colonial days. The exotic diablada (devil's dance), processions and events take place during the eight days preceding Ash Wednesday.

Beginning early in the morning with two figures who dress as a condor and a bear, the procession also includes masked dancers in red cloaks following figures of Satan and Lucifer. Hundreds of devils wear horns, bulging eyes and fangs. The whole parade heads to the football stadium, where two medieval plays are enacted, the first portraying the brutal Spanish conquistadores, the second the triumph of the archangel Michael over the devils and seven deadly sins.

Diabladas sometimes goes on for days. The festival originally was based on the pre-colonial ceremony of giving thanks to pachamama (mother earth), and then was integrated with traditional Catholic carnival celebrations.

While it is a festive atmosphere with heavy alcohol consumption, it is a carnival that might attract those who are adventurous and culturally inquisitive. Do a google.com search with Bolivia and Carnival to find out more information, especially about tours that go to this event.