Despite intentions, we actually ended up at the Rio Carnival Parade after all. We had a couple of days dithering about the cost, and then about the time (we had an early flight the next carnival floatmorning) but eventually decided to pay up. The prices had come down a little from what was emailed 3 weeks before and our trawls through the local papers would simply reveal things like that the final 4% of tickets had been released and were on sale in various obscure parts of the city.

We ended up paying £120 each for some of the cheaper seats overlooking the main parade section. (There´s a very complicated system of sectors and ticket types and a real hierarchy of views.) In the end I really can´t complain about what we got for the money. I´ve certainly never seen a display like it.

Although we read plenty of advice on the best positions to watch the parade, and eventually chose the cheaper seats I don't think it would have made much difference paying more. When we arrived (about 9pm, missing the first school) we could barely move up on the grandstands and felt we were going to be stuck on the entrance steps for the whole show. Butcarnival float with few problems we pushed to the front and spent the evening on the front tier of the concrete steps. There was a fair peppering of foreigners – people from Mexico and from Bahrain – and great friendliness. The locals were constantly asking where you'd come from and trying out bits of different languages, sharing food and binoculars. It emptied out towards the early hours, though I can't see how the suggestion in the guide books of arriving at midnight and buying up tickets from departing crowds would have worked because half the ticket was kept by the machines at the entrance.

The initial shock is the scale. Each of the winners (the parade of champions re-runs the six highest scoring samba schools from the 14 competing the weekend of carnival itself) took an hour to pass and would consist of 6-8 gargantuan floats punctuated by literally thousands of costumed participants.

Each school would have a big theme for the year. The winners this year ran one on reviving the dreams of Simon Bolivar leading the local media to declare that Hugo Chávez had won the carnival. The other themes covered everything from the primal elements, to the Spanish exploration of the Amazon to the history of Brazilian architecture(!). NB. I'm told subsequently that the winning school – Vila Isabel – had sponsorship from the Venezuelan oil industry.
(to be completed later – I´m shattered. Currently in Argentina looking at waterfalls)

There's a certain formula to each school's parade. The drum section (bateria) lines up with the singers by the start of the parade section and launch into the theme samba which is sung repeatedly for the entire parade. The song is published before the parades (and available on CDs afterwards) and the lyrics are printed in the carnival guides with the choruses highlighted for the crowds to join in. The song follows the theme of the parade and the catchiness (and singability) varies a lot!

The first element in the parade would be a set piece (Commisão da Frente) that is repeated every 50m or so down the parade. Imperatriz's theme was 'One for all and all for one' and had musketeers prancing around on hobby horses while Grande Rio had conquistadors invading a series of moving huts that twisted and turned themselves inside out toshow what was happening on the inside.

Each parade will have a Porta-Bandeira and Mestre de Sala, the standard bearer and the salon master who dance intricate moves (apparently a minuet from some old Portuguese traditions), kiss, bow and curtsey.

There would also be one or two girls (the rainha da bateria, the queen of the band – apparentlyMe at carnival a famous actress) dressed in minimal costumes or wearing quantities of long feathers, samba-ing elegantly in high heels. They might precede the bateria and flirt with the mestre da bateria, the band leader. The band is made up of drummers and other percussionist, several burly men singing into microphones and a set of ukelele players. One of the rainha da bateria managed to lose most of her bikini bottoms in front of our part of the audience but she gamely carried on.

Each school is allowed up to eight massive floats (the carros alegoricos) which are punctuated by crowds in costume. Again the sheer numbers and variety of costume is a shock.

Celebs would crop up in the parade – perhaps jumping out unexpectantly from one of the floats or leading the bateria in an extravagent feathered costume – and milk applause from the audience. We could judge the level of celebrity by the excitement and shouting behind us when someone was recognised.

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