The Notting Hill Thrill

Perhaps made famous to foreigners thanks to Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in the film of the same name, this part of London is really on the map because of the annual carnival in August, second only to Rio de Janeiro's.

If you imagine the Notting Hill Carnival as a colourful, loud and fast moving pageant, you are wrong. It is far more resplendent and clamorous, and way too crowded to move with any speed at all - the streets are not as wide as in Rio!

Forget Berlin's Love Parade, it is the Notting Hill Carnival that is the largest street party in Europe. Up to one and a half million people join this dazzling cocktail of costumes, music, dancing and exotic food which shakes this cosmopolitan part of London every year on the last weekend of August.

The carnival has its origins in children's parades held in the mid-1960s. Originally they were organised by immigrants from the Caribbean, particularly from Trinidad, where the carnival tradition is very strong. For them it was a time of social struggle, lack of opportunities for advancement and poor housing conditions, so the chance to go out to enjoy music and dance in the streets of London was not to be missed. Since then things have only been getting bigger and better organised. What started as an ethnic minority festival currently brings together a diverse range of cultures. It reflects perfectly the multicultural and multiracial nature of London, where over 50 nations have communities of over 5,000 people.

The most spectacular and vibrant feature of the carnival are the costumes. Each one of over 100 groups taking part in the procession displays a different theme. Adults and children could be dressed like exotic flowers or fruits, mysterious aliens, demonic monsters, sea creatures or indeed anything else you care to imagine. It is estimated it takes something like a million working hours to turn all this silk, cotton, wire, bamboo, paper and other materials into dazzling creations like the one opposite. It should be remembered that costumes have to be not only excellent works of art, but also light and comfortable enough to wear throughout the long, hot summer's day.

The other essential ingredient of the carnival is music. There are dozens of sound systems moving along with the parade, and countless others scattered across the carnival area, with live music on several stages. Reggae, rap, soul, House, drum and bass, jungle and techno together create an irresistible mixture: call it heaven or hell, but the main rule seems to be the louder the music the better.

The most characteristic feature of the carnival's music are the steel bands. The steel drum, the instrument used by these bands, originated from empty oil barrels discarded from boats and washed up on the beaches of Trinidad and Tobago. Today it is a professional instrument on which the best performers play anything from classical music to ethnic sounds.

For those in need of some refreshment, there are some 300 food stalls selling exotic food from all corners of the globe. In addition, arts and crafts aplenty are on sale. As well as being a celebration of the cultural heritage of its founders, the carnival remains open to all and takes on board contemporary trends in ethnic culture. Everybody is encouraged to take part, and the line between participants and onlookers disappears as soon as the music starts to play. This is carnival for everybody, and the main message is that when you are enjoying the music and dancing on the streets, all differences and problems disappear. So forget everything, join the party, have fun and just go with the flow.