My first memory of a Czech Masopust is not a happy one. I was a well-behaved eight-year-old minding my own business, visiting family friends in a north Bohemian village, when a horde of costumed revellers descended upon the farmhouse where we were staying. They sprayed confetti everywhere, pasting play-doh hearts on the walls, singing, dancing and shouting. One hooked a cane around my neck and invited me to join in. I was outraged. They were loud! They were drunk! They weren’t even invited!
Masopust, the Czech equivalent to Mardi Gras, was something strange and bewildering for a socialist-era city kid. The last two decades saw a revival of the carnival tradition all over the country, however, and Prague this weekend will be replete with Masopust festivities, ranging from parades, to mask-making, to pork roasts.
If you want to experience a proper village Masopust, complete with scary masks and unhinged debauchery, you don’t need to travel far from the capital. Roztoky is just a 15-minute train ride from Prague and has one of the most intricate Masopust programmes. Following a four-year tradition, the town will be doing a joint celebration with the neighbouring village of Únětice this Saturday. Processions of revellers set out from each town and meet at a half-way point on a hill for a mock battle. But more on that later.
The merrymaking starts at 1pm in the courtyard of Roztoky’s castle with jugglers and musicians entertaining a masked crowd (You can go unmasked, but I strongly advise against it. You’ll feel left out of the fun; plus, the mask will help protect your face from the cold).
Around 2pm, the procession begins its journey through Roztoky and up into the hills toward Únětice. Expect many stops along the way, with music and theatre performances. It’s a long march, the open fields get windy, and the parade leaders do not tolerate defectors. So dress warmly and bring along a flask of strong spirits.
One of the key delights during the walk is simply watching the motley array of home-made masks and costumes. Most are traditional: knights, pirates, jesters and dragons. Viewed against the backdrop of bleakly barren fields, some of the masks can take on an eerie, almost threatening quality.
Last year we saw people striding along on stilts pushing a giant pram with an overgrown, bearded baby, a group of larger-than-life skeletons, a pagan god devouring an endless chain of sausages, and, forming the vanguard of the Únětice parade, a man dressed in military uniform zooming along on a Segway.
When the two processions meet, the good townspeople execute Klibna, a traditional Masopust character, and usually engage in a battle of some sort. Last year there was a tug of war between Roztoky and Únětice.
The parade ends in an Únětice cow barn, converted into a bar/dance hall for the night. Here you can warm up with grilled pork, dancing (bands will be performing on a make-shift stage) and more strong spirits.