Steel bands, dancing round the clock and erotic costumes - don't stop the carnival!

IF YOU have not yet made any arrangements, you still have time to get out to see this year's Carnival, the end-of-winter festival celebrated by Catholic communities round the world.

While the British are preparing for Lent by eating pancakes, Catholic countries will be reaching the height of celebrations on Shrove Tuesday (known otherwise as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) which this year falls on February 24.

In the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday, masked balls, parades and wild festivities will break out in cities all over Europe and the Americas, with the emphasis on transvestism, erotic costumes, scantily clad dancers and flowing alcohol.

The whole of the Catholic Mediterranean has been celebrating Carnival in its current form for centuries. The Nice Carnival for example, where this year's celebrations kick off on February 12, dates back to the 13th century.

In Venice the atmosphere is less that of drunken revelry than of sophisticated intrigue. As well as harlequins and incognito strangers in black hoods and chalk-white masks, the streets of Venice in the days prior to February 24 will offer Renaissance madrigals, Commedia dell'Arte performances and puppet shows.

Further north, even the Germans will be enjoying themselves. In the city of Cologne, Weiberfastnacht ("women's carnival"), which takes place the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday, is when women temporarily take control of the streets, running around town cutting off men's ties with scissors. However, it is among the racially mixed communities across the Atlantic that carnival will appear in its most exaggerated forms.

As reported above, New Orleans is already preparing for an orgy of partying which will reach a peak on Shrove Tuesday, when massive parades, including the two most famous - Zulu and Rex - will pass through town. With the different krewes (parading groups) competing to parody each other more outrageously, as well as an insane amount of drinking, this is by far the most anarchic party held in the United States each year.

Meanwhile, down in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, the celebration known as Jouvert (the region's biggest party) kicks off at 2am on the morning of Monday February 23. In the pre-dawn hours, Ole mas revellers will take to the streets, dressed in creations of rags, mud and cast-off clothing. Steel bands with as many as 120 players - as well as giant DJ trucks with blaring speakers - begin delivering the calypso and soca music that will drive 48 hours of non-stop dancing.

Even this though will pale beside the Brazilian carnival. The most glittering single event in the whole pre-Lent celebration worldwide is the Samba School Parade in Rio's purpose-built Sambodromo, a kind of elongated stadium with tiered seating. The samba schools taking part can contain thousands of participants, all in fabulous costumes.

festival fact file

Cologne: British Airways (0345 222111) currently have a World Offer of pounds 88 plus pounds 15 tax for travel up to April 2, as long as you book by February 18. On Eurostar (0345 303030) you'll pay just pounds 89 for what is now only a five-and-a-half hour journey.

Rio De Janeiro: Around Carnival time prices soar to around pounds 600. If you travel earlier you should get something cheaper. Call Journey Latin America on 0181 747-8315.

Trinidad and Tobago: Very few charter places are available for February from Worldwide Journeys (0171 388 9292), though prices (between about pounds 400 and pounds 580) rocket the nearer you get to carnival.

Venice: British Airways (0345 222111) currently have a World Offer of pounds 139 plus pounds 15 tax (staying Saturday night) for travel up to April 2, as long as you book your flight by February 18.