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Now in its fifth year, the Carnevale Romano (Roman Carnival) has become a highlight on the city’s calendar – at least for fans of equestrian sport.  Last year’s Carnival was Europe’s single largest equestrian event with 800,000 spectators. And the 2013 celebrations, which take place from 2 to 12 February, promise to be every bit as grand.

Although Rome’s Carnival is relatively new, its equestrian flavour isn’t – which is what sets it apart from Carnival celebrations elsewhere in the world, including in the famous festivities in Venice. As far back as the 15th Century, Rome’s Carnival culminated with races by rider-less Barbary horses down the Via del Corso, the former ancient Via Flaminia, which runs right through the city centre (corso means “race” in Italian). But after centuries of celebration – with the races attended by everyone from Goethe to Gogol, Dickens to Dumas – tragedy struck in 1874, when a spectator was trampled by a horse and killed. King Victor Emanuel II banned the races, and Rome’s Carnival began to decline. Until five years ago, that is, when the city reintroduced the festivities.

This year’s Carnival kicks off with an opening parade at 3:30 pm through the city centre, from Piazza del Popolo down Via di Ripetta and back up Via del Corso, all in the heart of Rome’s historic centre. The parade will have more than 100 horses –including the world-famous Lipizzaner breed – as well as coaches, historical groups and actors costumed by the Rome Opera House. That’s also when the revamped square of Piazza del Popolo, the hub of the Carnival action, will be unveiled, with the elaborate tents and staging created by the Rome Opera House’s head designer Maurizio Varamo for the Carnival.

Horse shows complete with equestrian dancers and costumed performers take place at 6 pm from 3 through 7 February, and even Italy’s military cavalry gets in on the fun with several performances; watch the one by the 8th Regiment of the Carabinieri at 4:30 pm on 12 February in Piazza del Popolo – the highlight of their show is the Carousel of Lances, where riders carrying 2m lances steer their horses into carefully-choreographed patterns.

But the 2013 Carnival isn’t all about horses. Throughout the festival’s 11 days, street performers – from jugglers to stilt-walkers to dancers – will entertain at Piazza Navona. In a nightly multimedia show, larger-than-life light projections will cover the Baroque arch of the Porta del Popolo, while the gladiator school for children in Piazza del Popolo and the performances  by the Commedia dell’Arte, a comedic theatre troupe who will be performing frequently in Piazza Navona, should not be missed.

And for the dramatic climax, head to the terrace of Pincian Hill, above Piazza del Popolo, at 7:30 pm on 12 February for a fireworks display.

The complete event schedule is available on the Roman Carnival 2013 website. All events are free and open to the public.

Amanda Ruggeri is the Rome Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes revealedrome.com.

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