So, the start of this week marked the end of Carnevale – this just over half a month long extravaganza when masks, confetti and stunning parades take over Italy. It is a lavish and raucous time – the perfect antidote to the grey and wet weather. A burst of colour and joy, just what the doctor prescribed if you suffer from an aversion to winter.
I have long been a fan of Carnevale – most notably of its world-famous edition in Venice. Photos of people dressed in elaborate costumes and hidden behind amazing masks posing in front of canals, palaces and gondolas spoke loud to my imagination. Historical facts and tidbits about the Carnival’s traditions fired my curiosity.
So, it was with great anticipation that I arrived in Venice in 2011 to spend five days during its Carnival season. I loved it so much that I returned two years later, this time bringing with me my then boyfriend (now husband). And since we moved to live in Italy in 2014, we have enriched our experiences with visits to the Carnivals held in Verona and Treviso, plus several lower key events attended by locals.
Now that I have had a chance to look beyond the purely touristic events and happenings and experience Carnevale as a ‘local’, Carnival remains firmly one of my most favourite things here in Italy. It is a happy time when people indulge not just the children (all dressed up in their cute costumes), but the child in themselves, too. People dress up, eat rich traditional sweets and are not shy to throw a handful of confetti at you during the huge float parades. It is noisy, it is messy. You can’t help but be drawn in.
I have to be honest though and tell you that this year Carnevale took me by surprise. It usually happens between February and March, but in 2016 it started on 23rd January and ended a few days ago on the 9th February. I was still in a post-Christmas mood and – bang! – Carnival happened. It almost felt like I blinked and it was gone. Boo!
Well, I am already looking forward to next year and in the meantime here are
1. Throw Confetti
And do it with wild abandon! Bags of confetti appear in Italian shops as soon as the New Year rings in. Varying from small ones (just the right size for a toddler’s little hand to hold) up to huge bags about a meter long, they are stuffed with colourful confetti just begging you to scoop them and throw them at people at Carnival events. Be aware though that people will respond equally by throwing a generous helping of the tiny paper dots all over you. It is a bit of a shock to the system the first time that it happens, as the confetti get everywhere – your hair, your clothes and your shoes. It is all done in good jest though and it is a lot of fun. During float parades, designated members of each float have the sole task of throwing confetti at the public. They carry them in bags across their bodies, approach you with a mischievous smile (especially if you look away for a second) and happily cover you from head to toe with the itchy little blighters. If you hear a very loud bang too, don’t get stressed. This most probably is the confetti cannon on one of the passing floats catapulting its contents several meters up in the air, which then all fall down on top of the crowd like a paper snowstorm. The streets quickly get covered in piles and piles of confetti and children enthusiastically grab the opportunity to recycle them as they scoop them up and throw them at people again. Some teenagers get a little bit more hardcore and start throwing scoops of flour at each other. You can see the result in the last picture above which I took in Verona last year during Venerdi Gnocolar (see point 7 below).
2. Eat Traditional Carnival Sweets
One of the things I love the most about Italian Carnevale is the amazing selection of sweets which appear in shops and patisseries just for the event and then disappear as soon as it ends. The Italians are strict about it. It’s nothing like being able to buy mince pies in August and hot cross buns in January as happens in England, for example. Frittelle, crostoli and bugie are sold strictly for the duration of the festivities. So since Tuesday I have had to go cold turkey, which doesn’t make me happy. I have a craving for frittelle and, thank God, we still have a box of bugie left; my husband is actually watching me like a hawk to make sure I don’t finish it all on my own. OK, I will leave you one, darling, don’t worry! Anyway, crostoli are thin crisps of fried dough generously sprinkled with icing sugar. Bugie are small pieces of crisp fried dough which are stuffed with chocolate, jam or creme patisserie. And my favourite, frittelle, are balls of fried dough studded with raisins and served either as they are or stuffed with chocolate, zabaione or creme patisserie. They can be as small as a cherry or as big as a tennis ball and cost anything from 15 to 30 euros per kilo depending on where you buy them from – the local supermarket or a refined patisserie where everything is baked on the premises following recipes passed down from generation to generation.
3. See the Flight of the Angel
This is one of the highlights of the Italian Carnevale. Actually, one of the highlights of Carnival all over the world. Where else can you see a beautiful girl flying down from a 99-meter high bell tower suspended on strong steel ropes?! Well, this is what happens in Venice on the first Sunday of Carnival. The girl chosen from the Twelve Maria’s (see point 7 below) the preceding year, becomes the Angel of Carnival. Dressed in a whimsical costume, she demonstrates her strength of character as well as her elegance and beauty as she zips from the top of the St. Mark’s Basilica bell tower across St. Mark’s Square down to an elaborate scene where she is met by the city’s dignitaries whilst an adoring crowd cheers her nerves of steel. It is a truly one-of-a-kind event. So unbelievably scary and crazy when you think of it, yet so incredibly beautiful when you have the chance to see it. Just be aware that this is a very popular event and the crowds are virtually impenetrable. Most people arrive at least a couple of hours before the Flight of the Angel starts to pick a good observation spot and, if you are late, you may get stuck in the small curving streets surrounding St. Mark’s Square as there are so many people that walking is slowed down to a snail’s pace. Be aware that Italians are not shy when it comes to shoving and pushing, so if you are used to keeping your personal space intact, just assume that on this particular occasion its circumference will be rather small. If you miss the Flight of the Angel then you can see the Flight of the Eagle on the last Sunday of Carnival – a similar event which was introduced four years ago. The difference being that instead of a beautiful girl, a public figure is lowered from the bell tower.
4. Marvel at the Masks
People dressed in elaborate costumes and hidden behind dreamy masks are the highlight of Carnival in Venice. They take on a completely new persona and play their role with aplomb. They never speak so as not the break the illusion of their outfit but are only too happy to be adored by the crowds and to have their pictures taken. In fact, many professional photographers travel to Venice especially to photograph the masks (as the masked and costumed people are usually called). You don’t need to be a photog or have a fancy camera to get some incredible shots. I have provided all the information you need to know about photographing the Carnival in Venice here, so take a look. Let me just reiterate that the best time for you to take the most amazing photos without large crowds photobombing each shot is early in the morning (think 6 am), when the masks go to St. Mark’s Square and pose in front of romantic gondolas and the stunning Doge’s Palace. If you can’t get up this early in the morning or if you are in Venice just for the day, don’t despair! You will find the masks everywhere around town – most certainly in the vast St. Mark’s Square. Often they also get on the vaporetto – the water bus serving Venice – and visit nearby islands like San Giorgio Maggiore and Murano, too.
5. Put a Mask On Yourself
Come on! It’s Carnevale! Get in the spirit of things and become a mask yourself. Shops all over Italy stock costumes for little and big ones. You will find a rich selection of princesses, modern superheroes, medieval vagrants, fairy tale characters and many more. Or, if you would prefer something a bit more refined and authentic, definitely buy a mask and/or rent a costume from a proper Venetian shop. The masks handmade by Venetian craftsmen are simply stunning. The selection is incredibly rich, too. From traditional masks like the bauta and the plague doctor to the most incredible and phantasmagorical creations shaped by hand. Disguising oneself is an inherent part of Carnevale – the mask allows you to take on a role and, ultimately, to become someone completely different to who you are. Italians take on dressing up with utter delight. Children and grown-ups don elaborate costumes and often the crowd at Carnival parades is dressed just as lavishly as the participants in the different floats.
6. Watch a Float Parade
Parades comprising a long series of extravagant floats are an inherent part of Carnival celebrations in Italy. Obviously, due to logistics reasons, Venice cannot stage one on terra firma, but the Grand Canal becomes the scene of a spectacular parade of boats, barges and gondolas on the first day of Carnevale. This year there was even a musician playing a huge piano royal suspended above the water and ballerinas were dancing on the barges as they floated past the old Venetian palaces. You don’t have to limit yourself to Venice to see an amazing float parade either. Verona and Treviso (both a short train ride away) stage amazing parades which go on for hours. It is like one huge street party with people lining up the streets and the floats passing by surrounded by dancing troupes and confetti throwers. Each float has a theme. This year in Treviso, where the huge parade is staged on the last day of Carnival, we saw a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves float, a Frankenstein float, a Roman gladiators’ float with a huge tiger on top, a gondola float with a confetti cannon and so on. It was loud and raucous. People were dancing and laughing. The huge hi-fi systems attached to the front of the large tractors used to pull the floats were blasting popular hits. A deep layer of confetti was covering the pavements and the cobbles of Treviso’s old town. There were no barriers between the spectators and the parade, so interaction was immediate. It was really cool. Most towns and cities here do stage a Carnival parade and sometimes even the smallest places come up with the largest and most extravagant floats. For example, I keep hearing about the Carnival parade in Malo – a town in Veneto – with people raving about how amazing it is. Hopefully next year we will see that one, too.
7. Attend a Historical Event
There are many stories and traditions connected with Carnival. And several events during the Carnevale weeks aim to recreate them and pay homage to them. For example, Venerdi Gnocolar in Verona, meaning the ‘Friday of the gnocchi‘ (the famous Italian potato dumplings). You see, in 1531 bad crops led to starvation among the citizens of Verona. On his deathbed a local rich man – Signore Tommaso da Vico – gave orders for bread, butter, wine, flour and cheese to be distributed each year on the last Friday of Carnival. To honour his will to this day a large parade is staged in the city headed by the Papa del Gnoco – a man with a long white beard who carries a large fork with a huge gnocco stuck on top of it. Actually, to become Papa del Gnocco is quite the honour and candidates stage election campaigns whilst a special committee has the final call. As for Venice, one of the most important events during Carnival there is the procession of the Twelve Marias. Centuries ago each year the Doge would donate dowries to twelve poor Venetian maids making it possible for them to marry. To commemorate this tradition from the old days, nowadays twelve girls from Venice are selected each year to take part in the procession which is staged on the first Saturday of Carnival. Dressed in medieval costumes and accompanied by a huge band of flag bearers, musicians and historical figures, the twelve maids walk from the sestiere of Castello on the far end of Venice all the way to St. Mark’s Square. The interesting bit is that for most of the way they are carried seated on large wooden platforms which strong local lads support on their shoulders. It is quite wonderful to see and when I asked one of the young men how they manage to carry the girls and the platforms for so long up and down the many bridges on the way, he showed me the thick foam pads placed on his shoulders under his shirt. When the procession reaches St. Mark’s Square, the twelve Marias are greeted by the Doge (nowadays an actor who recreates the historical leader of the city on water) and one Maria is chosen as the winner. The following year the chosen girl becomes the Angelo of Carnevale and she performs the Flight of the Angel I told you about in point 3 above.
8. Have a Drink with the Masks
If you want to have a hot or cold drink surrounded by the lavishness of Carnival, head to Cafe Florian in Venice. Its small paneled rooms are where people dressed in extravagant costumes flock to mingle and relax. It is a cosy place which has entertained illustrious guests throughout its history spanning almost three centuries. In fact, Florian (set up in 1720) is the oldest cafe in the world. From Casanova and Canova to Dickens, Byron and Dumas, the cafe has always been popular with artists and creators. Nowadays the Carnival of Venice finds one of its natural stages in Cafe Florian. Its big windows make it look like an exotic aquarium full with people in elaborate masks. Onlookers mob the cafe trying to take the perfect shot of the extravagant scene within. The best way to live it though is to go inside for a drink or a bite. Lots of people moan about Florian’s prices (especially when the orchestra is playing outside during the hotter days). However, the atmosphere of the cafe is really unique and it is such a special place to be during Carnival. And if you are used to London prices, you may actually find Florian quite reasonable when you consider the history and the traditions of the place. We went there on the last day of Carnevale in 2013 and it is one of my most favourite memories of Venice. We were seated next to a small old Italian man who was painting Carnival scenes with oil paints. The masks would stop by, greet him as an old friend and have a little chat. It was almost like a spectacle laid on especially for us. I had a mint-flavoured hot chocolate imaginatively named ‘Casanova‘ which started my obsession with this drink. So, yes, if you have a chance, definitely give Cafe Florian a try during Carnival.
9. Celebrate with the Locals
Carnival is not some tourist event, no matter what you may come to think whilst you are getting squashed by the crowds on St. Mark’s Square in Venice. It is a celebration all people take part in. Children have Carnival parties at their nurseries and schools. Communities organise events and parades. So, my advice would be to step aside from the large events and try to experience Carnevale with the locals. This year we went to a Kids’ Carnival held in a nearby shopping centre. It started with a parade from the local playground. All children dressed in their finest costumes walked hand in hand with their adoring parents and then the party started in earnest once we had reached the cavernous building of the shopping centre. There was music, there were performances, there were balloons, there was a puppet theatre, there was even an appearance by Miss Italia. The children had wonderful fun throwing confetti at each other and eating cotton candy and popcorn. Even months- and weeks-old babies were out to play dressed as bees, dinosaurs and princesses. It was great to be there and to see the true spirit of Carnival.