The original street party is as magical as ever and so much more than expected…
For years going to Venice for Carnival was on my bucket list, as a matter of fact I think wanting to go to this historic event actually started my bucket list. While Venice remains one of my all time favourite destinations and I have been many times in all seasons I never managed to get there during Carnevale. Finally the planets aliened, I had an opening in my schedule and booked that ticket. Yet as exciting as the prospect seemed it felt equally as daunting. After so many years of yearning, I was afraid that it would not live up to my expectations that I had built it up in my imagination. Fearful that instead of a colourful spectacle it would be instead a huge disappointment of cheesy, kitsch tourist confetti. Would I be pleased or saddened by what I discovered…
My first surprise was a pleasant one which I received before departure. Despite it being Carnival, hotels do not consider that high season, or a sort of high season clause in terms of rooms prices. While I would not go so far to say as rooms were cheap, they were a bit more accessible in affordability. February is still quiet in Venice, many places are just opening up again after closing for their winter holiday period which includes all of January to early to mid February. Many restaurants and shops close in this period and start to wake up again, slowly, just as carnival begins.
While Venice always has tourists and you would expect many for the festivities, it is still a lot less than the most of the rest of the year. There will be crowds in central areas with events going on, and places like Caffe Florian are packed to the gills, but the rest of the city is quite easy to maneuver. Not quiet or empty, but definitely not seas of people like in spring and summer. Weekends of course bring more crowds but walk around in the evenings mid week and you will actually feel a bit of space down those narrow corridors.
The festivities go on for about two and a half weeks finishing on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. There are events during the entire period though as you would imagine, it starts of slow and builds as the celebrations become bigger and bolder by the end. As a visitor, the first week might seem a bit quiet with some people in costume, but by the second week there are masked and costume revelers everywhere. Piazza San Marco sets up a stage and there are a few stands selling Carnival items, though of course you find these places all over Venice as well. People in full costume do go all out and willingly pose for all to take photos of them. You become like a paparazzo going from group to group along the popular squares and piazzas taking photos as the masked models who position themselves strategically all over the city so as to have different backdrops. It really is easy to get fabulous Carnival photos as there are photo opportunities everywhere.
In the evenings Caffe Florian provides the perfect backdrop for time travel to the 18th century and the Carnival golden age. A time where carnival would start as early as October, and facilitated affairs and liaisons through anonymity of mask wearing. Today party goers in full 18th century dress sit at tables drinking champagne just as they did back then. It feels surreal like walking through a dream or movie. Of course you can sit in the caffe without costume and enjoy a front row view, or do as many passers by do and that is look through the windows and watch like a live as if it were looking at a television set.
Inside Caffe Florian
Happily the locals do participate in the celebrations, though people come from all over. It really is easy to join in as much or as little as you want. If you want to just observe you can, but it is much more fun to at least put on one of the gorgeous Venetian masks the city is famous for and walk around being part of the street party. The traditional Bauta mask for men, and the Domino mask for women is a classic choice, especially for keeping one’s identity a secret. Possibly the most famous of all masks are the ones from the Commedia del Arte, with well known characters of Arlequino and Pulcinella. The mask designs are endless, with many creative artisans making elaborate original designed masks. Venice is spoiled for choice and the more flamboyant the mask the better. So I opted for a gold mask with feather from the famed mask maker Ca’ Macana. If you would like to go in full regalia, there are places like at Campo San Maurizio to get kitted out in costume, capes, and hats. Then there are all manner of listed events from elaborate balls and private parties which require buying tickets, to easy to access daily public events on the Piazza San Marco. For a complete list of all that is going on, check out the website Carnival of Venice.
Get fitted for Carnevale costumes at Campo San Maurizio
And what would a festive season be without treats and sweet temptations. Like the seasonal Galani, light and airy fried pastries dusted in icing sugar, so light and not too sweet that can only be enjoyed at this time of year. Served in most caffes and pastry shops they should not be missed. And a thick hot chocolate at Caffe Florian is another winter treat worth spending the calories on even if just once. That and of course endless amounts of Prosecco and the Tiepolo cocktail which is the winter version of a Bellini made with puree strawberries instead of peaches, adds to the celebratory mood.
Galani, traditional carnival pastries
Venice Carnival does not disappoint and does retain a bit of old world elegance. It is surprisingly user friendly and fun times are had by all. Venice is always a bit surreal and magical, floating on its lagoon, and Carnevale enhances the mythology. It is a travel experience at its playful best, so jump right in and join the party.