With so many places to see in Europe, it is hard to justify returning to a city we have already seen. One of the few exceptions was Venice, the chance to experience Carnevale was all the excuse we needed to fly back to the city of canals.

Carnevale commences approximately a fortnight before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday, (also known as Pancake Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras). These dates differ annually, but still generally fall at a cool time of year, which I am sure the heavily costumed participants appreciate. The Carnevale dates back to 1268, however it was the Italian government’s promotion of Carnevale as a tourist attraction in the 1970s that lead to the 30,000 visitors who descend on Venice each day of Carnevale. Masks were originally worn at Carnevale to conceal the wearer’s identity and social class, a welcome relief for those in the lower classes of the strict hierarchical society of the Republic of Venice.

Costumed Venetians

The Alilaguna motoscafi from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport deposited us at San Marco Giardinetti and we soon found ourselves amidst a costumed crowd. The full costume is breathtaking, it covers the wearer from head to toe and, particularly for costumed couples or groups, conforms to a colour theme such as black and white, green and gold or sunset hues. The face mask is painted and embellished with gold leaf, silver leaf, diamantes, brocade, lace and feathers. The mask is framed by a wig and/or a hat decorated with tulle, fabric flowers and feathers. Others wear the traditional tricorn hat adorned with a feather or the jester’s hat jingling with bells. Women wear full length dresses with full shirts, long sleeved jackets and gloves. Some carry ornate lace or feather fans, parasols or delicate evening bags. Men wear puffy trousers, boots with elaborate buckles, shirts, vests, jackets and capes of all lengths with large stiff collars, and brandish sceptres with ornate tops.

Costumed Venetians                

After our last experience of getting photographed with costumed Italians (see Italy Tour – Rome), we made sure we knew the rules of taking photos of the costumed Venetians. We discovered to our delight that they want to be photographed, and will willingly pose for you or with you. Even the conduct of the tourists was admirable, a quick pose with the costumed Venetians and then they’d step aside to allow the next person to do the same. Venice Carnevale is a photographers paradise, which was particularly evident in the breakfast room of our hotel the next morning. Serious chunky professional cameras adorned every table (but ours) and the other guests were quoting model numbers, comparing shots with full discussion of the settings used and trading tips on where to get the best shots that day.

Some tourists go all out, paying extravagant prices to hire traditional costumes and attend the masked balls held in the old palaces and Venice’s top class hotels. We found ourselves among the majority who are content to don a mask, hat or wig and take in the free entertainment such as street theatre, puppet shows, Commedia dell’Arte, mime and movies with piano accompaniment. There is also music and dancing, from Tango concerts to bands to DJ sets, and even an ice rink at Campo San Polo.

The annual events include:

The Flight of the Angel

At noon on the first Saturday of Carnevale a ‘guest of Venice’ in costume (this year Silvia Bianchini, Maria of the 2010 Carnevale) is lowered from the bell tower of San Marco to the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale, to pay homage to the Doge and open Carnevale.

Festa delle Marie

The traditional ‘Festa delle Marie’ stems from a tradition where the Venetian Doge would award twelve ‘beautiful but humble’ Venetian girls with jewels as a bridal dowry. Today it is now more of a beauty pageant. On the first Saturday of Carnevale the twelve Venetian girls accompanied by groups in historical costume, parade from San Pietro in Castello to Piazza San Marco where the ‘Marie’ are presented to the citizens of Venice. On the final day of Carnevale (Mardi Gras), following a water parade from San Giacomo dell’Orio to Piazza San Marco, the Doge crowns the winning ‘Maria’.

The Best Masked Costumes Contest

The Piazza San Marco stage is home to three days of qualifiers, and the finals of the best masked costumes contest.  An international jury awards the ‘best mask of the Carnival’, and ‘best nineteenth century style mask’ based on the costumes colours, originality, and the entrants grace and bearing.

The Silent Regatta

The Silent Regatta is held at midnight on the final day as the closing event of Carnevale. A long parade of gondolas and row boats proceed down a candlelit Canal Grande, from Rialto to the basin of San Marco to the strains of a trumpet atop the leading boat. On arrival at San Marco, thousands of paper lanterns are released into the sky to represent the end of Carnevale and the start of Lent.

Feeling that we had seen enough of Carnevale, we caught vaporetto 1 from San Marco to San Marcuola, a relaxing cruise along Canal Grande, and walked through Cannaregio to Ghetto. The quiet canals and all but deserted neighbourhood provided a stark contrast to the crowded, confetti strewn streets around San Marco.

We wove through streets and over bridges to a small bàcari that had been recommended to us for its cicchetti. Cicchetti covers all manner of small snacky items such as olives, or mini serves of other menu items, but we went for the small slices of bread or polenta with various toppings secured with a toothpick. Arranged in rows under a glass counter they looked like a flotilla of rafts bearing delicious savoury treats. Some of the toppings were easily identifiable; buffolo mozzarella with sundried tomato, prosciutto with olive, salami and marinated artichoke hearts. We took a chance on a mysterious white foamy topping which certainly paid off. It was baccala mantecato; mousse of cod fish whipped with oil and spices, sounds odd but it tasted incredible. Cicchetti are usually accompanied by a small glass of local white wine, known as ‘ombra’ (shadow), but they go pretty well with beer too. I closed my eyes, savoured the flavours and declared cicchetti yet another reason why Italian is my favourite cuisine.