Discovering Venice at Carnevale
As we stepped off of the waterbus in Venice, I turned to face the Grand Canal to see a row of gondolas bobbing gently in unison, their glossy black hulls and bright blue covers a striking contrast. A mere 12 hours in the city was certainly not enough time to do half of the tourist attractions available for Carnevale. But frankly, my husband and I didn’t want to. This quick two-night trip to Venice was our first overnight away from the baby. And, as many new parents do, we had become so preoccupied with feedings, diapers, full-time jobs and the lack of sleep that we needed to reconnect and rekindle the relationship we shared prior to our son’s birth. So a last-minute, 12-hour bus ride through Outdoor Rec to one of the most romantic cities in the world during its famous Carnevale celebration should do it, right? No pressure.
Our tour guide summoned us, and I inhaled the cool, salty sea air before we walked toward the heart of Venice, Piazza San Marco.
Mona Lisa smile
We stood briefly in the piazza to marvel at the Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco and Gothic arches of Palazzo Ducale, before passing by the 17th century Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) on our way to our first scheduled tour, a Murano glass factory. Here, they dazzled us with glass-blowing demos, and unfortunately blinded us with exorbitant prices. Secretly discouraged, we returned to the Piazza, where two more scheduled tours preceded our time on our own. One block north, the guide pointed to a little corner osteria. “They serve delicious panini on freshly baked focaccia, a variety of cicchetti [small bites], and carefully mixed spritzes to rival any of those overrated, expensive ‘tourist traps,’” he added, before we entered the Piazza.
Half-heartedly listening to the guide’s monotonous tale about the Piazza’s two columns, I was distracted by a passing couple. Her elaborate mask of green and gold peacock feathers perfectly complemented her auburn hair, green cashmere sweater, scarf, camel skirt and boots. While admiring her ensemble, her eyes met mine, and she gave me a slow, secretive smile. It was the spark I needed. Mentally thanking my masked Mona Lisa, I grabbed Chris’ hand, whispered “let’s go,” and disappeared to discover our personal Venice.
Thousands of masks can be found in this labyrinth of 118 islands connected by more than 400 footbridges. After a few passes at several shops, I found my red-and-black-feathered Columbina among the hits and misses along the magnificent Ponte di Rialto. Built in the late 1500s, the Rialto is the most famous of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal, itself a grand work of art.
I slipped on the mask and barely crossed the bridge before receiving curious stares, smiles and becoming captured in a photo or two. Chris, who originally scoffed at wearing one, was intrigued. The farther we walked, the more attention I garnered. Soon enough, he joined in from behind a traditional Casanova Bauta that complemented his sweater, scarf and Venetian persona. Together, we finally understood the regal mystique and sensual charm of Venetian Carnevale.
For the remainder of the day, we strolled the canals, people-watched, posed for photos, perused the shops, sat in the sun to enjoy freshly baked Frittelle Veneziane alla Crema, stopped for happy hour and peach Bellinis at Bacaro Jazz, and laughed at ourselves for continuously getting lost in the city’s confusing maze. Somehow we managed to circle back at least twice to the little osteria near the Piazza, where we stood on the sidewalk with other locals, eating our panini and sipping Aperol spritzes. I might have had more than one.
As the sun dipped low, a gondolier took us for a romantic, two-mile drift to see Venice at its best, at sunset. And, during our 12th hour, while the group readied to board the departing vaporetto, we ran hand-in-hand through the mist for one last photo in front of the Bridge of Sighs, and one last kiss in the now-empty Piazza. Our masquerade over, we were ourselves again: two friends, two hearts, one love.
So content with our personal streetparty, we failed to set foot inside a church or museum. So on our return visit to this mysterious, sinking city on stilts in the heart of the Laguna Veneta, I’ll be sure to see what I missed while rekindling my romance at Carnevale, such as the magnificent Basilica di San Marco. Filled with overwhelming riches stolen by merchants of Venice from the 9th to 13th centuries, the Basilica holds both the jewel-encrusted Pala d’Oro altar screen, and remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, supposedly robbed from his grave in Alexandria in 828! Next stop will be the Palazzo Ducale, former palace of Venice’s elected official, and the great works displayed at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Museo di San Marco and Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
As we discovered, the secret of Carnevale lies not in the party, but in the concealment itself. This grand festival dates back to the 14th century, when Venetian laws allowed citizens to conceal their identities behind masks during specific times of the year. Nobility secretly mingled with commoners, and all tended to live more openly, spend freely, and pursue illicit activities they may not if their identities were known. The tradition grew until the 18th century, when Venice fell under Austrian rule, and the use of masks was forbidden. The festival returned in the late 20th century after more than 175 years’ absence. Today, millions of people travel to Venice to take part in the celebration.
Getting to Venice
You can usually find a local tour agency offering all-inclusive trips to Venice for Carnevale. Check with your local outdoor recreation and travel offices for current tours. If you decide to go on your own, book rooms well in advance, as hotels fill quickly for the season. Venice is accessible by car, train, plane, cruise ship or ferry, so pick your preferred choice of transportation and start planning.
The 2020 Carnevale spans Feb. 8-25, and while it does not cost extra to be in Venice, you should at least get a mask, book a room (ASAP), and try to attend during the weekend, when the fun spills into the streets. For many, the ultimate experience includes attending one of the masquerades, balls or intimate dinner performances. To help you plan your itinerary and book an event, visit the official Carnevale di Venezia site for details: www.carnevale.venezia.it/en.
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