Venice, Italy is known around the world as the “city of romance” with its iconic canals and gondolas, picturesque buildings with winding alleys, charming cafés, restaurants and shops. However, there’s another major event that makes Venice famous: Carnevale.
Carnevale means “farewell to meat” and is celebrated before the start of Christian Lent, usually around 2 weeks before Ash Wednesday (this year, the official dates are January 31 – February 17, 2015). The first time the festival was held in Venice was in the 11th Century, but it eventually fell into decline during the 18th Century.
The Italian Government revived the festival in 1979 in an attempt to bring back Venetian culture with great success – the festival now attracts about 3 million visitors each year. People dress up in masks and costume, parade around the city, enjoy live music and even partake in costume contests. One of the most important events is a contest for the most beautiful mask (la maschera più bella) and is judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers.
Well, I obviously couldn’t miss something like this. I was young, living in Italy and traveling with two of my best friends, and in college with limited “travel funds” (but we were creative about it). Without doing much planning, we decided to hop on an early 6am train from Bologna to Venice to spend a day there for the festival.
We arrived around 7am before any of the festivities began and figured we’d get some cappuccini and pastries for breakfast. Shortly after, wine seemed like a good idea (at the time). We each bought a bottle and figured we’d carry them around to drink throughout the day. Also, did I mention my friends were dressed as pirates? I was just wearing a dress with a pea coat, so they deemed me their “wench.” Sigh, ok.
Given that we had been sipping on wine since early that morning, we were having a great old time by 10am. We thought a gondola ride would be a perfect way to start the festival for us and it definitely was – our gondolier was awesome and took us through some of the most beautiful canals in the city. He even sang classic Italian songs for us!
After that, we spent most of the day wandering around the city. People were dressed up in the most elaborate and traditional Venetian costumes, making it one of the coolest festivals I’ve ever experienced. Everyone was taking pictures with one another, talking and laughing with strangers… so happy to be there celebrating. The central hub of the festival is in St. Peter’s Square, which is where most of the main events occur and where we finished out our day. For a little more interesting tidbits on the city of Venice itself, see Waterfall Lagoons, Ancient Sacrificial Sites & Venetian Charm.
On our way out of Venice back to the train station, my friends (in their pirate costumes), started sword fighting in a small square near the Rialto Bridge. It turned into a 15 minute show and I think people thought it was one of the acts because they attracted a small crowd that cheered them on! A nutso way to end the day, but it did make for a great video that I didn’t know I could use years later 😉
So, moral of the story: if you happen to be in Italy during the first few weeks of February, definitely make your way to Venice and experience one of the most famous festivals in the history of Europe. It’s an incredible combination of history, culture, fun and of course wine, all within one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.
* Disclaimer: I realize the photos from our day at Carnevale aren’t the best quality and don’t accurately showcase how awesome the festival really was/is, but it was a very wine-infused day 🙂 I plan on being back someday to better document and photograph it!