The Venetian Carnival or Carnavale as the Italians say; with a tongue roll and a flourish, is an incredible, magical, theatrical experience. It runs for about ten days every February in the ancient city of Venice, Italy. Venice in itself is an amazing city. The majority of the streets are canals and people get around with boats, water taxis or the more romantic (and more expensive) option, a gondola. If you choose to do a gondola tour of Venice be prepared to spend at least a hundred Euro per hour, but it really has to be done, at least once. If you are lucky your gondolier will sing and serenade you as you cruise around the water streets. Sit back in the red velvet chairs and listen to your gondolier, who is usually called something exotic like Giovanni, Massimo, or Gianfranco, singing his best Italian songs and pushing you along the calm, tranquil canals. The gondoliers very skilfully manoeuvre the extremely long boats in and out of tight gaps as they recount stories of the history of Venice and show you famous landmarks like Marco Polo’s house and the Guggenheim gallery. It really is a ‘one of a kind’ experience.
I arrived in Venice and was on a large boat being transported through the major canals of this watery wonderland. I was all alone which only served to add to the magical ‘fly on a wall’ feeling so apparent when one steps foot into a foreign country. Luckily I can speak enough Italian to get by so I had managed to ask some of the men working on the boat where I had to disembark in order to get to my hotel. The boat pulled up to my stop and I lugged my suitcase onto dry land. The smaller streets in Venice are pedestrian only, there are no cars allowed inside the city, you really do feel like you have stepped back in time. As I wheeled my heavy suitcase through the cobbled streets I could hear all sorts of accents and languages. There were people everywhere, walking, smoking, laughing and talking. “Scusi, scusi,” I politely asked them trying to fit my large case through the tiny gaps. I dragged my suitcase for what seemed like forever over cobble stones definitely not designed for wheels. I vaguely noticed expensive looking shoe and jewellery shops but there would be plenty of time for that later. I was starting to think I was lost and that the tiny map I had printed off the internet was useless when I stumbled across my hotel, ‘Hotel Bruno,’ right in the heart of Venice. I was eager to check in, rid myself of my baggage and get out and explore Venice. My room was small and quaint; there were a lot of lace decorations adorning everything from the curtains to the bedding. I had a clean bed and a bathroom, I was happy.
I grab my tiny map and venture out into the busy streets. I am trying to find the main square, Piazza San Marco, (or Saint Mark’s Square for the English speaking tourists.) More by accident rather than navigational prowess I eventually stumble across it. I step into Piazza San Marco and immediately feel like I am in another world; another time and place, where everything is beautiful and ornate and elegant. Colours, feathers and glitter seem to leap off the ancient cobble stones and up towards me.
The main piazza is buzzing. People nudge each other and push past on their way to a shop or a cafe or a restaurant. There are people walking around in full costumes. Head to toe in bright colours, glitter and sequins. Many of them are in three piece suits and dresses with large bustled skirts and layer upon layer of exotic looking brightly coloured material. They are all slowly strolling about the piazza, stopping every few steps for another tourist to take another photo. They are wearing masks so there is a sense of anonymity. It is impossible to guess their age, nationality, even gender in some cases. It is impossible to tell if they are smiling, laughing, frowning or crying. They are on display and very visible to the rapidly gathering audience, yet they are hidden; safe and secure behind their masks. It must be quite liberating.
The Piazza is like something out of an old fashioned romance novel. It is a huge square surrounded by columns and marble buildings. A church stands at one end, commanding people to stop and take notice. Pigeons stalk the tourists waiting for someone to drop a piece of cake or bread. People are talking in loud Italian voices and laughing wholeheartedly. They seem to roll their R’s more here.
In an outdoor café nearby a string quartet plays a soft, beautiful tune. The musicians are wearing tuxedos and are engrossed in their music. They are slow and gentle despite the frantic energy of the crowds and tourists, playing their part; they provide the soundscape for the Carnavale.
The mask shops are making a fortune. There are small, exquisite shops on every corner, I dare to enter one. Feathered and glittered faces stare out at me from the walls. Some have Court Jester style hair, some have gigantic peacock feathers, some are small and intricate. They all seem to be calling out “Buy me, buy me….” I succumb and make my first purchase. A white and gold mask with old fashioned yellow sheet music cut into triangles for hair. I feel a thrill as the shop assistant wraps it in bright pink tissue paper.
I step back out into the daylight, there are temporary, makeshift shops everywhere selling all sorts of souvenirs and cheaper (probably more mass produced) masks. I meander through the tiny streets, getting lost and then finding my way again. It is wonderful to get lost in Venice. Every corner brings with it another small bridge over a canal or another exquisite shop or a masked character waiting in the wings, waiting to make his or her entrance onto the stage that is Venetian Carnavale. Music fills the air, a group of young men are playing bongo drums and didgeridoo’s in a corner near a busy restaurant. I smile to myself as I hear the didgeridoo music, a touch of home in this foreign land.
I make my way to Rialto bridge; the wide pedestrian bridge is packed with people and temporary stalls. Most of them are selling masks or Carnavale related merchandise. For just a few Euro you can buy a fridge magnet or an ashtray or a miniature mask on a stick. Anything just to prove you have been there.
I notice a stage set up in the open air. The actors are performing a masked show to a gathering audience. I recognise it immediately as Commedia dell’arte, an ancient form of masked theatre originating in Venice in the 1500’s. The Venetian Carnavale was developed from this style of theatre; the original masks are plain but expressive. Over the years the masks have evolved into the beautiful works of art they sell today. I take a seat and watch for a while. The familiar characters of Zanni, Pantalone and Columbina are performing a largely mimed, slapstick show. I have studied this style of theatre at university in Perth. How wonderful to see it performed at the Carnival.
At night I attend a dance music performance; it is staged in a tent and is full of young people with a DJ thumping out electronic music. It seems a complete contrast to the sophistication and restrained elegance of the Carnival during the day, but I guess it is good to cater to all tastes. The young people dance and socialise with reckless abandon. They too are rejoicing and celebrating life.
I stay for a whole week. I meet wonderful, colourful characters and witness beauty over and over again. I fall in love with Venice, a love that will last a lifetime. I eat wonderful food with fresh, Italian flavours like basil, tomatoes and garlic. The wine is hearty, the cheese is pungent and the colours are vibrant. I witness people rejoicing and celebrating, dancing, singing and loving life. I see children playing with the pigeons, tourists delighting in the theatrics and mysterious masked people wandering the streets. My senses are in overdrive. Everywhere you turn there are people, colours and music. It is a beautiful, ancient, theatrical, intricate, ornate experience. As I wander through the streets I feel privileged to be allowed a glimpse into this world. I know that I am witnessing magic.