Exploring Venice during Carnival
It is a strange reality that the last time I lived in China I actually ended up learning more Italian than I did Chinese. My room mate was Italian, the majority of my friends were Italian, and the result of that was a lot of our discussions and decisions were made in Italian. I had to learn Italian just to figure out when and where we were meeting for dinner. I was even part of a group that all had team Italia football jerseys with our names on them–we considered ourselves the Italian drinking team, Nanjing division. All these friends were on exchange from University of Venice–a city that I, at the time, hadn’t yet visited. As my last reading week from university rolled around I decided to take everyone up on their offer of a place to stay and booked myself a trip to Italy.
Trip to Italy, great plan. Not looking up which week Carnival was, a bit of an oversight. For those of you who don’t know what Carnival is, its essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras but with considerably less nudity. It is a last big celebration before the austerity of the Lent season that leads up to Easter. Around the country this holiday is celebrated with costumes, parades, food, and one hell of a party. In Venice the celebration is well known for their elaborate masks and costumes.Whenever you travel to a city during a major event you run into the same issues: higher cost of accommodations, higher cost of pretty much everything, and lots of people. But, by the time I realized how off my timing was I couldn’t change anything because a) I’d already bought the tickets, and b) the University of Waterloo doesn’t let me change the date of reading week to better fit my travel plans. Here is what you need to know about traveling to Venice during Carnival.
It’s February in the northern hemisphere, you need to be prepared for cold. When I was there it was cold and rainy for a lot of the time. Granted, there were a couple days that were wonderfully sunny and warm. If you get a string of those on your trip, yay you! But be prepared for the former. Comfortable, waterproof shoes are a must because you will be walking a lot–there are no cars and you will spend a good 70% of your time wandering around trying to figure out where you are. Having a second pair of shoes was a god send after my first pair got soaked through. Instead of wearing my heavy Canadian winter jacket I opted to wear my leather jacket with a sweater for this trip–I was trying not stand out as a tourist too much. I found this worked perfectly (on both counts), the only thing being that I needed to carry an umbrella since leather is only waterproof up to a point. If it gets too cold though, you can always just get inside for a bit. Churches, museums, or just a cafe (big fan of this last option) are all a great excuse to get out of the cold and indulge in central heating. Yes, you may be fighting for space with other tourists, but remember, be patient and be polite. And yes, I’m looking at you lady who yelled at the barista in increasingly faster English when she didn’t understand your beverage order. Jokes on you, I got a seat and my drink first because I was polite and actually attempted to speak in Italian!
Accommodations & Food
Both of these are going to cost you more during Carnival, end of statement. When it comes to accommodations though, spend a bit more and actually stay on the island of Venice rather than the mainland. It will always cost more, regardless of what time of year you’re there, but it’s worth it to be able to wander the city at will and not have to remember what time the last boat out is. With food you want to do the opposite. The farther you are from a major site the less expensive the food will probably be. If it’s right of Piazza San Marco, it will cost you your first born. There are tons of options across every price point, so go take a wander and find something interesting away from the crowds. Bakeries and cafes are good sources are inexpensive–and many times great tasting–sandwiches and coffee. Do splash out at least once or twice on fancy meals–you’re in Venice!–but there are some great options for those on a budge if you go looking for them.
Masks & Costumes
Some people have extremely elaborate costumes and masks, and are going to exclusive parties or doing photo shoots. If you want to go all out, be prepared ahead of time with what you will need. You can rent or buy elaborate costumes while you’re there but I don’t even want think about how many hundreds of euros you will spend on that. There is a second options for those who want to join in, you can go for the cheap masks and capes. I wont lie, when you’re in the middle of Carnival this seems really appealing, and you will see a lot of tourists taking this option. But think about it this way, you won’t ever use either of those cheap items again, and honestly you’ll look ridiculous. If you want to buy a mask, spend the money on a nice one that you can display once you get home and skip the cape.
In no way am I say to avoid Venice during Carnival. There is a fun party atmosphere filling the streets, free concerts and events in the evenings, and if you can find your way to the locals side of the island a party that reminded me of Halloween in a university town (if that’s your thing…that’s definitely my thing). My trip bordered the actual date of Carnival so I saw the madness of the crowds and then quiet that followed once all the tourists left, which worked really well. Best of both worlds, even though I hadn’t planned that at all.
Just so you’re aware, though Venice is well known for it’s Carnival, these same celebrations are happening in every city around the country. When staying with a friend who lives outside of Vicenza we went to a Carnival parade in a tiny town that I have no clue the name of. Seriously, the craziest party I’ve ever been too. Paper confetti was three inches thick on the ground and being rained down on the crowd from machines that resembled the artificial snow machines you see on ski hills. Tons of people of all ages in costumes, there was a massive parade down streets slightly too narrow for the floats, and lots of available alcohol. If you ever have the chance to do Carnival with the locals do it! Actually, if you can do anything with the locals in Italy, do it. Trust me, you will not regret it.