Our motto was “No man left behind,” but in an ocean of people packed like the Tokyo subway during rush hour, these efforts almost proved futile.
Linking arms with my traveling companions, I attempted to squeeze through the crowds in Venice, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square. The people have gathered here for the Carnevale di Venezia — or Venice Carnival — a festival where Venetians and tourists alike flock to the city donning their most ornate costumes and masks to take part in the annual pre-Lent celebration.
But Carnevale isn’t just the place to see intricate masks and lively parades. If you like meeting new people when you travel, it’s the perfect time to get up close and almost too personal with the true residents of Venice — the tourists.
From the cute Japanese girls sporting hot-pink cameras and peace signs to the French couple on holiday for the weekend, people from all over the world arrive to watch their imaginations come to life.
Only about 65,000 people actually live in Venice’s historic center, but with millions of backpackers and sightseers passing through the city each year, Venice relies on tourism for commerce and the week of Carnevale is no exception.
An event that has been heavily revived in the past two decades, Carnevale spans the 10 days preceding Fat Tuesday, with the closest American equivalent being New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration. Carnevale is meant to be a time of celebration before Lent, the somber period of Christian abstinence, which makes sense since the Latin root for the word Carnevale literally means “the removal of” or “farewell.”
The first Carnevale celebration mentioning the use of costume is believed to have taken place in the late 13th century. Carnevale masks, traditionally made out of papier-mâché, were worn to hide the identities of carousers engaged in pleasure and debauchery. They were meant to act as equalizers, allowing wearers to break social rules without fear of judgment.
More recently, however, Carnevale seems more about convincing tourists to loosen up their coin purses than to celebrate Venice’s religious and cultural heritage. Nearly all of the balls and masquerades are privately organized and cost anywhere from 50 euros for one serving hot chocolate and sweets to 470 euros for a complete masquerade ball in Zenobio Palace.
Restaurants near Rialto Bridge, the oldest bridge across the city’s Grand Canal, offer special tourist menus that advertise three-course meals for about 14 euros, instead of the regular entrée price of 20 euros and up.
Luckily, if you know where to go, you can also find cheap eats. Pizza al Volo in St. Margherita Square has pizza for 2 euros a slice and is centrally located to provide access to the free activities centered St. Mark’s Square.
On Sunday morning, my friends and I rushed off the vaporetto, a Venetian water bus, trying to make it in time for the Flight of the Angel, a tradition where a woman is attached to a cable and “flies” from St. Mark’s bell tower into the crowd. But with narrow streets and impossible crowds, I could barely make out the tiny figure before she was swallowed up by a swarm of onlookers.
Refusing to be packed like sardines any longer, we walked toward the more breathable side streets. True to the atmosphere, we stumbled across a couple of face painters (who adorned my face with purple and gold feathers), children throwing confetti and even a bomb scare from a mysterious suitcase that had been left behind.
Herded out of the area by security, we headed back toward St. Mark’s Square and onto the roof of St. Mark’s Basilica — an old cathedral famous for its Byzantine architecture and mosaics — to watch the parade.
Performers in the day’s main event, Marie’s Parade, drummed a slow beat as a spectacle of people was ushered through the streets of Venice. Dressed as extravagant noblemen and women wielding stallion-printed black-and-gold flags, they marched amid spectators wearing robes that were equally as impressive. Fancy satin, feathers and lace adorned even the smallest of children watching the parade, who sat comfortably above the crowd on the shoulders of fathers dressed to match.
Even Noah’s Ark, the Joker from Batman and the Smurfs had costumed representatives that would put the most enthusiastic trick-or-treating child to shame. They proudly displayed their panache, pausing occasionally to snap photos with the common merrymakers.
When the sun set, though, much of the crowd dispersed to their homes — or, more likely, their hotel rooms — leaving a lonely, dedicated few to carry on the festivities.
And just like that, it was over.
The pebbled streets once dotted with people were deserted the next day. Only the confetti stuck in the crevices of wet pavement remained as evidence of the magic from the day before.
So while Venice might very well be for tourists, it’s also a place where Carnevale attendees can disguise themselves in masks and adorned dress, making their dreams came to life — even if only for a day.