Last year, in February, I found myself with two weeks off in-between jobs. I knew I wanted to travel, but I didn't know where to. After narrowing down Italy as the destination, I began a bit of research. I read about this ten-day long festival in Venice that takes place in the winter every year, and turns out (by total coincidence) that my dates coincided with the Venice Carnival (or Carnevale, as the Italians call it). I had never heard of this festival before, but the first few images that popped up on Google were enough temptation for me to add this to my bucket list!
Go ahead... take a couple of minutes and Google the Venice Carnival; you won't be disappointed!
What is the Venice Carnival?
The Venice Carnival is a ten-day celebration that usually takes place in February, ending with Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian tradition of Lent. It was a way for Venetians to eat, drink, and be merry (and engage in all the debauchery possible), before they had to give everything up during Lent. The carnival is marked by people donning elaborate baroque masks and costumes, attending lavish masquerade balls, and parading across St. Marks Square.
According to tradition, the Venice Carnival started in 1162 when the Venetians celebrated a victory in battle, however mask-wearing has been an important part of the city's culture for centuries. Wearing a mask was a way for people to hide their true identities, engage in illicit activities such as gambling, or interact with members of the society outside their class and caste. In the 13th century, a law was passed that banned Venetians from wearing masks during gambling or religious festivals. Eventually, the ban on masks increased until there was only a short window each year when masks were allowed (December to February) - the period of the Carnival.
By the 1930s, however, Mussolini had banned the Venice Carnival. It made a reappearance in 1979 when a group of craftsmen rallied for the Carnival to be reinstated to boost tourism. Today, more than 3 million tourists flock to Venice to partake in one of the most unique festivals around the world. Bucket list check!
What do you do at the Venice Carnival?
The city of Venice organizes a two-week program, filled with (primarily) free events such as boat parades, costume competitions, fireworks and concerts. There are lavish masquerade balls, but these are either by invite-only, or have extremely high prices (upwards of USD 400 per person). To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with the organization of the free events. None of the authorities knew what was going on, what time events started, or where events were held. However, I was told by a local that this was rare. Usually the city spends a lot of its resources in ensuring the Carnival is a world-class festival. Perhaps I visited on an off-year. But for me, the best part was just walking around St. Marks Square, and photographing the brilliant masks and costumes.
Make sure you buy a mask for yourself! There are tons of street stalls selling these for under 3 euros. Unfortunately, this means they were probably mass produced in China. If you want something a little more authentic, you can purchase masks hand-crafted by Venetian artisans at Ca Macana, Tragicomica, MondoNovo or Papier Mache.
When should you go to the Venice Carnival?
The official Carnival lasts 10 days in the winter. However, the city organizes a lot of events in advance of the festival, so a lot of websites will show a 14-day festival. I'd recommend spending 2-3 days at the Venice Carnival; you don't need more than this. And don't worry about which days to choose. The best part of the Carnival is just walking around St. Marks Square, and that will be just as fun irrespective of which days you choose to attend. Keep in mind that this isn't the best time to visit Venice weather-wise: it will be cold and rainy, so pack appropriately.
How do you get there?
A lot of international flights now fly directly into Venice. Alternatively, you can fly into one of the other Italian cities (Rome or Milan) and take the train or rent a car and drive. I've got a few posts up on Rome and Florence incase you're planning a complete Italian vacation!
This year the Venice Carnival is taking place between 18-28 February 2017. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I would highly recommend you take advantage of it. Accommodation gets booked well in advance as this is a popular time for tourists to visit, so make sure you plan well!