In the run up to Lent, many cultures celebrate a carnival, or Mardi Gras, with a big feast and often a parade or two.
Italy takes it a notch further by celebrating carnevale for the four weeks preceding Lent between the end of January and the middle of March (depending on which date Easter falls). Derived from the Latin words carne (meat) and levare (to take away), it literally means “to abstain from meat”, which is traditionally what many Christians give up for Lent. Carnevale is a period of excessive consumption of one’s favourite things before refraining from them during Lent – essentially it’s a time to party ‘til you drop, and then spend Lent recovering. Fantastic! The two most famous carnival celebrations in Italy take place in Venice and Viareggio and are two very different experiences.
The earliest recorded celebration was in Venice in 1094 and was sanctioned in the city in 1268. Noblemen and women attended grand balls and danced, drank and ate as much as they could, often wearing noble attire accompanied by masks. Nowadays, Venice carnival continues to follow the old traditions and it is possible to buy tickets to balls in the palaces, and to watch spectacles performed in the city.
Last year I visited Venice for the carnival and enjoyed myself very much. I went alone, and spent my day wandering around the city photographing people in their carnival garb and also bought myself a rather fetching, classic Venetian mask. It is also customary to eat frittelle during the carnival period, which is basically a fried ball of rice doused in sugar and is absolutely delicious and not to be missed! For a very traditional carnival experience, I would definitely recommend Venice – it’s picturesque which makes for cute masked carnival photos, and if the crowds get a little too much, it’s easy to nip down a side street and find yourself suddenly alone. It’s a very traditional style carnival, and is an insight into the old Venetian customs.
This year, however, I went to the Viareggio carnival with my girlfriend and it was a completely different experience. Think more along the lines of the Rio de Janiero carnival rather than the elegant affair which takes place in Venice. On the four Sundays before Lent and on Mardi Gras, there is a parade of homemade floats along the seafront of Viareggio usually made of papier-mâché. The floats are entered into a city-wide competition in two categories: group floats and single floats. The winners in each category are proclaimed and awarded on the last day of the carnival.
The floats are huge, colourful, and often very thought-provoking, inspired by Italian and international politics and current events, usually represented in satire form. Each of the floats plays their own musical soundtrack with choreographed dancers or acrobats, and characters adding to the spectacle. Rumour has it that teams start building their floats as early as October the year before, hoping to win the coveted prize. Viareggio has a museum dedicated to the carnival, exhibiting miniature versions of previous years’ competitions and parts of the old floats.
The carnival costs 18€ per adult, and gave us access to the parade route and the option of sitting to watch the floats pass by. The atmosphere was like no other carnival parade I have ever experienced before. It was loud and fun and I felt like a child in a candy store, looking every each way, captivated. The floats were particularly interesting – there were 5 separate depictions of Donald Trump, a few making reference to Brexit and the Queen, and some images of Matteo Renzi. Some floats were just plain strange, with people dressed as flowers and dancing in a hypnotic manner, and others were more emotive, with images of refugees and barbed wire atop stone walls. Each blared music and the participants danced and laughed as the float moved along the parade route.
What really struck me was that while the floats followed the parade route along the seafront, visitors could walk alongside them, and could even climb up onto a float if it took their fancy. Very different to British carnivals, complete with barriers and organisers up to their ears in health-and-safety protocols. This was a wonderful, open carnival with so much to see and do, and it was also right on the beach, so once we had had enough, we enjoyed a beer sitting on the sand, feet in the sea.
Both Venice and Viareggio are easily accessible from Florence on the train, and realistically taking the train really is the best option. Both cities were absolutely heaving with traffic and tourists and the car parks hoicked up their daily prices. If you have the opportunity to visit both, I would really recommend trying to see them as they are so different, but personally I am more likely to return to Viareggio simply for the spectacle of it all.
Let me know in the comments where you’ve been and which you preferred!