Venice is the queen of carnivals, she isn’t wild like Rio or subversive like Nottinghill, she is regal and aware of it. With a ready-made stage set of fantastical gothic architecture, glittering water and eerie dark alleys, Venice Carnival and its performers are as enigmatic, mysteriously beautiful and prestigious as La Serenissima herself. But with so many visitors, so much chaos, and prices of coffee soaring, how can you navigate Carnival like an expert, smooth and unflustered, your wig unruffled?
Remember that Venice is a Tourist Machine
While its architecture might be crumbling and canals stinking, when it comes to tourism Venice works like a well oiled machine, a theme park that admits waves of tourists, dazzled them and then packs them off home their pockets considerably lighter. It is very easy to get caught up in this system, you exit the railway station and next thing you know you’re sipping a 10 euro coffee in St Marks and tipping the terrible accordion player with bank notes. Here are some tips to help you avoid these typical tourist traps and visit Venice Carnival worry-free:
1.Arrive (and leave) in Style
If you are driving to Venice, consider parking in ‘Tronchetto’, rather than the main car park in Piazzale Roma. While not much cheaper, Tronchetto is less popular meaning when the flood of people leave at the end of the day you aren’t caught in a frustrating queue trying to exit the car park. Secondly, from Tronchetto you can take a vaporetto directly from the car park to St Mark’s, a rather elegant entrance to Venice Carnival. The vaporetto takes you down the channel between the Zattere, a promenade worth visiting for reasons specified here, and the Giudecca island with Palladio’s iconic churches. On arrival at St Mark’s you get a view of the Piazza from the sea, just as visiting foreign dignitaries would have.
The cheapest option by far is public transport. Trains run from Bologna, Verona and Padova, and buses from other nearby towns. If you are travelling by train remember that there are special late trains during Carnival that run until around midnight. More information can be found here.
2.Get Newspaper Worthy Photos
An enigmatically masked figure perfectly framed beside a column, a silk enveloped model posing beside gondolas, they seem like photos only the press could catch. But in fact these Venice Carnival veterans that spend hundreds on velvet and crinoline are purposefully there to be photographed. They will deliberately pose in front of an aesthetically pleasing setting, just waiting for visitors to snap away. All you need is your camera and a good pair of elbows to get to the front of the crowd. The best place to find these Carnival posers is in St Mark’s Square, but the models do wander round so you might find you get better photos with fewer people in the background if you try the streets and squares nearby.
Here’s proof you don’t even need a fancy camera, photos taken by my friend on an iPhone:
3.Don’t Make Plans, Just Wander
The most frustrating part of Venice Carnival is the inability to walk at more than a stroll through the narrow streets due to all the crowds. In fact some of the narrower bridges have the local police directing traffic with whistles! If you start making yourself a strict itinerary for the day, you will find that getting from one event to another with time constraints is unnecessarily stressful. In fact barging down streets and elbowing past others also means you miss some of the best sights of Carnival. The best approach is spontaneity: things are happening everywhere, you will stumble across events so don’t give yourself a timetable. Wandering through the streets you will see the weird and the wonderful – a whole family as the Alice in Wonderland cast (including the baby), Zorro on a cardboard horse with a clip clop noise, witches taking a break from spell-making with a well-deserved spritz. In St Mark’s Square there are always things happening, so just hang around snapping photos of aloof masked models and wait for Carnival to come to you.
p.s. Even if you do read that the Flight of the Eagle starts at midday, remember that this is Italy, so it will likely start an hour late anyway.
4.Have Your Aperitivo off the Beaten-Track
After a day of bruised elbows and trodden toes you need a bit of space and, of course, a few spritz. Follow this guide to find the lesser-known, local hangouts. These bars are called ‘bacari’, and their dim interiors with dark wooden ceilings and vintage clutter are just the right atmosphere for Venice Carnival.
5.Don’t Go to a Restaurant for Dinner
If you really want to ruin a magical day at Carnival, eating in a ‘characteristic’ restaurant and reading the bill is just the way. Carnevale is about living wildly in the streets, staying out till late, clandestine meetings in bars and mingling with crowds of surreally masked revellers. So why go to a restaurant? A much better, and considerably cheaper, option is to grab a slice of takeaway pizza and munch in the golden pool of light outside the shop with an unmasked zombie bride and a shark and watch the costumed crowds going past.
6.Get Lost After Dark
The echo of laughter and footsteps from down a dark alley, suddenly stumbling across a dishevelled reveller with their mask askew, music and chinking glasses drifting from across a murky canal. Perhaps the most ‘authentic’ experience of Carnival is at night, long after the children with their costumes bedraggled and tiara lost after a day of too much excitement and sweets have gone to bed. Now you get a hint of Carnevale as of old, when masking wasn’t just for fun, it was for anonymity so that wearers could partake in illicit activities and secret pleasures. So get lost in the dark streets, feel that slight prick of fear as you turn a un-lit corner, shiver as you hear a disembodied voice echoing down a street.
And most importantly…
7.Wear a Mask!
It really doesn’t matter if it cost 5 euros and was made in China or 500 and made from the sweat and tears of the last remaining authentic mask maker in the whole of Venice, Carnival is all about getting involved, adopted a new persona for a day, feeling unrestrained, and making eyes at a mysterious Batman at the bar beside you. Trust me, you won’t feel the excitement and the romance of Venice Carnival without a mask.