The bustle at the airport has a special character of excitement faces and suitcases showing feathers and colorful masks as a prelude to what is already happening and we expect in the city can be seen. The Carnival of Venice is known worldwide and it receives annually thousands of coming travelers from all corners that fulfill an almost universal desire: meet one of those key points that never fails in the many lists that remind us what we should do at least once in life.
Exiting the arrivals gate, bright sun rays pierce the large windows of the room wanting to indicate us the place where our friend Roberto greets us waving his arms in the distance. As we bring him the surprise of Alba and his infectious joy, Roberto does not come alone: Fabiola, his girlfriend and our friend of past adventures accompanies him. How could it be otherwise, the reunion of so many good friends translates into an explosion of laughter and hugs that lasts a long time at the gates of the airport terminal, while a cool breeze begins to lower the temperature in our faces.
With the group in Roberto's car already and calmed down, our friend shows his passion for his city and his joy at being able to teach it to us during Carnival, a festival that dates back as some historians say to ancient Sumeria and Egypt, more than 5,000 years ago. There were already festivals held in honor of pagan deities that could have been acquired in turn by the Greeks to celebrate Cronos and in the famous Roman Empire with the Bacchanalia in honor of the god Bacchus, the God Saturn's Saturnalia and Lupercalia for the God of Pan. All of them were known for debauchery and excesses of all kinds that led to the custom of wearing costumes to safeguard the anonymity of attendees and avoid that way the judgment of the whole society. After the Roman Empire, these celebrations spread throughout Europe and from the 15th century, the Spanish and Portuguese sailors took it also to America. Due to this wild character and how deep was the party established in society, the Catholic Church renamed it Carnival or Mardi Gras (etymologically to leave the meat), as pre- Lent days when Catholics could eat meat to be prepared for the next 40 days without tasting it, that is why now Carnival precedes Ash Wednesday, beginning of Lent.
Upon arrival, Santa Lucia Train Station receives us full of people approaching the exit doors rapidly, with a general desire flying in the air of strolling the streets and crossing the bridges of Venice, which opens fully to us and leave us meet head on the Grand Canal and the Scalzi Bridge, next to the church with the same name. From the top of the bridge, which we have hardly reached overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, Venice makes itself unique and flirts with us showing why its name is written in golden letters in history. The classic pastel buildings frame the canal, crossed by gondolas and larger vessels, where traditional bricoles (wooden sticks where to moor boats), stand on an idyllic image that we all admire spellbound, including Roberto. Apparently, neither the Venetians get used to the bucolic beauty of their own city.
Our lunch has also a festive atmosphere and through the window we begin to see the voluptuous Venetian typical dress decorated with stunning masks and hats. During the day, many Venice citizens wear costumes leased, or simply passed by family heritage through the streets of the city with no other goal than to be photographed by onlookers and tourists in the most emblematic places. Even if there are many cultural events, plays, children's workshops, concerts, etc., during Carnival time, they are the main attraction for visitors.
When leaving the restaurant, Fabiola checks her watch and we do not understand her strange look to Roberto. After this, their steps are more agile and we walk fast trying to follow them by a maze of narrow streets as we pass among some of the most popular Venetian masks: larva or volto, completely white mask also known as 'ghost'; gatto that curiously were appreciated by the scarcity of these animals during the period of the Republic; dottore peste, a mask used by physicians with a peak where they used to place aromatic plants to combat the plague smell, and columbina or mask half face with different decorations such as musical notes or feathers.
At the end of one of the alleys and almost running behind Roberto and Fabiola, a beautiful arch leads to one end of the famous Saint Mark's Square, completely full of people enjoying a show unknown for us. Among the crowd and carried in some men's shoulders in a kind of procession to a huge stage set in the square, twelve girls enter the place wearing brown layers while the crowd cheers their arrival. With our astonished faces and comments of Alba, who would be happy to be carried in those shoulders, Roberto explains that we are witnessing one of the most traditional events of the Carnival of Venice: the Festa delle Marie or Feast of Marie. He tells us that the day of the Purification of the Virgin Mary over a millennium ago twelve Venetian girls were abducted by a band of pirates. The people of Venice fought for their release and when they achieved it, the Dux (leader of the Republic) captured the pirates and threw their bodies into the sea after killing them. In commemoration of this victory, from that day this festival has been celebrated every year, but today is a sort of beauty competition in old costumes. This event and the Fly of the Angel, the very next day, mark the official start of the carnival festivities in the city. This 'flight' came in 1500, when a Turkish acrobat used a swing to climb to the top of the bell tower and then down to the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale. So successful was the show that in the following years the event became traditional, being popularly known as the 'Flight of the Turk' until years after a Venetian dressed as an angel created a new custom that is maintained until today.
Circumventing the crowd with difficulty, Roberto leads us to the other side of the square directly to the doors of the famous Caffé Florian, crowded with tourists in its windows taking pictures of the inside, where guests drink coffee dressed in their best Venetian costumes from 18th century. As if by magic, Roberto takes out of his bag five beautiful masks and after exchanging a few words with an acquaintance who works in the cafe, we are brought to one of the halls with a nice and lonely table. The original distribution of Florian consists of a long corridor connecting the different rooms with singles windows to St. Mark's Square. As we are served espresso and caramel macchiatos (between 6€ and 10€ each), the coffee room plunges us into the luxury and romance of the Venice Carnival's brightest time. Under our masks, in the Florian seems time has stopped and his ostentatious palatial decor make us feel unique. The most luxurious side of Carnival in Venice has its landmarks such as this cafe from 1720, the oldest in Italy, and also in the halls, hotels and palaces where the famous, exclusive and expensive masquerades are celebrated as night falls. Probably, the most popular of them all is the Enchanted Palace at Palazzo Tiepolo Passi celebrated during Carnival weekends, a 15th century palace that hosts a masks and costumes party whose entry prices vary from 350 € to 1200 €.
Between jokes, wigs and glasses of Spritz (local drink made with white wine, orange and aperol) Roberto's house is now a Carnival fitting room where we try different combinations again and again. Some of us with masks and costumes and the rest with vintage makeup and tights, we begin to realize that Carnival changes its dress code at night when we go back to Santa Lucia Station. Upon leaving, something has changed in Venice and mystery has resulted in a dense layer of fog that envelops the narrow streets and rises to the height of the bridges crossing the canals. The ambience around the city is magical and the masks appear everywhere in the mist, with the darkness of the night as a backdrop.
The Carnival re-live at night in the dark streets of Venice, which although do not have the luxury of exclusive costume parties at the hotels and ancient palaces, they hide a romantic atmosphere difficult to imitate. Halfway between the train station and St. Mark's Square, we stop in the middle of a bridge where an old woman sells vin brule, spiced wine which is prepared in a pot on the fire. While we get warmer, the vapor is mixed with the fog that covers the ambience. Walking through the dark Venice, some spontaneous parties appears in the narrowest street or in open portals to receive anonymous guests in their masks. Venice and its crowds, canals and bridges and even a group of tunos (street musicians) doing Alba dancing and singing envelop us all in the surrealism of the most beautiful night, the Carnival that between mist and magic awaits us to discover the secrets of the most mysterious and romantic city.
Text: Luis López & Alejandro Rojas