This year’s Venice Carnival (February 22nd to March 4th) is themed on the ‘Wonder and Fantasy of Nature’. If you’ve never been to Venice for the 12 days of carnival leading up to the start of Lent, you’d be forgiven for assuming they were going all out this year with a bit of ‘fantasy’ because usually it’s such a sober affair, grounded in reality and maybe involving the odd courtly dance. Well you’d be wrong.
Venice may not go in for the New Orlean’s beads and tribal dancing and you’d be advised against the scanty attire beloved by Rio de Janeiro (if it’s cold enough to ice skate on the Campo Polo you shouldn’t be running around in a bikini) but the city’s annual carnival celebrations are just as excessive in their own way.
And that way is very Venetian: mysterious, sinister, elegant, refined, bawdy-up-to-a-point, artistic, cultured and comes with Gondolas – this is the only time Gondola’s are acceptable unless ‘self-conscious’ is your preferred default position.
So if you’re one of the 3 million people planning to descend on Venice for Carnival this year what exactly should you expect?
Masks for a start. I’m always a bit confused by the confusion over the mask wearing tradition to be honest. It’s accepted that no one quite knows the origin of the custom, but I’ve often thought it wouldn’t be totally out of the park to hazard a few educated guesses. Especially since Venice is such an icon of intrigue, when it turns up in movies my first thought is, ‘oh, here we go, intrigue.’
I’m opting for ancient ‘democratising’ – if no one knows who you are they don’t know where you are in the great Venetian pecking order, pop on a mask and you’re sorted. And I’m going to second guess with ‘anonymous seduction’ because with 40 days of Lent and self-imposed abstinence of all sorts looming, I’m not thinking the Venetians were traditionally filling the 12 days of Carnival with anything close to restraint.
credit: Guandomenico Ricci
My musings aside, this year Venice will be masking up for Carnival as ever. Street stalls sell the tacky variety for not much money, artisan creations are available for the price of a small car or you can make your own and enter the annual Best Masked Costume Competition daily at Gran Teatro San Marco (the finale’s on March 2nd and comes with a very nice prize). If you’re of a mind to pack your suitcase full of craft glue, feathers and sacks of sequins you’ll find an entry form for the competition at www.carnevale.venezia.it. Alternatively you may just want to go along and watch. The audience chooses the winner so your vote counts.
Since Barcelona decided to do without a grand carnival opening procession a few years ago, I’ve been slightly anxious that other cities might follow their lead. I’m sure the Catalan capital had very right-on reasons for choosing ‘community events’ over an all-out bacchanalia, but I’m sorry: no procession, no carnival as far as I’m concerned. Happily, Venice is not about to give up its gowns and wigs and excessive merrymaking in favour of snoods and sandals any time soon.
This year’s opening procession promises to be as fantastic (in the truest sense of the word) as always, get there right at the start for some serious spectacle. And if you want to dress up at least once (and who doesn’t like a chance to frolic around in satin) the 22nd of February is the day to do it. The Gran Ballo Delle Maschere (Masked Ball) rounds off the Venice Carnival opening night and all you need for entry is a costume and a mask. It’s the biggest, most colourful, glamorous and typically Venetian party of the entire Carnival and although the venue is kept a secret as long as possible it’s almost certain to be more Grand Palazzo than aircraft hangar www.carnevale.venezia.it.
Consumed by Carnival would be a fair way to describe Venice between February 22nd and March 4th. You’ll eventually get used to the overload of brocade, doublet and hose, trailing cloaks and big-buckled shoes. There may even come a point when a ‘Plague Doctor’ mask doesn’t make you shudder. But I defy anyone to be complacent in the face of the frenetic non-stop activity that characterises Carnival in Venice.
Some events you can just pick up on, like The Streets of Venice Walking Theatre. Harking back to the good old days when Venetian Aristocracy had a special servant to accompany them on walks and tell stories, the Walking Theatre lets you wander round Venice in the company of a performer prepared to reveal the city’s secrets in English, French and Italian.
The Venice Kid’s Carnival is in its fifth year this year and going from strength to strength. There are special screenings of classic children’s movies, performances of Peter and the Wolf and Babar The Opera (a singing elephant in spats, who could resist?), workshops every day at the Peggy Guggenheim museum for children aged 4 – 10 and, if you really want to ramp up the insanity, there’s even a festival of sweets and chocolate to dip into.
Jousting and tournaments are the relatively sedate side of Carnival spectator sports. But if you want to see the normally civilised Venetians kick-off and really get down and dirty, then take in at least one Calcio Storico match. Played across the city over the first weekend of Carnival, Calcio Storico sees players dressed up in traditional costume knocking lumps out of each other in a bid to get a ball across a field. There are probably a few nuances I’ve missed here, but you get the idea.
Naturally the classical concerts, art exhibitions, private and public balls, street theatre, parades, parties and performances are all liberally eased by the addition of great food and plentiful wine. You’re expected to enter into the spirit of Carnival at least a little, so even if all you do is eat a lot, do it with gusto.
credit: Roberto Trm
Carnival ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday March 4th) with the procession to end all processions. This is where the iconic Gondolas really come into their own, the Venetians make their previous costumed efforts look restrained and everyone parties like it was almost Lent.
With 40 days and nights of repentance in front of you, I suggest you give the sinful pleasures of Venice Carnival 2014 your best shot while going’s good.
Happy New Year! (just getting ready, don’t worry you haven’t drifted off and skipped December)
It might be a bit early to be hurling streamers and kissing complete strangers, but New Year’s these days is all about preparation. Because, at some point in the past couple of decades, the mysterious ‘cash in on anything’ crew spotted New Year and thought, kerching!
It started small: a few bands, a few fireworks, a few clubs, a few dj’s then it just grew and grew. Now there isn’t a city on the planet that doesn’t have a New Year party. And most of them are ticketed in some way, hence our kindly advance warning – leave it too late to decide what to do at New Year, and you’ve got more chance of getting a taxi at 3am on January 1st than finding a place to party.
Naturally everyone says they’ve the ‘biggest and best’ event but, despite tireless efforts, we couldn’t come up with a reliable benchmark. So we’ve based our choice of New Year Celebrations 2013/14 on budget – from low to high (ish) – missed out the parties that start crowd-herding at 2pm on New Year’s Eve and there isn’t a single one that’s only low-cost because it’s you, three crofters and an illegal Still.
Bulgaria’s capital might be Europe’s best value travel destination 2013 but it certainly doesn’t come across as cheapskate, especially not at New Year. Turning the entire city centre into a ‘people only’ zone would be inspired enough even if Sofia didn’t score 100% on our ‘TRANSPORT PUMPKINOMETER’ (based on Cinderella’s cautionary tale of carriage woe, this is an official measurement of late night/early morning transport for revellers who didn’t think they’d ever be too tired to walk). Not only is there public transport in Sofia for New Year party people until 3am, it’s free and plentiful. The importance of this might only become truly apparent after you’ve spent 12 hours with the live music, fireworks, dancing and general Bulgarian-style New Year carry-on. Almost every nightclub in the city is partying but the main celebrations (crowds of 80,000 last year) take place in Batenberg Square and Knyaz Aleksandar I Square. No tickets needed but get there early it gets busy!
It’s plenty cold in Budapest in December, so a rule of ‘eat lots and keep moving’ is liberally applied to the 3-Day Party the city hosts to celebrate New Year. Starting on 30 December and running through to midnight on the 1st of January, everything centres on the fireworks, music and outdoor events at Nyugati tér and Vörösmarty Square. Cafes, bars and restaurants on Liszt Ferenc Square are teeming with locals on the 31st December. And if you want to take a step back and quietly observe the old year’s demise, New Year’s Eve Danube cruises are very traditional and very romantic.
The annual Hogmanay Street Party in Edinburgh promises the biggest ‘Midnight Moment On The Planet’ this year. 80,000 plus are expected to descend on Scotland’s capital on 31st December 2013 with Street Party tickets clutched in their excited little hands. It’s no ticket, no party for this huge event but just £20 gets you hours of live music, fireworks, lots of people to kiss at ‘the bells’ and one of Europe’s most gorgeous cities all gussied up and looking amazing. Edinburgh’s also the venue of the UK’s largest outdoor ceilidh ‘The Keilidh’ – buy tickets for that and you get into The Street Party too.
Apart from the strange worship of all things sausage, Berlin is pretty much always given to achingly cool and New Year is no exception. The Brandenburg Gate is where you’ll find the fireworks and kissing crowds at midnight on the Eve itself. DJ’s love Berlin so if you love DJ’s this is your place to party. And there’s obviously some unwritten club code in the city with high scores given for endurance, so be ready for some long, long, long nights of New Year partying – stoke up on sausages is our advice!
Dublin’s not a city known for restraint so you won’t be surprised to find it celebrating New Year as if the end of the world was nigh and the best partyers were the only ones with a chance of salvation. Getting down to business as soon as darkness falls with the traditional city-wide Torchlight Procession, Dublin then goes all out with as many fireworks and projections as it can manage for as long as it can manage. And, for the big midnight moment itself, it’s over to College Green and the massive, annual Countdown Party with live music, dancing and all sorts until all-hours. College Green Countdown Party is tickets only.
Venice is one of the most romantic cities on earth, so naturally it bids farewell to 2013 with a celebrated ‘Group Kiss’ on St. Mark’s Square, accompanied by fireworks, champagne, live music and thousands of beautifully dressed people. But if you’re looking for the ultimate, splurgy, extravagant, once-in-a-lifetime New Year in Venice, you want tickets to La Fenice Theater on December 31st for the Concerto di Capodanno. Not cheap (tickets live on another continent that hasn’t heard of cheap) the Concerto di Capodanno is part of one of the city’s most celebrated New Year traditions and worth every penny for the outrageous theatre alone.
Bagpipes and reels, DJ’s till dawn and beyond, classical Venice, over the top everything Dublin, generous Sofia and eat all you can Budapest – that’s our pick for New Year this year. But, wherever you go, whatever you do and whoever you’re with, have a great time and don’t do anything we wouldn’t do – which leaves the field wide open!
Featured image: Torchlight procession in Edinburgh, credit deradam…
How do you like your film festivals? A-list, kissy faced, couture and wannabes jockeying for jobs (any jobs) in Cannes? Cool, wintery, knowingy and achingly independent at Sundance? The officianado, Oscar hopeful, moneyed Toronto? The uber-elite Telluride? Or the still sunny in September and a good chance of surf in San Sebastian? And that’s before we’ve even mentioned Berlin, Tribeca, Edinburgh, SXSW et al.
This year we like the Venice Film Festival from 28th August to 7th September. It’s the world’s oldest film festival and while it might not be the one to choose if you’re looking to get a distribution deal or a good showing at next year’s Academy Awards, big Venice gongs in the past have gone to Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Altman, Aranofsky, Zhang Yimou, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wim Wenders. The Venice Film Festival pulls major players, big movies and actors and auteurs who like to be taken seriously. Its ‘Orizzonti Selection’ is a respected guide to what’s currently trending in World Cinema. And the entire festival is based in Venice – sorry Toronto, that beats skyscrapers hands down.
Well, to be honest the Venice Film Festival isn’t strictly in ‘Venice’, it’s on The Lido; the beachy island that lies between The Lagoon and the Adriatic, protects the city and is (and always has been) home to the elite, the bohemian, the artistic, the literary and the well-cashed-up. The Lido is known for its beautiful homes, smart shops and restaurants and, since it’s been in so many movies itself, has probably more right than most to host an international film festival.
Thomas Mann wrote ‘Death in Venice’ on The Lido so it’s no surprise that Visconti’s 1971 film of the book was also made here. There’s the final long, lingering shot of lifeless Von Aschenbach in his solitary deckchair all dripping black hair dye and carmine lips. And who could forget the oddly sailor suited Tadzio plinkety plinking away at ‘Für Elise’ (brief respite from the Mahler)? But for us the show stopper will always be The Grand Hotel des Bains on The Lido’s east shore. Okay death and pestilence were sweeping in, but heck, what a place to pass those final days!
The Grand Hotel des Bains is just as aristocratically magnificent in real life and if you’re cycling round The Lido – as you should – it’s worth a stop. NB. don’t let anyone, at any film festival, anywhere hear you using the expression ‘in real life’. The hotel was also seen in Anthony Minghella’s 1996 ‘The English Patient’.
Which tidily and cinematically takes us across Venice Lagoon by vaporetto to Venice itself and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’.
The movie was shot in New York, Naples and Rome, but the memorable (almost) denouement of Tom Ripley is filmed in Venice. When Dickie Greenleaf’s longsuffering fiancée, Marge, finally reveals her suspicions about his disappearance and Ripley’s hand in it, she’s sitting at the iconic Café Florian on Piazza San Marco.
But Venice has a history of cinematic connections that’s almost as old and illustrious as its Film Festival.
Back in the day – when a Bond movie’s entire budget wouldn’t cover the cost of a Martini – ‘From Russia With Love’ had to mainly make do with Pinewood Studios hence the back projected closing shot of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs behind ‘Bond-being-Bond-with-his-Bond-Girl’ in a Gondola.
Fast forward 43 years to 2006 for ‘Casino Royale’ and it’s a totally different story. Venice may not always be what it seems (sometimes it’s Prague), but when the city’s present, it’s present and correct. We might be prepared to accept Daniel Craig as a sophisticated, deadly, international spy but it’s stretching it too far to fake Venice’s Canal Grande. Seen twice in ‘Casino Royale’, the Canal Grande doesn’t take kindly to you sailing up in a yacht as Bond and Vesper did, but visit the renowned Rialto Vegetable Market and you can look across the city’s most famous waterway to the Piazzo which was spectacularly detonated in the movie. Miraculously, it’s still intact.
credit: Gwenaël Piaser
Venice’s Palazzo and Basilica San Marco with views over the Lagoon has to be one of the most recognisable establishing shots in the world – even overused Prague can’t stand in for it. But step away from the pigeons and the crowds and Dorsoduro district round about might also ring the odd cinematic bell. The Church of San Barnaba, Campo Barnaba was home to one of Indie’s clues in Stephen Spielberg’s 1989 ‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’. Katherine Hepburn fell into the canal here in David Lean’s 1955 ‘Summer Madness’. And Woody Allen as Joe, stayed in the Hotel Gritti Palace (where else?), Campo Santa Maria del Giglio in his 1996 ‘Everyone Says I Love You’.
And so back across the lagoon to The Lido (don’t catch the ‘residents’ only’ vaporetto by mistake, they don’t like it) for the 70th Venice Film Festival (August 28th to September 7th). We hope you enjoyed our mini-tribute to the city of its birth and would just like to draw your attention to the fact that we managed the whole thing without mentioning Nic Roeg’s 1973 ‘Don’t Look Now’. So we’ll leave you with that closing shot of Venice; romantic, doomed, broodingly sinister and almost impossibly cinematic. That’s a wrap!
Featured image by Scott Ingram Photography
If we were ever in danger of forgetting that we can still be mystified and not everything is explicable, the magic of the maze is always there to remind us.
Whether it’s the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur or the political intrigue and literary inspiration of Hampton Court, a maze can always be counted on to chill and delight us in equal measure. But while the puzzle may be ancient, the art of maze making is still alive and well the world over.
Without the help of Ariadne or even a hint of golden thread we’ve found some of the best mazes to get happily lost in for hours on end. And they’re perfect for children. So step inside the legendary adventure of the maze and create an unforgettable adventure of your own.
Russborough House, Co. Wicklow, Eire
Without a doubt one of the most enchanting aspects of a maze is where you come across them. Russborough House in Co. Wicklow, Ireland is known as the longest house in Ireland and is certainly the country’s finest Palladian Mansion. Russborough is a house of secrets and mysteries (the diaries of the last owner, Sir Alfred Beit, are held in trust in Dublin until 21 years after the death of HRH Queen Elizabeth II). Fitting then that the 2000m² Beech Hedge Maze in the garden is a puzzle that needs a map and still has visitors wandering and lost. The ‘goal’ at the heart of Russborough Maze is a statue of Cupid enclosed in a diamond hedge symbolising The Beit Family’s role as pioneers in the ‘diamond trade’. It is possible to attempt solving the mystery of the Russborough Maze before you step inside – one window on the first floor of the house overlooks the entire design – but you should probably take a phone with you just in case.
Il Labarinto, Villa Pisani, Venice
On the Riviera del Brenta about 20 minutes from Venice and 10 minutes from Padua stands the magnificent Villa Pisani. Often called the ‘Queen’ of Venetian Villas, Villa Pisani is famous for its Rococo interior, the ‘most beautiful gardens in Italy’ and for Il Labarinto, still considered to be the most complex maze in the world. Napoleon Bonaparte got lost here in 1807, Hitler and Mussolini refused to venture in and today’s visitors regularly call for assistance from the depths – this maze does not come with a map. For the intrepid and those with a good sense of direction the reward at the heart of Villa Pisani’s Maze is a charming two storey tower with exterior spiral staircases. This is the perfect vantage point from which to observe the confused and to admire the long expanses of the villa’s formal gardens.
Reignac-sur-Indre, Indre-et-Loire, France
Created in 1996, Reignac-sur-Indre is the largest ‘plant maze’ in the world. Although the design is a classical labyrinth, the planting of the maze uses a sowing and re-marking technique to make a vibrant living sculpture that flourishes with sunflowers in summer and dies back almost to a shadow in winter. This isn’t too puzzling a maze but its sheer size is an incomparable adventure. Indre-et-Loire is also famous for its chateaux, medieval towns and villages, beautiful lakes, forests and rivers and for its hot air balloons. So once you’ve explored the maze and its landscape on the ground you can always sail gently over it and see everything from another perspective entirely.
Parc del Laberint, Barcelona, Spain
This 18 acre garden, part of the Alfarràs Estate on the edge of Barcelona, is the oldest in the city and unquestionably the most romantic. The centrepiece of the garden is a maze of 2m high hedges devised to almost exactly replicate the Minotaur’s mythical Labyrinth at Knossos. Not content to mirror the classical design, the maze also uses statuary, art and friezes to capture every detail of Theseus and Ariadne’s love story – the prize at the heart is, of course, a statue of Cupid. The great romantic idyll is celebrated in the rest of Parc del Laberint too. But all the Temples of Ariadne and statues of Echo pale by comparison with a monument created simply to commemorate, ‘one splendid afternoon’.
Cawdor Castle, Nairn, Scotland
With its crow stepped gables and steeply pitched roofs, Cawdor Castle is at once fairy tale and intrinsically Scottish. Often called the Highlands’ most romantic castle and forever linked to Shakespeare through his wildly inaccurate tragedy Macbeth, Cawdor also has one of the finest walled kitchen gardens in Britain and at its heart lies the immaculately groomed Holly Maze. Designed in 1981 by Lord Cawdor and based on the mosaic maze in the ruined Roman Villa of Conimbriga, Portugal, Cawdor’s maze is not a conundrum or a place to get lost, but it is very beautiful and tracing its intricacies passes some very peaceful time.
Vizcaya, Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida
In 1916 the agricultural industrialist James Deering built his summer retreat overlooking Biscayne Bay in Miami. A huge, Italianate villa with dozens of rooms and over 10 acres of garden, today Vizcaya is one of the most glamorous museums in the world. Deering’s passion was planting – when he realised Miami’s climate wouldn’t fulfil his desire for abundant orchids he created a ‘secret garden’ specifically for their cultivation. He had orchards built, woodland tamed and, of course, inspired by the true spirit of 18th century Italy he made a maze. Not one of the largest or most confusing, but Vizcaya hosts many elegant evening events so it is one of the few mazes to explore by moonlight.
Featured image by Tim Green.
This one’s for every mum out there. A perfect Mothers’ Day with elastic hours, no expense spared and anything possible, because – at one time or another – our mums have pulled out all the stops for us!
Oh to be flung again. By Philippe Put.
Breakfast in Paris
Somewhere in the great big mystical book of mum’s sayings (right next to, ‘wear a hat, you lose 50% of your body heat through your head’) is, ‘breakfast’s the most important meal of the day.’ Prove you were listening for once in your life over croissant and coffee in Le Marais, Paris.
The oldest and, arguably, most beautiful Parisian quartier, Le Marais dates back to the 13th century but it’s best known for its tall, spindly 18th century buildings, narrow streets, tiny specialist shops (crowded window displays are de rigueur and make Faubourg St. Honoré minimalism look a bit ‘try too hard’) and the grandest of all Paris’s grand squares Le Place des Vosges.
But we’re going to pretend we’re lucky enough to live in Le Marais this morning so get ready to queue. The city’s best croissants are buttery, flaky and warm at Gerard Mulot’s magasin de Marais. These aren’t the poor imitations you find in supermarkets, they’re masterful and one is never enough. Buy four at least and then you’ll have some room for M. Mulot’s famous macarons which are almost – but not quite – too pretty to eat. Once you’ve stocked up choose a little café, order a grand crème and, if you’ve remembered the advice about the hat, sit outside and enjoy a perfect Parisian breakfast – it’s totally acceptable to eat your croissant with your coffee if the café doesn’t serve breakfast.
Marais, Paris. By scalleja.
Mid-morning in Murano
For every single, precious thing you ever broke. For all the times you left the red sock in with the white wash. For the perfume you spilled and the shoes you ruined and the pots you burned and the cars you pranged…..
You owe your mum big style.
The tiny Venetian island of Murano has been a byword for precious and breakable since the 13th century when the famous glassmakers proved too much of a fire hazard for Venice and were stowed out on the lagoon instead. Just a short sail from the city, Murano is enchanting (not a word we use lightly); brightly painted buildings, market boats, little waterways and tiny streets and of course the Murano Glass Factory and Museum.
‘Factory’ doesn’t really do justice to the artistry that makes Murano glass some of the costliest and most coveted in the world. To really appreciate the skill of the island’s artisans take a guided tour of the workshops (seeing glass blown never loses its appeal) and then wander slowly through the elegant, airy Palazzo Giustinian glass museum.
Unsurprisingly Venice is full of tourist shops selling hugely expensive Murano Glass. But take one of the little side streets and seek out the inimitable Murano Glass Beads, by far the sweetest piece of today to take home.
Murano canal. By ** Maurice **.
Snacks in San Sebastian
Along with the thing about breakfast and the headwear wisdom, mums have always had something to say about snacks. And our hips and thighs are grateful for the advice, but here’s one thing we learned ourselves; all snacks are not born equal.
Take your mum for a Pinxtos lunch in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian and change her mind about snacks forever. For the sake of simplicity we could compare Pinxtos to Tapas but the truth is they’re incomparable. Using the freshest ingredients, plenty of locally caught fish and the inimitable Basque flavours that account for San Sebastian’s inordinate number of Michelin Stars, Pinxtos are made to order as you stand at the bar, usually drinking a glass of Txakoli (the local sparkling white wine).
After lunch wander through San Sebastian old town, down to the waterfront and take a stroll along La Concha, the most beautiful city beach in Europe.
Pinxtos in San Sebastian. By Carnaval King 08.
Queen for the Afternoon
You can keep the castles and palaces when it comes to treating your mum like a Queen for the day there’s only one place fit for consideration, The Queen’s House, in the London borough of Greenwich.
Catch the boat at the London Eye and be a tourist on the Thames this afternoon. Whatever you think or feel about London there’s no doubt it has some of the world’s most spectacular, historic and just plain amazing buildings and the best way to see them is from the vantage point of the river as you sail towards Greenwich and 0° Longitude.
The 17th Century Queen’s House was designed by Inigo Jones. And everything from the mathematical precision of the Great Hall to the faultless spiral of the Tulip Staircase, the graceful, elegant proportions and the intelligent art collections, makes this our all-time favourite royal (sort of) residence. If it was for sale we’d definitely buy it for Mothers’ Day.
And the best sunset in the world
The perfect end to the perfect day would have to be on a beach somewhere warm watching the sun set while someone else makes dinner.
Captiva Island, South Florida has one of the longest shell beaches in the world (it’s just like sand unless you look closely) and overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. The water’s crystal clear, you sometimes spot shy manatee and the seafood is great and comes with a sunset – the best restaurant doesn’t take reservations so you just have to sit on the beach, enjoy the view and they’ll tell you when your table’s ready, what a hardship!
Here’s to our mum and your mum and all the mums who deserve more time and attention more often, Happy Mothers’ Day.
Florida sunset. By PenguinMan13.
Featured image by JB Moment in Time Photography.