Venice carnival woman mask

Venice Carnival 2014

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.

Venice carnival 1credit: calca

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.

Venice carnival 2credit: 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.

Venice carnival 3credit: robcrawshaw

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.

Venice carnival demon

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.

Venice carnival 4credit: 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.