It was the Italian equivalent of Friday the 13th when we set off on our road trip to Venice.
My cousin and I, armed with little red pepperoncino key chains which resemble horns and are the only thing that can keep one “safe,” were spared, but our accompanying party had no such luck and so despite our best efforts we were soon running late, getting lost and going in circles before we found ourselves in front of our hotel in the town of Malcontenta (“discontent”). Tired, but not at all disenchanted, we eventually made our way into the city for a night of wandering around aimlessly – the thing to do in Venice.
The Carnevale, originally started over 1000 years ago as a way to celebrate and feast before Lent (“carnevale” stemming from the words ‘meat’ (carne) and ‘to remove’ (levare)) was intense: the crowds milling throughout the calles with their cacophony of languages carried us like helpless fish from campo to campo (‘square’) and we couldn’t help but get lost in the winding, narrow passages that make up this surreal city.
But that is exactly what any good guidebook will tell you Venice is all about: literally ‘getting lost’. The sinuous and often cramped alleyways were constructed as such on purpose by the Veneti who built the city on the islands in the lagoon after fleeing the mainland from the invading Lombards back in the 5th century (Fodor’s Italy 2012, p.189). The disorienting vias therefore, devoid of vehicle access, were devised as a defence mechanism against the invaders, eventually allowing Venice to evolve into one of the most beautiful pedestrian cities in the world.
Walking then, was a must to really experience the Carnevale. Pushing through throngs of people in hippie costumes, carnival masks and capes that mashed at every turn and every street was exhausting and exciting. Being spit out into a campo, finally able to take a breath, was an endless thrill: this was where the magic happened, with regular shops slipping into celebration mode and discotheque music being blasted out of even the most demure coffee shops, allowing the usually solemn squares to be transformed into dance floors, with kiosks, music stages, and even ice rinks being erected for the occasion. The whole city was adorned with hanging lights so even the narrowest, most hidden pathways were welcoming to meander through, inviting the spine-tingling opportunity to lock eyes with a masked stranger before they passed anonymously by and disappeared forever.
Yes, everyone should visit Venice at least once, but like anything in Italy, this should be done “con calma.” Our pepperoncinos served us well but stories circulated of misunderstandings, lost reservations, and overcrowded lineups. This is the norm. Venice has no “off-season” but the crowds are part of the wonder, part of the chaos. And Carnevale, with its masks and its mystique, only adds allure to this majestic city that can make everyone feel like royalty, but always gives them the option of getting lost.