Monday, February 13, 2006

Carnevale di Venezia – Carnival in Venice Part I

When we think of Carnival, we think of Rio with its parades and beautiful dancers or Marti Gras in New Orleans with its festivities however Carnival in Italy has deep roots and traditions. In fact it is a Catholic holiday marking the beginning of Lent. It is a final moment of celebration where just about anything permitted before 40 days of contrition. When the Catholics immigrated to various parts of the world they brought their traditions with them.

All of Italy celebrates Carnival and not in the ways you may think. This is an antique celebration, full of tradition, beautiful women and folkloristic customs. Venice is by far my favorite of all of the locations.

I called for breakfast in the room. Raffaella enjoys sleeping in, but as soon as she awakes wants to have breakfast. A cup of hot water with half a lemon, two carafes of espresso, hot milk and some sweets.

It is chilly, probably seventy degrees in the room but the humidity from the sea penetrates your bones. The bathrobes are inviting, draped over the heating elements, they are toasty warm.

As I start sipping my coffee, it takes 2 or 3 doubles before I get going, the bells from one of the local churches start ringing. Most of Italy has installed the electronic bells system but these are the real thing. Deep, clear tones, cadenced intermittently by joyous high notes permeate the walls. Raffaella slumbers into the parlor through the double doors that separate the bedroom and cuddles me a bit on the Victorian couch before settling down in the heavy upholstered for breakfast.

As we stroll into Piazza San Marco the song “Baby, it’s cold outside” repeats over and over again in my head. A double-breasted suit, heavy wool overcoat and scarf are not enough to compensate for the humidity that penetrates deep in your bones. As the sun rises the temperature is becoming more bearable. The only thing I can think of is getting something to warm my bones. We find a café and order a China Caldo, liquor made from artichokes and steamed with an espresso machine.

Piazza San Marco is brimming with movement and colors. Carnival, almost eliminated in the period from 1774 to 1970 by a law prohibiting the use of masks, has become again a festive occasion and Piazza San Marco is the center of the activities. Children, of all ages, are out in full force. Elaborate costumes from the Serenissima are predominant. The numerous quarters of Venice participate with standards, gondolas, and theatrical skits. Women in luxurious velvet gowns, hats and masks scurry in and around the columns of Palazzo Ducale while the dignitaries, dressed in medieval garb are accommodated under the Campanile di San Marco. Were it not for the metal chairs and tables at the café it would be difficult to determine that we were actually in the twenty-first century.

I can see a hot platter of Chiacchere or Crostoli as they are called in Venice. Fried pastry pasta covered in powdered sugar. The sweets are made only during Carnival and are incredible. I would not eat them all year long but once a year is a tradition worth renewing. No lunch today, we are attending a dinner dancing party to celebrate the end of Carnival and there will be enough food for 10 days so a plate of Chiacchere is perfect with a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate is rich and dense. Made from Cocoa and milk, heated with the steam compressor from the espresso machine this is like drinking molten dark chocolate. As I sip on this chocolate delight I can feel my face flush and am warmed from the insight almost to a sweat.

The parade of the costumes has begun. Vibrant colors, heavy cotton woven bell gowns, brilliant silk patterns, white powdered faces, exuberant wigs and elaborate masks evidence the great wealth and power of the Serenissima regime. Men in tights, heavy velvet jackets, silk fluffed shirts with white wigs compliment the voluptuous women that represent this time. The explosion of colors overcomes the senses as the grand finale in a fourth of July fireworks display. Thousands of Veneziani represent the various periods and quarters of Venice.

The coronation of the parade is celebrated by the “Flight of the Doves”. Originally this was the “Flight of the Turk”. Tradition indicates that in the late 1500s, Turkish acrobats were brought in to perform during the month of Carnival. A young Turk, to accentuate the dominance of his family, walked a rope from the ground to the top of the tower of San Marco and back again. Today the flying acrobats are dressed as angels and doves and perform the same feat. Breathtaking is the speed with which they glide over the ropes and above the crowd.

As the sun begins to set, the air cools. It would be time to return to the hotel to prepare for our evening activities, but the day brought one emotion after another, with visions of long past times and futures yet to be discovered. I take Raffaella by the hand and quickly head toward the small port, more like a series of small piers, at the entrance to the Piazza. A tour of the city in the gondola is just what we need. An elderly gentleman, his face ravished by the elements but gentile, stands in his traditional attire at the rear of his sky-blue and white boat. He pulls out a heavy wool blanket as we huddle together just in front of him.

We remain silent, passing the many suggestive scenes in the canals of Venice. The boat slides through the water silently. The water lapping against the sides of the boat are the only sounds as the gondoliere propels the gondola through the canals with the gondolier’s long poll. Ponte Sospiri, Ponte Rialto, and other points of interest that have been heralded through the years in literature and paintings appear before us and quietly slip away. Livio, our gondoliere, has been doing this for 40 years, his father had been a gondoliere as his grandfather. He spoke with pride, and a bit of sadness, as he explained that his sons had gone to University, one was a lawyer and the other a doctor. As we approached various landings along the canals he would tell us about the family that owned that building or some other story about how that particular place had been important in history. Too quickly our tour was over. Livio had brought us directly to the hotel and while we wished him farewell, much to our surprise, he hugged us and exchanged the traditional Italian kisses on the cheek.

The hotel is warm and bustling with people dressed in costume. Before changing our dress, before dinner drinks are customary. The hotel’s bar is a celestial haven. The ceiling is a stained glass depiction of past times, crystal chandeliers with hand blown Murano glass stems in the shapes of Tulips and other flowers. Walls usually finished in dark wood or marble are depictions in stained glass of the Serenissima period. Raffaella orders a Prosecco while I request a Johnny Walker Blue with a glass of cold water. This environment is lively and relaxing. Huge armed chairs with antique parlor tables adorn the room. We discuss the days activities and although we spend most of our time together it seems that we never run out of things to say.

A beautiful day but the evening holds a whole new Carnival di Venezia. Continua…


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Blogger moderator said...

Lovely! Oh for a return to the days when whole communities celebrated in such a fashion.

8:57 PM

Blogger ChickyBabe said...

Now that is my dream to see one day! I have a beautiful Venetian mask which can be worn. It serves as a reminder to see this event in my lifetime.

3:34 PM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Divas - This is one of the most difficult adjustments I have had to make returning to the US. My adult life has been in Italy and returning home it "seems" things that were once important no longer carry any weight.

4:02 PM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Chickybabe - I bet you have a great mask. Venice is a marvelous place to try it out!!!

Airfairs are down, take the plunge.

4:03 PM


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