Carnevale time! Are you ready?

Masks hanging in a shop mimic the crowds at Carnevale.

Masks hanging in a shop mimic the crowds at Carnevale.

Carnival season is well under way in Venice.  Carnevale is widely celebrated around Italy, but in many places only for the day or so before Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5 this year.

carnival costumes (960x1280)In Venice, however, their celebration begins almost three weeks beforehand. You can visit the official website to see some of the many events that encompass the famous Carnival of Venice.

Since I’m not from a family, culture, or religious tradition that celebrates Carnival, it was fun to be in Italy a few years ago, when the appearance of costumed children on the streets of Sorrento in February surprised me. Some of the adults dressed up too, and most memorable were a pair of Dalmatian dogs getting into a car along the main street and driving off.

Animal masks of all sorts!

Animal masks of all sorts!

Last summer , I saw just what a year-round event Carnevale is in Venice. We saw everything from simple white mask “blanks” you could paint yourself, selling for a Euro or so, to glorious extravaganzas from feathered head to pointed toe, costing thousands. Some of my photos will tell the story better! 

Did you grow up with a Carnival tradition? I’d love to hear some of your experiences. Please comment!

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Some Carnival characters can be scary!

Some Carnival characters can be scary!

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In the record breaking heat last August this girl dressed in her finery to entertain tourists along the waterfront.

In the record breaking heat last August this girl dressed in her finery to entertain tourists along the waterfront.

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Favorite day in Venice: Brenta Canal

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

Not really in Venice. Not really a canal. But a really great day of relaxation and effortless sightseeing!

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

I found the website for Il Burchiello while searching for how we’d spend five days in Venice with another couple, longtime friends of ours. It looked so relaxing, motoring along in an air-conditioned modern boat, stopping along the way for three villa tours and a lunch, then back from Padua at the end of the day on the train or bus.  Il Burchiello lived up to its claims, and the tour guide and boat staff were accommodating and informative. In four languages!

Turtles and ducks along the river.

Turtles and ducks along the river.

The boat has a capacity for 110 passengers, but we had only about a dozen on board the day of our tour. This added to our comfort with a sense of “private” touring, and we were able to get acquainted with some of our fellow travelers. In addition to the air conditioned cabin with a mini-bar selling espresso, various drinks, and snacks, the upper open-air deck provided ideal viewing of the dozens of villas along the canal, most built in the 1500s to 1800s.

We boarded the boat along the waterfront not far from Piazza San Marco, and soon were motoring across the lagoon. The Brenta “Canal” is actually a natural river. We entered the river in an industrial area, but soon came to the first of five locks and several swinging bridges. These were interesting, but the main attraction for me was seeing so many villas, and being able to tour three of them. My love affair with castles and palaces began in childhood, and these villas, the summer homes of the wealthy Venetians, played to my heart. Brenta-Malcontenta2

Lunch along the way was not included in the cost of the tour, and the four of us opted for the “light” lunch, sandwiches, drinks, and a snack. A bit overpriced, but the restaurant was comfortable and clean. They offered a full seafood lunch, and the one passenger who ordered that seemed happy with it.

After touring the third villa, in the late afternoon, we were still 90 minutes from Padua. Our guide offered us the option of returning by Venice by bus from there, rather than going on to Padua and having a longer trip back. Several of us found our way to the bus, and rode back to Venice a little earlier than we had planned. We were very refreshed, and ready to hit the more active sightseeing circuit the following day–our last full day in Venice.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, and I encourage anyone who needs a day out of the crowds in the city to book a river cruise on Il Burchiello.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

 

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

 

Not Villa Pisani--only the stables!!

Not Villa Pisani–only the stables

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondolas at rest

Gondolas at rest

I read somewhere that in 1600 there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. They made up the entire complement of private transportation, delivery wagon, garbage truck, and most other vehicles you think of as part of everyday travel within a city.

Today, there are a few hundred. They are a tourist business, no longer part of the ordinary life of Venetian citizens. Venice is like that, a city capitalizing on her history, her glorious past, for those of us who find it intriguing and romantic. Tourism with this intensity changes a place. Instead of neighborhood grocery stores, butcher shops, and stalls, the shops are filled with masks, Murano glass, and souvenir t-shirts, hats, shopping bags. One friend likened it to a theme park, a kind of Disneyland, where everything you see seems to be there for the benefit of paying tourists. And a theme park is not like a real city where people live, work, raise families.

Most telling to me was an early morning walk around the Piazza San Marco and then through the neighborhood to the south. We saw almost nobody hurrying to work, no corner bar where people scanned the paper with their morning espresso before starting the day. These were images we had seen over and over again in the non-tourist towns. Not here. We saw a couple of men sweeping the piazza–plastic and glass bottles, wrappers from ice cream and candy, the litter of thousands of tourists. Nobody walking the dog, nobody taking the children to school. In fact, we saw almost no children except occasionally the overheated, oversugared children of tourists.

But I was talking about gondolas. Along the canals there are gondola stands, like waterborne taxi stands, with gondoliers in their striped shirts. Some call out, “Gondola, gondola,” hoping to hustle up business. Others lean against a wall, smoking or reading the paper, but keeping one eye on passers-by for signs of interest. I didn’t hear any of them singing.

We had a conversation with a girl from a family of gondoliers, and when my husband sang the first few notes of “O Sole Mio” she cringed. “That’s a song from Naples. People always sing songs from Naples here,” she added with disgust. When I asked what would be a good Venetian song to sing, she just shrugged, leaving me to think that singing gondoliers were just a myth, another aspect of them park hype.

Though their numbers are shrinking, you just can’t see a gondola without thinking of Venice. Here are some images to bring Venice to mind today.

The Venetian taxi stand.

The Venetian taxi stand.

 

Waiting for a fare.

Waiting for a fare.

Gondolier with cell phone.

Gondolier with cell phone.

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

 

Morning in Venice

Vern and I were awake at 4 AM yesterday and about 6:30 decided to go out for a look around while the day was still cool–by which I mean 77 degrees or so. We headed for Sst. Mark’s Square, passing only a few pigeons in the narrow streets. Approaching the archway into the square, the morning haze was bright with early sun. First an Asian girl, then a solitary man, then a scattering of others came into view–photographers all, repositioning themselves for one shot after another of the domes, the clock tower, the great winged lion, gilded by the sunrise. The hordes who fill the square by day and night were still abed. The only other souls about were two men sweeping the pavement with twig brooms, gathering the discarded butts and candy wrappers, plastic water bottles and ticket stubs, into piles. They called out to one another as they worked, but my ears aren’t yet tuned to Italian to know what they said. We crossed to the waterside where gondolasrocked gently in their blue covers, and looped south past the little Kaffeehaus before turning back into the narrow streets toward our apartment. Now a few signs of commerce appeared–not yet an open bar (we had hoped to find a coffee) but men pushing hand trucks piled heavily with cases of bottled water or boxes of eggplant, tomatoes, lemons, headed to a restaurant. The trash man came, picking up plastic bags set ot for him. And as we walked along one canal, a boat with a large metal tank collected sewage through a fat flexible hose. We neared our apartment, and passed a couple of sleepy tourists in the restaurant of a large hotel, picking at their breakfast. Finally, by 7:30, the world was coming back to life.
This was so unlike our experiences in other Italian cities off the tourist path. There, they have business to conduct, shops to open, and they gather early for a quick espresso and a glance through the newspaper along the way. But here, the tourist rules, and seems almost to have become the reason for Venice’s existence. Strangers gather to view her history, and there’s money in it. But no real reason to be up at 7 AM.