I’m recently returned from the beautiful floating city of Venice, where I was lucky enough, not only to avoid acqua alta (the high floods that often occur in February), but to experience the spectacular masquerade carnival.
For 10 days, the whole city is heaving with locals and tourists with painted faces, ornate papier mache masks, hats, cloaks and gowns, while the districts explode with sights, sounds, tastes and smells. The carnival was ressurected in 1979 by a group of non-Venetians but is believed to date back to provate members clubs in the 1500s. Whether you believe the modern interpretation has stayed true to its roots or not, the event is a spectacle for the tourist wanting a weeked filled with romance and excitement.
Seeing the traditional cobbled streets, the gentle canals and the beautiful piazzas crammed with colour, fireworks, streamers and performers made the usual sight-seeing considerably more difficult, and this is a city that is busy all year round. But those wanting to soak up the culture and views at the Campanile, Basilica di San Marco and the Torre dell’Orologio might want to wait until the festivities are finished to avoid battling through crowds of thousands.
We felt woefully underdressed and dull surrounded by such flamboyance, something that was instantly compensated for when we bought our own masks and ventured forth into the heaving streets, but the sheer scale of some of the costumes is breathtaking.
Such characters glide around the streets day and night, being stopped every three minutes by tourists keen for photos. We couldn’t get into the world-famous Caffe Florian because it was packed to the chandeliers with folk in traditional costume taking coffee, prosecco and gelato.
To escape the crowds and to soak up some traditional Venetian atmosphere, we took the Vaparetto (water bus, and a very organised way of reaching the different parts of Venice) to the islands of Murano and Burano. Murano, the Glass Island, is filled with shops exhibiting exquisitely crafted glass wares, everything from realistic bowls of cherries to garish, technicolour chandeliers, ropes of beads and life-size aquariums filled with vividly coloured glass fish. Muran glass can be horribly expensive as every piece is unique, so it’s worth shopping around, and there are a number of workshops on the island that allow tourists inside to see the craftsmen blowing glass and creating their masterpieces.
Further on for Murano is Burano, where the canals are lined with candy-coloured houses and the shops all stock tablecloths, parasols, fans and bedspreads made from the locally-produced lace. Burano is well-known for its excellent fish restaurants as this is the island where many of Venice’s fishermen live and the catch of the day is never far away.
Venice has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to food, and I personally think that’s undeserved. It is, however, pretty expensive, so it’s wise to research your menus and choose well to avoid expensive cover charges and hefty bills. If you’re looking for a memorable fine dining experience, try Al Covo, Da Fiore or, like us, visit Harry’s Bar, where the Bellini cocktail was invented. Make sure you have plenty of money as a simple risotto starts at €45. But the food is excellent, it’s well located close to St Mark’s Square, and there’s a reasonable chance of spotting the odd celebrity.
The most beautiful place for me is Rialto, where the famous bridge arcs over a canal ligned with bustling restaurants and shops. This is the perfect place to sit beside the canal, soak up the sunshine, pizza or pasta and a glass of wine and watch the gondolas glide by. A gondola ride is a must for any first-timer to Venice, but again, be warned of the prohibitive expense – expect to pay around €80 for 20 minutes. But in terms of a romantic memory and a photo opportunity, it’s simply unbeatable.