The magnificent island-city of Venice is just a short trip away from Istria. Since it’s carnival season, many bus companies are offering special day trips to the Venice Carnival. This seemed like a good way to experience a little bit of Venice’s famous carnival without having to spend the night in one of its famously expensive hotels, so I decided this was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up.
After booking the trip, I did a bit of reading up on the Venice Carnival on the Internet and didn’t like much of what I read… huge crowds, inflated prices, packed restaurants… What was I getting into? I would have to see for myself.
It was pouring rain when we left Pazin at 5:30am. Not a good start! On the way we stopped for a coffee/bathroom break at a service station near Palmanova, Italy. The parking lot was full of buses from all over Croatia, Slovenia and Austria – and the line for the ladies’ restroom was ridiculously long.
It was still raining when we arrived at Tronchetto, a huge parking area in Venice which was quickly filling up with buses from all over Europe. We had the option to take the vaporetto (waterbus) to St. Mark’s Square but decided to walk instead. The only way to get around Venice, a collection of over 100 tiny islands, is of course by boat or on foot. Along with its architectural splendour and old world charm, this is one of the unique things about Venice: no cars and water everywhere.
From what I had read I was expecting to see crowds of people… and everyone wearing masks and dressed up in elaborate costumes. As we walked along, we did come across many tourists wearing masks, but very few people in costume. Maybe the rainy weather was keeping them away? But there was a tangible festive spirit in the air and a sense of excitement. Colourful masks were on display everywhere, small shops showcased the beautiful Murano glasswork Venice is famous for, and stalls offered fritelle, a sugar-sprinkled fritter made during carnival season (very similar to the fritule we have in Croatia).
Once we arrived on St Mark’s Square, the atmosphere was very different. A large stage was set up at one end where a song-and-dance number was in progress featuring people dressed in animal costumes and tottering on stilts. Two huge screens on either side of the stage flashed advertisements, dominating the visualscape.
Strolling along the square, there were also quite a few people dressed up in elaborate ‘period costumes’ – who were accosted at every step by a paparazzi of tourists wanting to capture the quintessential ‘Venice Carnival experience’ on their cameras. I was one of them. I noticed that most of the costume wearers spoke German or English and seemed to be tourists themselves. If you love to dress up and have your picture taken, come to Venice during the carnival, you’ll feel like a celebrity!
After taking in the beauty of St. Mark’s Square and snapping a few photographs, I just wanted to get away from the circus-like atmosphere and escape back to the charming little lanes of Venice and get lost in them.
Thankfully there was some respite from the rain and it wasn’t difficult to find a place to have lunch. I was also surprised to see that prices did not seem to be inflated but quite average for a tourist centre, and nowhere near the ridiculous 4 Euros it costs for a cup of tea in a city like Paris!
Would I recommend a trip to the Venice Carnival?
My experience of it was only very limited, but my impression was that the Carnevale di Venezia is less a traditional celebration leading up to Lent, and more of a 'mass tourist event' to attract visitors during the low season. I later came across this article which seems to confirm this and reveals that the revival of Venice's carnival is fairly recent.
For first-time visitors to Venice, carnival time does offer the unique experience (and photo opportunity!) of seeing beautiful masks and costumes, but the atmosphere seems quite artificial and put on, and lacks 'local flavour' somehow. Venice is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a 'must-see', but I don't think the Venice Carnival is a 'must-do'.
Of course, it’s carnival time in Croatia too, and this weekend I plan to go to Rijeka for the last day of celebrations of what is the best-known carnival in Croatia. I'm curious to see how it compares to Venice's (more) famous carnival, but I am expecting less put-on pomp and more local flavour!