Carnevale lures visitors to Venice

Nate Cairney, Story and photos
Contributing writer

I pleaded to my wife, “Will you please take off the mask, at least in here?”
As she shook her head, a sheath of foot-long green feathers wiggled back and forth above her black mask. I looked around.  From out of the semi-darkness, small groups of men stared slack-jawed at us. “But we’re in an Irish pub,” I protested. “Nobody wears masks in Irish pubs!”
“We are in Venice,” my wife retorted.  “And it is Carnevale.  I’m wearing the mask.”

***image1***I sighed. Like everyone else I’d seen thus far, Carnevale madness had obviously gripped my wife. We ducked into a pub for a pint of Guinness so I could escape the crowds and raucous blaze of colorful costumes. Stepping into the winter night a moment later, I resigned myself to finding a mask, too.

Ultimately, though, I came to dig a night or two of mask wearing. The Venice Carnevale was one of the biggest parties on the planet, and we were in town to see it all – the crowds, the outfits and the spectacles involved in the run-up to Ash Wednesday.  

As Catholic veterans, Venetians have seen plenty of Fat Tuesday festivals. And whether you call it Carnevale, Carnaval or Fasching, the pre-Lenten season historically means one thing in Europe: party time. So, if you’re looking for a way to shake off the cold northern European winter and find warmth and color in the gray February days, you may want to look into joining the fun fray in one of the following locations.

***image3***The festivities in Venice this year occur through Feb. 28, and the mask-wearing – and subsequent people-watching – is hard to beat. 
Piazza San Marco is predictably packed during most days – especially during the “Flight of the Angel” ceremony that officially kicks off Carnevale – but venture into the side streets and it really does seem possible that the space-time fabric has ruptured and spit you into a centuries-old universe of bizarrely costumed Italians.

The French Riviera is also a very nice winter destination, and Nice, France, offers a grand Carnevale celebration through Feb. 28. The 2006 theme is “King of Dupes,” in which the ever-earnest citizens of southern France seek to “illustrate our society’s excesses, where the real, the virtual and the ostentatious meld to the point of obliterating all boundaries.” Those familiar with Carnevale will certainly understand the obliteration part of that equation.

There are excellent (and shorter) Carnevale parties nearby, most of which take place during the days leading up to and including Fat Tuesday.  Binche, a small Belgian town near Charleroi, hosts a famously old Carnevale (Feb. 26 to 28 this year, though it has existed in various forms since 1549) that includes a procession of strangely dressed “Gilles” who somehow seek to connect ancient Incas and modern Belgians.  Emmanuel Cennerazzo, who helps oversee the Binche Carnevale, claims the festivities are unique.  

***image2***“Many things about the Binche carnevale are different,” he says.  “Many carnevale celebrations are merely parades where visitors participate little or not at all. At Binche, the Gilles and other historical costumed characters help propel the jubilation of those in costume, not in costume, visitors or townspeople.  It truly is a party for everyone!”Maastricht, with its winding cobblestone streets and lovely location on the Maas River, kicks off a three-day Dutch party Feb. 26 with marching bands, all-night bars and live music staged at various points around the city.

Mainz also has a mighty celebration that culminates with its world-famous Rose Monday parade Feb. 27. And there are plenty of other celebrations within striking distance, including the Grand Carnavalesque Parade in Colmar  Feb. 26 and the Fasching parade Feb. 28 in Ramstein.

And though Carnevale is a season of mask wearing, I would still recommend removing yours upon entering a pub.  Some sights are too bizarre – even for Carnevale.