A feast for the senses … dazzling lights, carnival music and even an all encompassing blackness …
As our water taxi put-puts across the Bay of San Marco towards the Venetian mainland, an incredible sight emerges ahead of us. A sea of heads and torsos undulates along the foreshore like some gigantic multi-coloured serpent. “Oh, my goodness,” whispers my wife pointing to the colossal crowd on the mainland. “Look at all the people!” The taxi nudges up to a pier and the cheers, bells and whistles become louder and louder. We disembark and immediately come face to face with a red and black harlequin – his gloved fist sprays us with a rainbow of confetti. The anonymous prankster shrieks wildly and darts back into the horde.
Luggage in tow, we dive into the madding mob and beat a path towards our hotel at the far corner of Piazza San Marco. Suddenly, a Mephistopheles-like character appears, towering above the crowd. He carves a swathe through the masses and strides towards us. It is a striking costume of purple armour encrusted with mirrors and a blackened head topped with metallic horns. The talons at the end of limber fingers flicker menacingly near our faces and a digital frenzy erupts when he turns to pose for the camera-clicking crowd. This is Carnevale Venezia, Venice’s largest and most important festival and we have landed smack in the middle of the event’s award ceremony for best masked costume.
Pigeons scatter, orange balloons and white streamers saturate the wintry blue sky. The ancient stone arches of the Doge’s Palace and the grand Basilica dome somehow retain their dignity amid the kaleidoscope of crazy characters and a cacophony of music and laughter.
After taking an hour to shuffle across the Piazza, a trip that normally takes five minutes, we at last fall into our hotel but there is no time to gaze at the fleet of gondolas bobbing on the waters beneath our balcony window. The overcrowded streets seal our fate. We will never make our deadline to pick up our pre-ordered garb for tonight’s Mascheranda, the Grand Masked Ball. After a brief respite we plunge back into the Piazza’s multitude and head for the scores of costume merchants.
Almost everyone gets dressed up for Carnevale. Masks are definitely a must. Many of the holidaymakers add a simple mask or top hat to their normal attire or paint on a little glitter while others show off extraordinarily inventive creations. A towering orange dragonfly splays her translucent wings above our heads as we pass a group of gossiping 17th Century fops dressed in rich blue velvet, waving frilly white handkerchiefs with wild abandon. Finally, we make our costume selection.
Mascheranda is a prestigious and opulent event on the Venice Carnival calendar and the only ball held in a real palace. The Pisani Moretta at dusk is a glistening jewel, nestled among hundreds of shimmering candles by the Grand Canal. A hostess greets us with a mystery peach coloured aperitif. Her rouged cheeks, pink coiffed hair and richly embroidered bodice hint at the lavish affair to come. Fire-eaters and mime artists dance about us as we enter the main saloon, a gallery of intricate eighteenth century frescos.
Our dinner table is a cornucopia of cultures made up of couples from Greece, Israel, Poland and Ireland, all of whom spent thousands of euros on their costumes of extraordinary detail and authenticity. An American guest in brocade britches, buckled boots and gold coat praises my economical dress, consisting of a white phantom-type mask, tri-corn hat and black cape purchased only hours earlier in the Piazza. “I wish I was allowed to wear something simple like that,” he moans, stealing a look at his wife in a matching brocaded gown so wide she has to turn sideways to walk through the door. My dearest also receives compliments for her hastily acquired burgundy cape and crimson and black feathered mask. Our total combined costume spend was one hundred euro. Everyone gets on famously. Fine wine, a traditional Venetian feast, Neapolitan serenades, renaissance dancing and a pair of bawdy Casanovas unite us in fun. The ball lasts all night.
The next day the festivities continue to overflow into the cobbled streets and canals as we meander towards the Castello district to visit an exhibition at the city’s old naval arsenal. Dialogo nel Buio (‘Dialogue in the Dark’) is an exploration of the sense of touch where blind guides lead visitors through a maze in total darkness.
“You will touch different objects and these are all things you would use everyday in your life but because it is dark you will not understand them straight away,” Assistant Director Glenda Genovesi tells us. “This is an experience where you can feel what the blind feel everyday. We advise people who are claustrophobic not to enter and we explain to the kids it is a game and fun and that if they get scared the guide will take them by hand to the exit.”
Genovesi says members of the Milan Institute for the Blind were instrumental in the event’s design and assembly. “The funny thing is that sometimes we go in to check that it is completely dark and the blind people are the first to realize that there is some light coming through the ceiling.”
We enter and it is pitch black. I open and shut my eyes and crane my head in all directions but cannot detect a sliver of light even though it is the middle of the day.
“Can you see me? Because I can’t see you,” jokes our blind guide Antony. My wife has strayed ahead and I hear her giggle nervously. The anxious fellow behind me finds the experience too daunting and pleads for help. Antony’s calming voice beckons us on as he escorts the distraught man to the exit. Antony walks backwards as he guides us, ensuring the group hears his voice. With arms and legs splayed, my body flush against a wall, I tentatively inch onward into the black void. My questioning fingers touch and squeeze various objects in containers; I think one is soap, another an onion, that goop is cold; could it be? Yes, I think it’s jelly but I can’t be sure.
“You can feel more with the other senses when you don’t have the lights on,” Antony explains at the end of the tour. He says visitors react differently to the experience in the dark. “Sometimes people are afraid when they go in but are happy when they come out because they realize what it means to be blind and understand there is nothing scary about the dark.”
Back at the Piazza San Marco as night falls and the anticipation of a fantastical finale staged among the iconic architecture electrifies the thousands gathered for the Carnival’s closing celebration. A trapeze artist suspended beneath a golden orb floats high above us, heralding the start of a spectacle of light and sound. Ghouls and goblins are the prevalent costumes tonight. The feature act is four youngsters in 1960’s grey stovepipe suits. We twist and shout with the other revelers and the ‘Fab Four’ from Rome, The Apple Pies, are undoubtedly the best Beatles cover band I’ve ever heard. Everyone should experience the Venice Carnival. Images of this surreal occasion last forever.
The next morning as we pack our bags for the train ride to Austria my beloved, pining at the waters beneath our balcony, is anxious because I still haven’t fulfilled my promise of a gondola ride and serenade. I hail a nearby gondolier from our hotel foyer and as we glide along a narrow canal I blast out a few bars from Madame Butterfly. Venice brings out the romantic in all of us.
The writer travelled courtesy of International Rail Australia