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Six Places to Celebrate Carnival in Italy

Carnevale Masks in Venice

It’s Carnival time again in Italy, when Italians prepare to say “goodbye meat!” (Carnevale) by throwing lavish parties and parades before hunkering down for 40 days and nights of denial during the Holy Lenten Season.

Many travelers think that Carnevale only takes place in Venice. While Venice has the best known Carnival in Italy, there are many other cities with long carnival traditions. Let’s have a look at them:

Viareggio, Tuscany
After the Venice Carnival, this carnival, located in the seaside Tuscan town of Viareggio, is perhaps the best known and attended with around 1 million revelers expected in attendance. The Viareggio Carnival is not the oldest in Italy – it began in 1873 – but probably most resembles the type of Mardi Gras celebrations that you might see in New Orleans with papier maché floats gliding down the 2km-long Passeggiata route on several successive Sundays. Throughout Carnival time, the city also celebrates with sporting tournaments, musical events, and promotions at Viareggio restaurants.

Ivrea, Piedmont
Located near Turin, Ivrea claims fame for its historic and unusual carnival, better known as the Battle of the Oranges. This fruity but fierce battle is said to have origins back to the 12th century when the people of Ivrea ousted a local tyrant for indiscretions against a local girl. Another origin of this festival comes from the 19th century, when the Ivreani rebelled against their feudal master by discarding the food he had given them. How the town came to throw oranges at one another, I haven’t been able to figure out; Piemonte certainly doesn’t strike me as a citrus growing region. Similarly, I’m not sure what this has to do with Carnival, other than it takes place on the Sunday, Monday, and (Fat) Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. But the event is indeed one of the biggest sanctioned food fights in Europe so it may be worth checking it out.

Pulp Can Move, Baby!

A Carnival Float in Acireale

Acireale, Sicily

I don’t know about you, but I think Carnival is best celebrated in a warm climate (a la Rio). Warm weather just goes better with the Bacchanalian feast that Carnival and Mardi Gras fests have grown to become. So Sicily seems like the perfect sunny spot in Italy to spend a later winter holiday. (Note that the weather is not exactly balmy here at Carnival time, but typically warmer than you’ll find in Venice, where harsh Adriatic winds can chill you to the bone.) The Sicilian town of Acireale, located between Catania and Taormina, hosts Sicily’s most famous carnival, with plenty of floats and masks. “Crewes” [my word, not theirs] compete in three different categories: flower, allegorical, and miniature.

Rome hasn’t been really known as a place to celebrate Carnival for some time now. No, this is the place you come when Carnival has ended and you need to repent your sins, follow the Stages of the Cross, and all those other things on the Lenten Calendar that go with observing Christianity’s most somber season. But this year, the Eternal City has thrown its cappello into the ring and announced the revival of Carnival in Rome. The festivities are set to include a procession from Piazza del Popolo down Via del Corso to commemorate a horse race from the 15th century called the Corsa dei Berberi. There will also be commedia dell’arte performances in Piazza di Spagna, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza Navona, as well as other fun activities throughout the Centro Storico (historic center). We’ll have to wait and see how successful this Carnival revival will be. But, come on – it’s Rome. It’s bound to be fun no matter what.

Mamoiada, Sardinia
Being cut off from the mainland of Italy all these years has allowed Sardinia to develop and more closely preserve many of its own traditions. This is certainly true of Carnevale in Mamoiada, which appears to be the most traditional – if not the most scary-looking – carnivals in Italy. This festival, which pits the black-masked Mamuthones and the white-masked Issohadores in a sort of dance with cowbells and lassos, is thought to have originated from pagan rites which were later incorporated into the pre-Lenten celebration. Truly bizarre and I’m sure truly memorable if you have a chance to visit Sardinia to witness this event.

Now to the grandaddy of them all: Carnevale in Venice. This is one of the Lion City’s premier events as well as one of the biggest events of the late winter in Italy. The 10-day festival takes place across the entire city’s sestiere (districts), including San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, and Dorsoduro, and the islands of the Venice Lagoon (Murano, Lido, and others). Activities include magic and puppet shows for children; music, dance, and theater performances; cooking contests and food fairs; and costume contests and masquerades that see Venetians dressed in traditional clothing and, yes, those beautiful and sometimes elaborate masks that have been a symbol of Venice since Renaissance days.

In 2010, the Carnevale di Venezia also has an official game. Carnivalia is a sort of scavenger hunt across the city that lets locals and travelers get involved in the festivities in a magical way.

Carnivalia is based on twenty tales set in twenty different places in Venice. With Carnivalia, you’ll get a fulfilling adventure in the city as you’re led by Giacomo Casanova and the secrets he has decided to reveal. These tales, written by Alberto Toso Fei, are about the fun and original aspects of the Venetian carnival tradition.

As a side note, Carnivalia was devised by a company called WhaiWhai, which has created similar fantasy games for other Italian cities and currently at work on games for Paris, London, and Prague. Whaiwhai’s tagline is “Storie che cambiano il modo di viaggiare” (stories that change the way you travel), which sounds like a great way for tourists, school groups, and others  to have a fun and interactive experience with a historic city while on vacation.

Photo © Radumanolescu, lagendina



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