Carnevale is the masked extravaganza Venice is famous for and over three million visitors flock to the city each year to attend the official events centered around the Piazza San Marco or one of the balls held in magnificent palazzos. There's nothing in the world quite like it for a grand spectacle, so if the idea of attending has always intrigued you, read on for an essential overview.
How it came about
In Latin, "carne" means meat and "vale" farewell; revelries end with Shrove Tuesday, the start of Lent, 40 days before Easter and a season of fasting and reflection. While it is a predominantly Christian festival originating in Italy, elements of Carnival date back to ancient Greek and Roman and medieval folk festivals. Additionally, Venetians have a long history of wearing masks - at one point they were worn for most of the year - probably because they were a way to escape the rigid social hierarchies of the time and enjoy illicit activities such as gambling without danger of recognition.
The first carnival in Venice was said to have taken place in 1162 as a spontaneous celebration of a military victory, and it reached its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Participants flocked to theatre performances, brothels, gambling dens and sideshows displaying exotic animals, wrestlers, tumblers and acrobats, until the King of Austria banned both Carnival and the wearing of masks in 1797. They were worn for occasional private parties in the 19th century, but it was only in 1979 that Carnival as we now know it was relaunched by the government as a way to showcase Venetian culture.
The licentiousness and debauchery of previous centuries may be long gone, but Carnival nevertheless remains an incomparable visual spectacle incorporating many of its original traditions.
When to go
This year, Carnival runs from 31 January to 17 February, and the theme is "Enogastronomy", which is the art of pairing food and wine with travel.
What to wear
The best thing about Carnival is that everybody can, and does, join in. Even if you're not in full regalia, you must wear a mask, not least because it allows you to enter the spirit of playful fantasy that Carnival is all about.
Some of the most popular styles include the bauta (above), which covers the whole face and has a beak-like chin allowing the wearer to talk, eat and drink without having to remove his disguise. It is traditionally worn with a tabarro (cloak) and tricorno, a three-cornered hat. The columbina is a half-mask covering just the eyes, cheeks and nose, usually embellished with crystals and feathers and tied to the head with a ribbon or held up by a baton. Others include the sinister Medico della Peste, or Plague Doctor, not originally worn during carnival but by medical personnel in the 17th century in the belief they would prevent the spread of disease, and identifiable by a long, hollow beak and round eyeholes.
Venice has seen an influx of cheap Chinese-made masks in recent years (some erroneously declaring themselves to be handmade in Italy) but we recommend purchasing an artisan-made, genuinely Venetian piece; it may be a lot more expensive but will make for a wonderful souvenir.
What to do
One of the best ways to experience Carnival is to simply wander the city, especially around Piazza San Marco, admiring the professionals in their elaborately over-the-top costumes as they pose and preen for the cameras, all vying for the "Best Costume" award.
A full programme of events is available on the carnival's official website; highlights include the opening masked parade, which starts at Piazza San Marco and winds around the surrounding streets, and the theatre performances that take place on the piazza. On Sunday, don't miss the boat and gondola procession down the Grand Canal. In order to relieve the pressure of crowds in Piazza San Marco, events are also staged at Arsenale, the city's historic dockyards.
For full details of the various balls, which range from eye-wateringly expensive to affordable, see www.venice-carnival-italy.com. There are listings too for canal boat cruises and themed walking tours (including photographic tours) and pub crawls.
Where to stay
A hotel that's a stone's throw from San Marco would make life very easy, but it isn't strictly necessary; any hotel in Venice itself would be in walking distance of most festivities. Those who haven't booked far enough in advance or are priced out of the city may choose to stay at the Lido (the narrow strip of land separating the lagoon from the Adriatic sea), which is ten minutes away by vaporetto (motorboat), or Mestre, the adjacent mainland. Charming it is not, but it's where many Venetians now live and buses travel regularly to Piazzale Rome, Venice's bus terminus. There are trains, too, but the railway station is not in the centre of town.
Another option is to stay in Padua or Treviso, both about a 20-minute train ride from the city. Bus and train transport outside Venice is amongst the cheapest in Europe; the vaparetto within Venice are very expensive (as are gondolas) but you can get everywhere on foot.