Anyone who has ever spoken to me about Italy probably knows my opinion on Venice. I’m a bit of a hipster when it comes to Italian cities in general: I don’t like the really big or touristy ones (except for the ones in Tuscany). Naples makes me uncomfortable, Milan bores me, and Venice just really winds me up. I’ve been three times before, so when I came to Padova in September, a half hour train journey from Venice, I swore I’d avoid a fourth return visit. From the fact that I’m writing this, you can tell that I failed.
It’s carnival season, and what with Venice’s take on it being so famous, up there with Notting Hill and Rio, and me living so close by, I was told I had no excuse for not going (not liking Venice apparently doesn’t count). Nonetheless, I pledged to approach it with an open mind. I went to the Viareggio carnival a few years ago and had a great time, so I was hoping the carnival atmosphere would balance out my dislike of the city itself.
What ended up happening was the exact opposite. The city wasn’t as crowded as I feared it would be, slightly due to it not being tourist season, partly due to inclement weather. Looking around on our way to Piazza San Marco, I genuinely found myself appreciating the beauty of the city, in a way which I haven’t really done up until now. I think if Venetians weren’t in a constant state of trying to fleece tourists, I’d like their city a lot more. The small calle [alleys] and bridges, the Jewish ghetto, and even St Mark’s itself, were a lot more picturesque than I remembered them. Last weekend I went to Chioggia for the day, on the other side of the Venetian lagoon, hoping to find a “miniature Venice” that I could take friends to, thereby avoiding the need to go to Venice. I failed. Chioggia is not a miniature Venice, just a semi-industrial city by the sea with a couple of wide canals running through it. Going back to the original just reinforced that for me.
Then we reached St Mark’s Square, and within ten minutes of the Concorso delle Maschere starting, all the goodwill that I’d built up towards Venice was viciously torn down. The one thing that you can usually rely on Venice for, if nothing else, is that tourist events will be done well. The city has made its fortune off that. The Concorso delle Maschere, on the other hand, resembled a particularly poorly executed village fete. It started with the presenters. Three of them, all in full fancy dress, who between them spoke two languages; Italian and French. Not that this stopped them from also speaking English, an English which wasn’t so much broken as smashed up and abandoned in an empty lot with weeds growing out of it. Honestly, it was so bad it sounded like they’d been taking private lessons from their Prime Minister:
The real low-water mark of the whole cartoonishly absurd high-budget fancy-dress contest was undoubtedly the panel of judges. The norm was apparently to get members of the public up from the piazza to judge the contestants. As a special treat, the judges informed us, the judges on that day were to be…. Nordic walkers!
Amazing! Excitement! Applause!
Wait… Nordic. Walkers? As in, the walking-with-sticks thing? Surely we misunderstood? We hastily accessed Google Translate to see if “nordic walking” means something else in Italian. But nope, right on cue, 30 nordic walkers, sticks in hands, walked on to the judges platform (only to be told that there could only be five judges, so the rest of them had to walk straight back down again). You know those 1960’s musicals where rows of dancing girls appeared in the background at random intervals? This felt like a surreal version of that, with nordic walkers.
We were treated to a touching story of how they’d walked all the way from the other side of Venice to be there with us (as had we, and anybody else who’d walked from the train station). We were then informed that the TV broadcasters were ready to go, and we were about to be broadcast live all over Europe!
Cue more excitement! I’m going to be on TV! Ahhhh! How does my hair look?
Then the hosts asked us if, to give the cameras a sense of how full the piazza was (it wasn’t), we could all sit down on the piazza for a minute. Which was the cue for a piazza full of people to look at each other with perplexed faces, followed by an unspoken rebellion as everyone simultaneously refused to sit down on the slightly damp, pigeon-droppings-covered ground. Lesser hosts would have been deterred by this, but these guys were professionals, after all, they had managed to announce the nordic walking judges with an entirely straight face. They began the contest, with each contestant walking up onto the stage and past the judges, who held up a green or red card, depending on whether they thought their costume was good enough or not. The costumes weren’t even always home-made, some had literally just been picked up in a fancy dress shop on the way. A warning from the presenters, delivered as a chirpy motivational message that “we’ve still got lots of costumes to go!” was our cue to leave the piazza, and the carnival, behind.
I should point out that the Concorso delle Maschere is not considered one of the traditional highlights of the carnival. However, as this was not pointed out to us until after we left, and as it is the only event before the evening festivities, the deception on the part of Venice Tourism is deliberate. We were so disappointed that we left before the Festa delle Marie, which, from the marketing, seemed to be a mobile beauty contest down one of the main streets.
If you want a carnival, I highly recommend going to Viareggio. If it’s the Venice Carnival atmosphere you want however, just flood the basement of your house, invite some friends over in silly costumes, bring in a microphone and give it to a person who speaks a different language to most of the guests. And to decide who’s the best dressed, draft in your local nordic walking society.
I’m not going back to Venice again. And this time I mean it. Until next time.
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-The Wandering Jew-