It’s a crime that in the past eighteen months, I haven’t blogged about Venice yet. Especially because it happens to be one of my favorite places on earth. Every time we come here, I make it a point to tell my husband that this isn’t my last trip to Venice. Because the idea of never crossing it’s bridges again, or wandering around this medieval labyrinth makes me sad. I will never, ever, ever be done visiting this place. But this post isn’t about my undying love for La Serenissima, I’ll bend your ear about that one later, I have too much to say. This post is about our trip just a few weeks ago during Carnevale, the festival leading up to Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday. Less raucous than Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio, but just as iconic, and probably in the best setting, I’ll admit that as much as I wanted to go, this trip made me a little nervous. Whenever I brought it up people would go on about the crowded streets, the overflowing restaurants, over-priced hotels, pick pockets, etc. And part of me was ready to take their advice and skip it, but most of me was screaming that this is probably our last chance to attend Carnevale in Venice. I paid attention to the loud part, and I’m glad I did. The real party starts the last weekend of the festival and lasts through Fat Tuesday. We wanted to go the last weekend, but previously made plans prevented this, so for one night only, we went during the second weekend of the celebrations, which was nothing to complain about. One of the things I love best about Venice, is that there isn’t an ‘old town’ or a more scenic district. As soon as you exit the train station, you are on the grand canal, complete with boats and gondolas and palaces. The only sounds are the chatter of the crowd, the cry of the seagulls, and the splashing against the docks. You are immediately somewhere else; somewhere wholly unique. The entire city is worth seeing, and despite what some would have you believe, actually takes a while to see completely. This was our fourth trip and still we’ve only covered half, but we knew the drill. We walked directly to the vaporetto ticket counter and got two one hour passes for the #2 waterbus headed toward the Rialto Bridge, which was the closest stop to our hotel. (Tip: These buses can be confusing, do your research beforehand to know which stop and bus are best for you.) After a frigid yet beautiful cruise down the Grand Canal, a walk over the Rialto Bridge, and four freaking flights of stairs with luggage, we checked into our hotel and immediately sought food. A two minute walk from our hotel brought us to Antico Forno, the best pizza in Venice. So good and very reasonably priced. I had the spinach/ricotta/tomato with no regrets. No seating though, be prepared to eat where you stand. But thats typical of most pizza joints here. Now that we were fed we could concentrate on our plan: 1. Buy masks made in Venice. 2. Wear masks in public. 3. Celebrate. We’re simple people. Masks are the main theme of Carnevale in Venice. Different masks have different meanings and uses. Some of them are modern creations, some of theme were strictly for medical and theatrical use, but today there really aren’t any rules about which one to wear. Kiosks selling masks, hats, capes, abound throughout the city this time of year, but we wanted to get the real deal, support the local artisans, etc. I did some internet research that left me confused, but it was our concierge that pointed us to Tragi Comica Venezia. There are too many choices here, which is why we spent nearly an hour trying on just about every mask. It was during this hour I realized I do not have a face for masks. Somehow I managed to avoid this revelation until now. But nothing was stopping me from joining in on the fun, so I got a mask with a large feather/tulle protrusion on the top that detracted from the unflattering angles below. My husband took the less-is-more approach and bought a plain leather mask with a tri-corn hat. The look was very colonial/bandit but it suited him. It turned out that Step 2 of our plan took some courage. Without even putting my mask on I immediately became self-conscious. Buying the mask was fun, but wearing it felt silly. It didn’t matter that the majority of people would be wearing masks and costumes. So we solved this like the grown-ups we are, with a trip to the nearest wine bar. By the second drink I was wearing my mask in the restaurant. Problem solved, we could cross item number two off the list. Despite our early apprehension, I really liked wearing my mask. I felt like I was part of the festivities instead of just an observer. Together with the rest of the confetti colored crowd we funneled ourselves into the crowded Piazza San Marco, the epicenter of the festivities. A center stage opposite St Mark’s Basilica, hosted flag throwers, costume contests, and acrobatic performances. The area in front of the stage is for ticket purchasers only who wish to have a seat, and sip some espresso. (I found this to be a bit elitist, and so did everyone else because these seats were mostly empty.) The majority of the riffraff (us) preferred to press ourselves along the perimeter for free. We were lured away to watch the parade that suddenly took over the square. I could never see anything, but the drums were loud. Then we decided to take time to admire the other costumes, and take in our gorgeous surroundings. I’m not sure anything beats Venice in the evening. The level of time and detail some people put into their costumes is staggering. The most elaborate are custom made whether they are commissioned or DIY. Nearly all of them are the traditional Venetian Golden Age style, some are completely out of context (smurfs), some are trying to win awards by following the year’s theme (this year was gastronomy). All are impressive and I wanted to keep taking more and more pictures, but as I mentioned earlier it was really cold and we still had an hour before dinner so we wandered to the nearest recommended wine bar, Teamo. Somehow this wine bar, (only about a 5-10 minute walk from St. Mark’s), manages to be both secluded and exceptionally priced. We sat in a comfortable booth, in a warm setting, with excellent service, with two spritz’s each and snacks for only sixteen euro. That’s a bargain anywhere in Italy, but a miracle in Venice. This is a town where a thirty euro Bellini is not unheard of. Go to Teamo, but you might want to make reservations because it’s tiny. We lucked out and got the last unreserved table. If apertivos are a challenge, then restaurant hunting can be a nightmare. I will go on record and say I don’t crave Venetian cuisine. I don’t hate it either, it’s just not the reason I come back. Just know that when visiting a real Venetian restaurant, you will eat a lot of seafood. And there may be tentacles and/or ink involved. After lots of trial and error, I think we’ve found our go-to restaurant in Venice, Ai Mercanti. Tucked away in a tiny campo off a main street, fantastic service, creative food, and always good. I really recommend this place. This time I had the shrimp with candied seaweed for the starter, cod ravioli in a spinach sauce for the primi, with duck for the secondi, and the chocolate interpretation for dessert. They also have fantastic wines, ask your waiter for recommendations. Everything is fresh, and the menu changes daily. This place never disappoints. We worked off the calories with a long walk through the city. It always surprises me how empty Venice is at night. Even during this huge festival most people just make a daytrip out of it, or stay in further out hotels. We meandered the lit streets, peeked around corners, and admired star-lit canals. This is a very safe city, so don’t be afraid to wander. But as beautiful as it was, it was also numbingly cold, so we were reluctantly back in our hotel by eleven. Our train left the next morning, so that was the end of our Carnevale experience. Part of me wishes we could have stayed longer or even changed our plans to align with the last weekend, but this was really the perfect dose, and we left on a high note which is always a good thing. If you find yourself near northern Italy in February you should definitely make this a priority. In our eighteen months here, our single night at Carnevale was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
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