and we may never meet again (or so sang The Seekers)
We have just returned from five days of crazy, hedonistic fun in the streets and piazzas of Venice – well one night of crazy hedonism and several others of trawling cafes and bars in search of meals and beverages where the bill doesn’t necessarily lead to an embarrassing call to one’s credit card provider.
No-one really knows the origins of the Carnevale di Venezia though it’s believed to have its roots in a 12th century military victory – the Venice Republic was rather good at those.
Through the centuries the Venetians would celebrate with grandiose masked balls for the wealthy while the commoners would just carouse in Saint Mark’s square wearing bizarre costumes – a tradition which I am here to tell you continues.
Anyone can put on a stupid wig or bizarre fancy dress rig and parade up and down San Marco’s – and they do. In addition to the professional costume wearers and poseurs (whom I assume are there to win competitions and bring in the tourists) I spotted a Star Wars stormtrooper, Power Rangers, Harry Potter lookalikes and students dressed up as baked bean cans.
Then there are the half-way house party-goers (eg my wife and I) who rent generic 17th/18th century costumes and ponce around in the cafes and streets for free.
And finally you have your carnival aristocrats – literally aristocrats in some cases – who pay enormous amounts to attend the official lavish masquerade balls.
We had a coffee with an Irish PR man who was helping to promote a ball with an entrance free of £2,000 per ticket. Yes £2,000.
Recession? What recession?
We attended a more modest event in a hotel alongside the Grand Canal. It set me back £150 for the night but was worth it – the wine was plentiful and to give them their due it kept on coming. And coming.
Never tell an Englishman that there is “as much wine as you want.” Specially when he is tight-fisted and is determined to get full value. Come 2am we caught a water bus (Vaporetto) in the general direction of out hotel. All went smoothly until we disembarked on the wrong side of the Rialto bridge (well it looks the same from both sides) and ended up walking aimlessly in the wrong quarter of the city.
We learned there were a number of other balls at more “reasonable” rates ranging from £200 to £600 a ticket. There was even a “50 Shades of Grey” event billed as “Venice’s most naughty ball”.
Another guest at the same table as me expressed an interest in going along and I briefly mooted the possibility before being slapped down by my wife (perhaps not the best expression to use..)
But even if you can’t afford this degree of licentiousness you can absorb the atmosphere of Carnival during the day. And at night there’s something happening on street corners or bars. But be careful. Some visitors think that being drunk and wearing a mask gives you carte blanche to misbehave. Hence my partner being groped as we entered one bar….had she told me at the time he would have needed more than a long beaky mask to protect his face from my fist.
While we are on the subject of masks, Venice sells some of the most exquisite examples in the world although I suspect most are now made in China. One of the more bizarre is Il medico della peste – the long-nosed one that is quite frankly scary.
Apparently they were worn by doctors attending victims of the plague. The idea was to stuff the nose with herbs and sweet-smelling disinfectants.
Can you imagine being on your deathbed in a plague-induced delerium? You open your eyes and this masked figure from some Hieronymus Bosch nightmare is looming over you. If that doesn’t finish you off I’m not sure what would.
I must admit I didn’t experience much of Venice’s decadent side – unless you count the game of pass-the-balloon-with-your-chest that some women played at our hotel party.
But there was this one bar which is ,well, odd. The entire ceiling was covered with bras. Lacey bras, sports bras, big bras, tiny bras and – well you get the picture.
I never found out the reason for this strange decor. What goes on in there I wonder? Do the female customers at some point just think “God, I don’t need this bra no more” and pass it to the barman?
They reckon around three million tourists flood into Venice over Carnival. I swear most of them were there on Saturday because you could hardly move along the Molo, San Marcos and in the surrounding narrow streets and alleyways. This was the reason why a sweaty Englishman wearing an increasingly dishevelled Beau Brummel outfit (me) was running, side stepping and swearing through the streets as kick off time for the England/Ireland rugby game rapidly approached. I did eventually find a bar showing the game – just.
Great fun though. And if anyone wants to know of a decent small hotel just five minutes from San Marco and the Rialto just drop me a line.