Venice is one of my favourite places on earth. I have been fortunate enough to travel there on a number of different occasions, but never before had I been there in February to witness the famous carnival.
My chance came in 2019. I travelled from London, via Paris, on the overnight train, and arrived in Venezia Santa Lucia station on Saturday morning, with the celebrations opening that same day with the Venetian Festival of Water in the evening, a spectacular water show of floats and boats along the Rio Cannaregio.
Anticipating crowds, I had booked ahead, reserving a room in the beautiful 15th century palace, Palazzo Cendon. I had deliberately asked for a room with a view facing the Cannaregio Canal although, if I was being honest, I was half expecting the ‘view’ to be an oblique one, where you have to lean out of your window to a perilous degree, and then squint sideways only for a half-glimpse of the fabled water some considerable way distant. When I was shown into my room, my cynicism was proved utterly groundless: the view was magnificent; like being given the best seats in the house; a grandstand ticket directly on to the waterfront, the beautiful canal wending its way left and right, immediately beneath my window.
As darkness fell, I watched on, enthralled, the colourful display of waterborne floats and pyrotechnics, which glided to and fro directly outside my lodging, accompanied by a sometimes thumping soundtrack of The Prodigy’s Spitfire.
The following morning, the first Sunday of carnevale, was the Water Parade, which culminates in a regatta of brightly decorated historical rowing boats and gondolas of the Venetian Rowing Association sailing along the Cannaregio Canal. The canalside promenade was packed with food stalls and stands, operatic music, and spectators, many wearing carnival masks and traditional costumes, who had begun to line the banks of the canal from an early hour in order to get the best view, hemming in together, many sitting right on the edge by the water; others viewing from moored boats.
I was fortunate enough to look on from the comfort of my own room, glad to be separated from the busy crowds; thrilled to still feel a part of the colourful celebrations.
The regatta ended with the release of thousands of colourful balloons, which billowed up into the cool, blue Venetian sky from the lead boat, which was decorated as a huge papier-mâché rat––the Pantegana.
Little by little, the crowds began to disperse; the small boats all returned to their moorings; and Rio Cannaregio returned to its usual atmosphere of a rather sleepy Venetian backwater.
However, Sunday evening found me at my window again staring out across the canal. There was scarcely a pedestrian in sight; not a vessel moving on the water. On the opposite bank, a small tavern was closing its doors; empty chairs and empty tables, packed up for the night; in its own way, every bit as atmospheric as the day of celebration just gone.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny tries not to lean out too far.
You can read more about E. C. Glendenny’s travels in Venice in the book Easy Pickings: Selected Travel Writing.