Carnevale comes 40 days before Easter (see precise dates here), in the depths of winter. This good; the need for merriment is all the stronger, and what better excuse could there be to dress up and party? Unlike Halloween, which started out as a children's holiday and has only recently been co-opted by adults, Carnevale has always been a time of excitement and merriment for all, a last fling before Ash Wednesday and the rigors of Lent. Hence the cry that accompanies the pranks, A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale! (All's fair at Carnival). While children dress up in simple costumes, throw confetti at each other, and generally raise a ruckus, adults don sumptuous costumes and go out on the town.
Especially in Venice: The city already has a spectral air to it in the winter, with the mists rising up from the canals to shroud the buildings; the thousands of people who arrive from the four corners of the globe, dressed in spectacular costumes, make it feel like a dream world. It's a unique, mesmerizing, stirring, and ultimately dazzling experience. Though Carnevale falls on a set date (it's also known as Mardigras) the activities begin a couple of weeks before, with the flight of the dove in Piazza San Marco. Over the two subsequent weekends there will be a steady stream of parties, some official, organized by the City, and others private; strike up a friendship with some Venetians or dress fancifully and you may be invited; in the past even beggars crashed the nobles' parties. Of course the big event is Carnevale. In the past, the guilds of the Smiths and the Butchers' would slaughter and cook a bull for the multitudes, while an acrobat would slide down a wire from the Campanile to the Dodge's Palace to present him with a bouquet of flowers, after which there would be a ball.
That was past; Venice stopped celebrating Carnevale after the fall of the Republic, and the festival was revived in 1979, in part to draw tourists during the winter. Though some consider this is the basest of motives for organizing a festival, the city has done an extremely good job of it, and the atmosphere has an ethereal timelessness to it that's unique and should be experienced at least once.
Viareggio, on the Tuscan coast, has a very different Carnival tradition: A parade. The first was held at the beginning of the century, and featured floats pulled by oxen; now tractors have taken their place, and the floats are 50 feet high. Tuscans are famed for their sharp wit, and traditionally the floats of the Viareggini skewer politicians, soccer players, starlets, and other notables. As is the case with Venice's Carnevale, Viareggio's also lasts several days the floats take a full year to prepare, and it would be impossible for everyone to see them in just one day. There are four parades, on the four weekends preceeding Carnevale, and a bash on Carnevale itself.
Because of the work involved, the parade's not free: Cumulative tickets for all four Sundays run £ 30.000, while tickets for any individual Sunday run £ 17.000. Tickets for groups of 25 or more are 12.000 each, as are tickets for children between the ages of 7 and 12. Children 6 or under get in free. These tickets simply allow access to the boardwalk; a reserved seat in one of the bleachers will cost an additional £ 15.000. Tickets for the bleachers, and group tickets must be purchased directly from the Fondazione Carnevale (Palazzo delle Muse, Piazza Marini 2; Tel. Italy 0584/962.568, Fax 8584/47077).
A closing note, for parents: Carnevale is also a time of pastries. And, if you're reading this in December, don't forget that on the night of the 5th of January the Befana, a frightful witch, will fly through the sky to fill children's stockings, with candy if they've been good, and with coal if they've not. Up until quite recently, Italian children also received their gifts on Epiphany, which makes sense, since that's when the Magi arrived at the manger. And the Befana? There are a number of stories; according to my favorite, she refused the Magi hospitality, then changed her mind and tried to follow them but they were gone, and so she still seeks the Christ Child every Epiphany.