I knew booking my trip that the opening weekend of the carnival would likely be less busy than the following two weekends. Heck, that’s why I chose to go to Venice then! But this meant that I missed the big posh parties (500 euro a head – pass!), the Flight of the Angel, the carnival costume competitions on St Mark’s Square and the other big events. What I got instead was a quieter Venice, the opening weekend and a peak into the carnival. If you’re not a fan of crowds, you could consider the same timing.
Unless you buy tickets to the special balls taking place during the high carnival, the St Mark’s square is the place to be. The square was prepared for the possibility of Acqua Alta, with elevated wooden walkways stacked away on the sides. Luckily though it remained dry: there was no rain and no high water either, unlike my first visit to Venice when it rained for four days and it was flooded on most days as well. Dry is good.
There were numerous stalls selling carnival goods, with masks and capes of all colors and shapes, dotting the city, the edge of the grand canal and St Mark’s Square itself. Boringly, I chose not to dress up.
I was still annoyed with myself for having given my self-made glorious black velvet cape to charity when I was packing up my apartment before my Grand Adventure. Knowing what a good heavy cape with a hefty swing could be, I wasn’t going to spend 30 euro on a thin, flimsy cape that wasn’t wide enough to even close in front. And I didn’t want to wear just a mask, either. Traveling by myself as I was, dressing up all by my lonesome would have been a little sad. So I just admired and photographed other people’s efforts.
From my visit it seems that most people only dress up during the weekends. Of course there were few masks before the opening weekend, but also the weekdays following the first weekend saw almost no costumes out and about. It makes sense: the most elaborate costumes are probably worn by locals, who will have the time for parading on St Mark’s for the admiration of others during weekends. I can’t say how it will be during the height of the carnival, between the two main weekends, but I assume there will be more costumes around then than there was in my last few days in Venice.
That’s not to say that I didn’t see any costumes. During the first weekend when I had time between other things, like visiting the Burano Island, I lolled around the main square. I have strict self-imposed rules about photographing people but this was a special occasion. First, most people wore masks, so they were not identifiable. And second, they were usually happy to pose for photos even if they didn’t wear masks.
Taking photos of the amazing costumes was still tricky. There was often a couple or a group of people who were dressed up and then a dozen tourists, like me, taking photos of them. So if you have visions of the square filled with costumed people from side to side, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Most people in Venice do not dress up during the carnival. I would hazard a guess that the ratio of people in costumes to those without would be higher during and between the main weekends of the carnival, a week later than when I visited.
So if you want maximum carnival, do dress up and do go for the main weekends. Book your accommodation and travel early, discard all ideas about personal space and get in the mood.