By Trusted Travel Girl contributor Victoria Damutz
In the weeks leading up to the Christian observance of Lent, several cities all over the world take part in grand festivals that culminate in the ultimate day of debauchery, Fat Tuesday. Here in the United States, we recognize this time with Mardi Gras celebrations, the most famous of course taking place in The Big Easy, New Orleans. In Italy, the most popular of these celebrations is the Carnevale di Venezia, or the Carnival of Venice, which is characterized by elegant masquerades and deeply rooted in the tradition of the city. However, we here at Trusted Travel Girl like to give you insight into the lesser-known attractions that contribute to an authentic cultural experience. So, if you are looking to immerse yourself in one of these experiences, I would suggest making your way to Carnevale di Viareggio. Thanks to my cousin Mary Lee, a local of the nearby town of Camaiore, I had the pleasure of attending Viareggio’s Carnevale in February 2012.
Positioned along the Tyrrhenian Sea, Viareggio is best recognized as a seaside resort town, however, its most popular draw is the month long festival of Carnevale, which was first featured there in 1873. Though Carnevale di Viareggio does see a great deal of visitors, and you will most likely be dealing with heavy crowds, it is less focused toward tourists and more concerned with the Italian locals. Unlike the other celebrations of this sort, Viareggio’s Carnevale events do not end with Fat Tuesday, but continue for two weeks after, ending in a televised presentation of its renowned parade. This year, Carnevale will take place from February 1 through 28, so if you happen to be visiting Italy this month, you should definitely add this to your itinerary.
Though there is no shortage of parties and events for adults, Carnevale di Viareggio is very much a family event and features music, theatre performances, and a fireworks display. Many children and adults alike come dressed in costume, so if you want to experience Carnevale like a true local, I recommend you pack last year’s Halloween costume when you go.
Like Mardi Gras, the main attraction of Carnevale is its parade that happens every Sunday during this time, but I can promise this is a parade unlike any you have seen before. Though there are plenty of areas to view the parade, which runs on a loop in case you miss anything and want a second look, Carnevale di Viareggio offers the truly unique experience of allowing you to walk amongst the floats. Instead of stuck behind lines of barricades, you can have an up-close-and-personal glimpse at the elaborate details of the floats and the costumed individuals that accompany them. The floats that line the parade route tower several stories high and are created from a colorful and intricate construction of papier-mâché. Artists and craftsman work over the course of a year to create these floats, and the results are nothing short of incredible. There are new creations every year featuring themes from mythical figures to monstrous demons to cultural icons, and mechanisms built into the floats allow many of the elements to move in extraordinary displays.
Carnevale has been traditionally celebrated as a time to let loose before entering a strict period of fasting and penitence for Lent, but Carnevale in Italy also takes on a different significance as notable political figures and celebrities are often lampooned through larger than life effigies. I would recommend catching up on your Italian politics before attending the parade to truly appreciate the sardonic (and sometimes hilarious) depictions of Italy’s notorious individuals.
Though the season for Carnevale does not offer the warmest weather (the higher elevation towns that I had visited outside of Viarreggio had recently seen several inches of snow just before Carnevale) it is still worth it to make your way to the beach for some truly spectacular views. In addition to the serene blue waters of the sea, the skyline over the seaside town is punctuated by the Apuan Alps, creating a stunning effect. The beach is easily accessible from the grand promenade that the parade route follows, so accessible in fact that standing on the beach you can even see the tops of the floats above the buildings as they pass by
I would highly recommend traveling by train to Viareggio, as it is a cheap and easy trip from Pisa (about 15 minutes) or Florence (about an hour and a half). Once at the train station, the walk to the parade route is only about 15 minutes.
So if you find yourself in Italy around this time, be sure to check out the beautiful and eccentric spectacle that is Carnevale di Viareggio!