Drama and drag queens at the Venice Carnival

The place they call Serenissima, the city of light and canals, is preparing to serve up a sensual experience of masks and music, dances and drag queens, pageants and parades.


On February 6th, the carnival will get off to a dramatic start, with an air of mystery bestowed by the traditional masks and costumes in the perfect theatrical setting of canals and mansions that comprise the city of Venice.

For ten days - and the corresponding nights, of course - the big attraction for many will simply be to stroll around this real-life stage, taking photos of and with the costumed revellers, many of whom have travelled halfway across the world for the occasion, for the chance to show off their spectacular eighteenth-century finery in this sublime and perfect setting.

But, in addition to the costumes, the carnevale also offers a complete programme of events that blend culture, history and art, sometimes with more than a hint of mayhem in the mix.

Last year the starting gun was in the hands of the Nobel prize-winning playwright and satirist Dario Fo. This year, the responsibility has been passed to "Harlequin, servant of two masters" from the Piccolo Theatre of Milan, played by the legendary Ferruccio Soleri. For fifty years the actor has breathed life into this most unique character of the Commedia dell'Arte, and now he is set to do so again on what may be the most impressive of stages - the Piazza San Marco - on the evening of Saturday, February 6th.

The sensory universe is the theme of the 2010 carnival, which takes place under the title, Sensation: 6 sensi per 6 sestieri - "Sensation: 6 senses for 6 neighbourhoods". The districts of the city have each been associated with a sense, and each will host appropriate shows full of imagination and talent. The area of Cannaregio (taste) offers such delights as Venetian cookery classes and acrobatic chocolate displays; Castello is dedicated to touch, Santa Croce to smell, San Polo to sight, and Dorsoduro to hearing, so you can expect shows, spectacles and extravaganzas wherever you are. Meanwhile, the sixth sense, the one that is related as closely to the heart as to the mind, will have its base in the heart of Venice, the San Marco district.

Here, the exquisite Piazza will serve as setting for many of the most lauded events such as the judging of the best costumes and masks, the Festa delle Marie - the grand historical pageant, and the Volo dell'Angelo - the flight of the Angel; this year it's the beautiful aristocrat Bianca Brandolini D'Adda, who will descend in glory from the Bell Tower to the crowd in the square where she will be accompanied by the Doge and Dogaressa's opulent costume parade.

But no Carnival would be complete without a dose of irony and chaos, elements that are assured us under the artistic direction of the great event organiser Marco Balich. Among the delights he has planned, the evening of February 12th will witness a drag queen beauty pageant attended by queens from across Europe: the event is an apt tribute to the true spirit of carnival: pretending to be something other than what you are; and preferably doing so in an artistic fashion.

In addition to the numerous - and often prohibitively expensive - parties and masked balls that are held throughout the city, the Venetian old town will come alive with concerts, parades, burlesque street theatre, circus, magic, puppets and other children's entertainment, as well as evenings with DJ sets, live music and tango exhibitions.

With emphasis on the sensorial, there's the chance of an unusual experience with Il Carnevale al Buio, a thrilling journey in total darkness arranged by the Blind Institute of Milan. Then there's Carnivalia, a treasure-hunt style game that, by means of text messages to your mobile sent by Casanova himself, will send you searching through the streets to unravel all sorts of mysteries based around twenty tales set in twenty Venetian locations.

The excitement and magic are here for you to discover in a city that is always enchanting, but becomes even more so as it transforms itself back into the eighteenth century when princes and nobles donned their masks to enable them to blend in with the common folk and give themselves up to the Carnival excess that precedes Lent: the forty days and forty nights in which the pleasures of the flesh in all its versions and varieties are forbidden.

Tips & suggestions
Next year, you'll do well to book early as Venice is usually full to overflowing during Carnival, but, even so, you may still find accommodation this year at both extremes of the price range. At the top end is the luxurious Luna Hotel Baglioni where, for 1,680 € (around £1,500) per couple for the weekend, you can enjoy yourselves in style, as the price includes a gala dinner and masked ball among the frescoes of the Escuela de Tiepolo. There are also much more affordable options such as those available through Booking.com where a room for two people for a weekend can cost as little as 150 € (around £130).

The complete Carnival 2010 programme.

Further information:
Italian Tourist Board
Venice Tourist Board


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