If you are craving a week in the land of “la vita è bella” then there is no time like the present. That’s because it’s Carnevale and the experience will rival any of your best holiday, bringing entertainment for all ages in true Italian style. You may have seen pictures of the annual masquerade ball in Venice, which attracts celebrities from all over the world. For them it may merely be an excuse to dress up but what does “Carnevale” really mean for the Italians and where does the tradition come from?

“Carnevale” today is an annual celebration of life that takes place all over the world. However, the word “Carnevale” probably originated in Venice, and although discussions are rife over the original meaning, it may have meant “goodbye, meat!” (a corruption of the Latin “carnem levare”). Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a period of fast and prayer. So the days leading up to Lent became a time of enjoyment before the penitence, the perfect way to use up meat, eggs and butter and celebrate life with masked balls, music and festival activity.

Like all traditions however, modern day Carnevale has evolved over time and adapted to the modern palate. Social, political, religious and cultural satire (often in the form of floats) blends in with unabashed fun, street entertainment and, this being Italy, food, food and more food! Great Carnevale festivals take place throughout Italy but five cities put on particularly impressive displays. All Italophiles should make a point to visit at least one of these places and enjoy Italy at one of its most animated times of year. I assure you, you will not be disappointed.

Carnevale di Ascoli Piceno

In the stunning green region of Le Marche, the countryside is beginning to spring into life with lush vegetation brightening up the land after a bleak winter. This is the time too, when the locals come to life.
This year the celebrations kicked off on the 6th February with the annual mask parades of the bambini. This parade marks the opening of events in Ascoli but the people here pride themselves in providing entertainment for everyone, no matter what age. This is one of Italy’s most traditional carnivals and celebrates the true origins of the festival mixed with today’s influences. This year, there will be street entertainers on the 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16th February and locals can watch the float parades with no restrictions, barriers or police presence. The climax of the festivities will be on “Fat Tuesday” when Piazza del Popolo, one of the city’s main squares, will fill up with masks and costumes. And throughout town, cafes and restaurants will offer a special Slow Food menu to reveal the best of the local seasonal cuisine.

Carnival of Ascoli Piceno Official Website.

Carnevale di Viareggio

This Tuscan city, which is the largest municipality in Versilia, was a boat building centre in the 19th century, and from there first came the idea for carnival floats. Wooden and plaster floats were carefully constructed in the boatyards of the time. Today, they are made of papier-mache of course but they are no less significant than they once were and it is common to find a craftsman working on his masterpiece all year long in anticipation of the event. The floats interpret social events and have a strong satirical quality, with politicians featured as much as (or more than) the traditional carnival characters of Arlecchino, Pierrot, and Viareggio’s very own Burlamacco. The huge figures are wheeled down Viareggio’s passeggiata for everyone to admire on the three Sundays preceding Shrove Tuesday, on Shrove Tuesday, and on the Sunday (this year, the parade will take place on 14 and 16 February at 3.00 pm, and on 21 February at 5pm).
In addition, every Saturday prior to the fair there are entertainers, artists and music for adults and children.

Carnival of Viareggio Official Website.

Carnevale di Acireale

This has been named as one of the most exciting carnivals in Sicily. It certainly has a fascinating mix of floats, because it adds floral sculptures to the more common figurative ones. Their allegorical floats portray politicians, celebrities and fantasy creatures and are all made of papier-mache. The Flower ones are scrupulously constructed from real flowers, creating colourful, vibrant and sweet-smelling displays. Acireale is also home to great Carnival music - where the instruments are everyday kitchen utensils. The Sicilians are famous for making the most out of what they’ve got, and here they really prove their worth. Festival dates this year are the 11,12,13,14,15, and 16th February.

Carnival of Acireale Official Website.

Carnevale di Roma

Carnevale is back to the Italian capital with a bang. Until 16th February, Rome will be the epicenter of Carnival festivities. An exhibition at Palazzo Braschi will look at Carnival costumes and art over time. Entertainment, including traditional performances of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, will take place in the city’s most loved squares, Piazza Navona and Piazza di Spagna. But perhaps most fascinating of all will be the daring equestrian displays, encompassing dressage, vaulting and western style, which will take place in Piazza del Popolo. The event will fittingly end in fireworks from the Pincio terrace.

Carnival of Roma Official Website.

Carnevale di Venezia

This is the most prestigious carnival of all throughout the whole of Italy. There is so much going on in the city that it is virtually impossible to write a comprehensive list—but think masked balls (including a special Valentine’s Day one), street revels, water parades, juggling, historic re-enactments, and dozens, hundreds of elegant candid white masks wrapped in rich velvets, silks and feathers. If you want to do “Carnevale” in style, head for Venice (and bring plenty of Euros). Remember, events must be booked and ticket prices are quite expensive but this is a once-in-a-lifetime event experience worth splashing out for. Celebrations began on the 5th February and continue until the 24th February (for a full list of all that’s on offer visit www.venice-carnival-italy.com).

Carnival of Venezia Official Website.