Pack your costume, Carnevale is coming

January 11, 2019
After the chilly month of January, as happy memories of Christmas gifts and year's end parties fade, Italians gear up for a new excuse to be festive and indulge in sweets, for Carnevale -- Italy's version of Carnival -- is coming!

"Carne'' is ''meat'' in Italian, so the name literally means ''Farewell to meat,'' a reference to the start of the Lenten period, on Ash Wednesday, when many of the Catholic faithful in Italy forsake meat until Easter comes.

The Carnevale period is tied to whatever date Easter falls on each year but generally runs from sometime in February through part of March, with exact dates varying from city to city, as many places from north to south boast their own treatment of the festivities.

Venice is Italy's acknowledged Queen of Carnevale, and this year's edition in the lagoon city beloved by tourists begins on Feb. 15 and ends on March 5.

A glimpse of the many masks sold in Venetian shops year-round -- along with gondolas, Carnevale masks are icons for Venice -- shows how seriously the city takes this fun occasion, a tradition with centuries-old roots. Elaborate, exquisitely hand-painted masks can sell for hundreds of euros (dollars), but if you want to blend in with the vanishing breed of native Venetian while partying at Carnevale, you can find fun masks for much less. For most of the year, Venice's narrow, car-less streets are a claustrophobic squeeze, and Carnevale crowds only heighten the congestion. Still, it's fun to get close-up looks of masks and costumes as fellow merry-makers dash by from one event to another, perhaps a masked ball in one of Venice's sumptuous palazzi.

Key dates on the Carnevale calendar are "martedi' grasso,'' the "fat" Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when it's the last day to gorge on sweets before the solemn Lenten period. Weekends, when visitors from elsewhere in Italy and Europe pour in, usually feature special events, and the whole city takes on a gala air. St. Mark's Square often holds center stage, featuring the Dance of the Hours -- a fireworks show with costume competitions and live music -- and the famed "Flight of the Dove" or "Angel," when a brave soul, attached to a wire, soars above the admiring crowd.

After Venice, Italy's most renowned Carnevale might be in the Tuscan coast city of Viareggio. There the event takes on a folksy, down-to-earth and satirical quality, with lively processions with carts made of papier-mache and whose towering ''occupants'' are caricatures, often bordering on the bawdy, of current political figures, TV celebrities or other VIPs. For 2019, this Tuscan Carnevale runs on weekends starting Feb. 19 and wraps up on ''martedi' grasso,'' March 5.

For Italians who can't get away to a Carnevale-famed city, there's always their own neighborhood. Parents or grandparents indulge children by buying lavish costumes -- princesses are a perennial favorite. After school and on weekends, the children with their families stroll in parks, scattering colored ''confetti'' or paper dots along the way.

If Carnevale finds you in Rome, well, celebrate as the Romans do. Many bakeries in the Italian capital will have lines of Romans out the door waiting for a chance to buy ''frappe'' -- a crackly, flat sweet topped with powdered sugar -- and castagnole, which look like they were punched out of the middle of donuts being made to form little balls. Most castagnole are fried and rolled in sugar, and many have an aftertaste of rum inside them. For those avoiding fried pastry, some shops whip up batches of baked castognole, not as chewy but more cake-like in consistency.