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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 144 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 5, 2004

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In Search of the Venice Carnival-1

Neeman A Sobhan

"Shall we go to Venice and check out the Carnevale celebrations?" My friend suggests with a gleam in her eyes. This will be the umpteenth time in Venezia for both of us, but not together, and never during its famous carnival time. So, I am quite game, though I warn her about the difficulty of securing hotel rooms at such short notice. However, we are fortunate to get a room to share in a hotel just 100 meters from what is referred to as 'the drawing room of Venice': the famous St. Mark's Square, or Piazza San Marco.

We board the mid-morning train at Rome's terminal and a few hours later tumble out in high spirits at Santa Lucia railway station. Just outside its doors, the Venetian lagoon here laps the mossy steps of the church of St. Simeone Piccolo across from where we wait for our vaporetto (water-bus). The bells sound the four o'clock hour and soon we are water-borne on the Grand Canal, on our way to San Zaccaria, the landing stop for St. Mark's square.

In our enthusiasm to savour every moment, we defy the sharp winds and stand on the deck. It is chillier than we expected. Not even the sight of the sea gulls swooping over the Venetian palazzos with their elaborate Gothic and Baroque facades; the ivy-trailed balconies (from one of which Byron may have jumped out for a swim); the arched wooden bridge of the Accademia, and the covered and colonnaded stone- one of the Rialto (from which I expect old Shylock to lean out); nor the picture postcard dome of Santa Maria della Salute in the distance, can warm us physically. Only our unflagging enthusiasm billows forth along with our flapping woollen scarves and the escaped tendrils of hair beneath our hoods.

Upon landing, we pull our trolley bags across the massive stage of Piazza San Marco and stop in front of the ornate basilica in naive bewilderment. Somehow we had expected to be swept immediately into the pageantry of the Carnevale di Venezia we had read so much about and so well publicised everywhere. But where are the crowds of revellers in masks and costumes? Where is the spirit of carnival that we have come to witness? Like a talisman, we still clutch in our gloved hands the brochure of all the cultural events taking place everywhere, this time celebrating the theme of the Orient.

We decide to give the Venetians time to rouse themselves from the afternoon torpor and show us their carnival colours this evening. Meantime, with a forgiving spirit, we trot towards our hotel through the narrow paved alleys behind St. Mark's and cross a bridge over a picturesque canal where a timely gondola drifts towards us complete with a smiling gondolier in his regulation black and white striped shirt and straw hat with red ribbon. Carnival or no carnival, the magic of Venice already touches us. Down the steps of the bridge and at the corner of the passageway of Calle di Remedio, the lantern of the hotel, the Locanda Remedio beckons. We have arrived.

In the evening, after a rest and change of clothes, we sally forth in bated excitement waiting to be sucked into the theatricality of the legendary Venetian Carnival masquerade. Alas, St. Mark is no better than it was earlier. Strains of Indian fusion music from loud speakers float agreeably like incense smoke in the velvety dusk sky canopying the half deserted piazza. The coffee shops with tables spilling over into the square, and which in summer hum with clients sipping aperitifs, eating gelato and listening to the live bands, are now bare. Only a few people drift around the stage in the centre, or cluster near the kiosks selling decorative masks or hot mulled wine. The air is gelid but we stroll briskly around, expecting for some momentum, something to happen. The musical performance that starts up is indifferent and we drift away, deeper into the surrounding maze of alleys whose width one can span with ones open arms, flanked by restaurants, bars and hotels that give the impression of being miniaturised parts of a toy city. We stroll past elegant designer stores, and shops glittering with multi-coloured Murano glass products and jewellery, and yet more carnival masks with their blind, gouged eyes and the costumes hanging limply like ghosts. The people we pass are like ghosts too, unanimated by the carnival mood.

We pass stony courtyards whose focal point is either a covered well, or the lavish façade of a parish church hiding a Bellini or a gilded mosaic altar in its heart. We linger over bridges affording a lateral view of a black shimmering canal running past a gorgeously decrepit mansion taken straight from the stage set for 'The Merchant of Venice' or the Guilbert and Sullivan musical 'The Gondoliers'. We pass the Church steps of the Chiesa San Vidal where a Vivaldi violin concerto is being advertised. To listen to the sublime strains of The Four Seasons in Vivaldi's city is too good to miss and we decide to go the next day.

For now, we head for a comforting meal in a restaurant. Coming out, we find that the temperature has dropped further. We slip into the courtyard of the Levi Foundation near the Accademia and enter a cosy auditorium where a saxophone and guitar recital is going on. We huddle near the radiator and listen to the co-mingling of classical jazz music and the gentle snoring of the gentleman behind us.

Soon, we beat a hasty retreat that now takes us through a desolated Venice of empty streets, and bridges that yawn over slumbering gondolas heaving over the moon-glistened canals, and abandoned courtyards where only a newspaper flutters and rustles forlornly among the cobbled stones, and the darkened shop windows that stare blankly giving back our own reflection. Our hurrying footsteps echo through the freezing corridors and arcades leading to a strangely silent St. Mark's square. At this hour of the night, my friend and I are the only people in this world famous piazza. The moon stirs from behind a drifting cloud and we stop momentarily before the ornate basilica, and it is like catching a beautiful woman unaware as she sleeps with her painted mouth slightly open. We turn away from this rare and intimate moment and race back to the warmth of our hotel bed.





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