18th and 19th Feb 2012, Words and Photography by Sabrina Dersel

“Venice robes her for the ball;
Decked with spangles bright,
Multi-coloured Carnival
Teems with laughter light.”

A poem by Theophile Gautier
When the opportunity to fly to Venice and enjoy the carnival festivities presented itself, I decided to grab this once in a lifetime event…and how little did I know I would decide to come back again and again and again!!

After a two hours flight from Heathrow, London I landed at Aeroporto Marco Paolo; only eight kilometres/five miles away from the city center. I took a shuttle to Piazzale Roma, a quick twenty minutes ride and get off at the main bus station of Venice island, on the east side. This would be the last time I would see any cars, coaches, motorcycles for the entire week end.

Venice is 1,178 square kilometres/458 square miles, linked by a series of over 150 canals, 400 bridges and many ancient pavements. Buggies and Wheelchairs will have a very hard time to get around.

Public transport consists mainly of water-buses (vaporetti) and there are also water-taxis (motoscafi), which are faster, more modern motorboats. For a more traditional approach you can travel with the well known and much loved Gondolas!

Faithful in my well known ability to read and decode a street map (yes I can!),
I enthusiastically start walking to find my hotel in Dorseduro, South of the Island. Venice’s maze of narrow streets frustrate the navigational skills of the best of us.

It is a succession of bridges, stairs, canals and streets; which not always marked and signalled properly.
They say if you get lost lift your head up and follow the closest Church, then reposition your map!

My fist encounter with a Gondola happened on my left by the canal as I was walking and had to stop to take a photo, as seeing one is a wonder….Me a tourist? Yesss! But I have never been a fan of bringing my professional camera with me when I travel, so I have two good point and shoot cameras; one for each hand, as well as the map! So, most photos are taken within a few seconds, usually as im walking.

I managed to master this technique and it gave me time to walk more and discover more of my surroundings, instead of setting all the gear down and taking out the proper lens and tripod etc…I respect people who do it and they are plenty here, but that’s not for me.

I only managed to lose my way once (yes I admit it) to the hotel, which is pretty good considering the many turns I had to take. I asked for directions to a mother and her child, who was trying to grab my precious map away from me and quickly I was on the right way again. The Fine Art of getting lost in Venice indeed does happens!

The historic city centre of Venice is divided into six quarters (sestieri) – Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce. The hotel is in a very quiet, typical lovely area called Dorsoduro on Fondamenta Di Borgo.

After a change into my costume; a long black skirt, a black vest and a filigree metal mask inspired by “The Phantom Of The Opera”; simple but effective! I embark on my discovery of the famous Carnival of Venice.

For the historic side, the Carnival of Venice or “Carnevale di Venezia” is an annual festival. It starts 58 days before Easter and ends on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Martedì Grasso; the day before Ash Wednesday and this weekend is actually the height of the days to be there!

It is said that the Carnival of Venice was originated from a victory of the “Repubblica della Serenissima”, Venice’s previous name, against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico in the year 1162. In the honour of this victory, the people started to dance and make reunions in San Marco Square. Apparently this festival started on that period and become official in the renaissance. After a long absence, the carnival returned to operate in 1979.

The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centerpiece of their efforts.

Today, approximately 3,000,000 visitors come to Venice each day for Carnivals.
One of the most important events is the contest for the best mask, placed at the last weekend of the Carnival.
A jury of international costume and fashion designers votes for “La Maschera piu bella”.

It is pretty easy to know where to go, as everybody seems to be going in one direction: Piazza San Marco; where a stage is installed and costumes contest is beginning.

But first I leave the crowd, to find another attraction “The Rialto Bridge”; It is the first bridge ever built over the canal in 1591. What a beauty! Packed of people too, it is very hard to walk around but seeing happy smiling people in disguise makes it somehow easier.

Off to San Marco square, crossing labyrinthine winding passages and canals, holding the key to much of its beauty. Plunged into the private side of Venice, I walked by a Bacaro; it is a typical bar where everything happens at the counter, small but wonderfully warm and welcoming.

A well deserved glass of sweet white Italian wine is a treat and I get served a Specogna; what a delight! I know I will come back for a refuel later today.

A few meters down I cross the long arcade and arrive inside the open place of San Marco/ St Mark’s Square.
It takes me a few minutes to process the beauty of this place, the number of people and the incredible costumes worn by so many people. Just on my left is the Sun King sitting and sipping wine at a table with his friends and on the background the Basilica San Marco, a stunning example of the Byzantine influence in the city with five domes originally built in the 11th century.

All of a suddenly Darth Vador pops in front of me!!!

The costumes contest is taking place on the right on an old fashion design theatre stage which has some of the most beautiful costumes I’ve ever seen.


People are really making an effort and it is easy to tell most of the costume have taken probably a good year to create; Beautiful, simply and breathtaking.

The evening goes very fast and I remember struggling immensely to find the way back to the hotel…again!

The very next day and clearly hangover…I visit the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) a superb example of Gothic architecture. This former seat of political and legal affairs boasts a courtyard and apartments filled with canvases by old masters including Tintoretto,Verones. It gives access to the legendary Bridge of Sighs; the corridor used  by convicts from the law courts to the dungeons.

This waterfront palace gives a spectacular view of the canal with more people dressed up and happily posing for photos and enjoying the whole atmosphere.

On the way back to the airport, it is very easy to feel that maybe you have been in a dream. There is nothing like the Venice Carnival and it is something that has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

I am definitely going back next year, with a better bigger costume and will go to a  masked ball too!

Don t hesitate to check out the websites dedicated to beautiful portraits of the carnival if you are interested… They really are wonderful.

For more information Visit