Venice

The reflections of the centuries--old buildings on the water are like so many priceless paintings (left). The Bridge of Sighs. Who knows how many condemned men have taken one last look at the lagoon from its window before being led to their death? (above).

I wake up to a foggy Venice morning. Barely discernible in the distance is the outline of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Along the canal a pigeon is seeking a ‘palo’ where he can alight and rest his weary wings. Just like the Venetians who centuries ago sought in Cadore’s emerald green forests for stakes to drive into the muddy ground to prop up their dwellings. Who knows how many times I have come to this magnificent fairytale city. But I’m excited in a different way this time. For I’ve come to experience the thrill of carnival like a true Venetian. In a little while I’m going to buy a mask and rent a costume from one of the many shops selling them in the city’s back streets. Even I don’t know yet who I’m going to be this year. Perhaps a Venetian princess again... But first I must choose my gown, sleeves and bodice lavishly adorned with lace, like that of the oriental princess Theodora who, when the Doge married her in 1077 bringing Byzantine splendor to Venice, baffled its residents by using a long, two-pronged instrument made of solid gold - a fork - rather than eating with her hands as was the custom here in that period. Back in my room I stand before the enormous antique mirror decorated with gold leaf and dream. I feel just like a real Venetian now.

SET YOUR WATCH TO THE MIDDLE AGES
This city casts a mysterious spell. Are the reflections dancing on the water real and the beautiful buildings that have stood here for centuries a mere dream? It’s hard to tell here, where past and present, dream and reality, intermingle. As I look out on the Grand Canal from my little room with high ceilings in this 14th century palace-hotel, I can almost see Lord Byron on the wide balcony of the Palazzo Mocenigo opposite me. I wait in vain for him to emerge and plunge into the canal’s black waters, as he did while writing the ending of Don Juan.
In the Dorsoduro the streets are not yet congested. On my way from the Piazza San Barnaba to the Accademia via the Toletta, I exchange greetings with some young people in medieval costume who are selling tickets for this evening’s concert. Time here has been arrested in the Middle Ages. The only thing that has changed is the sound of the ‘vaporettos’; the buildings are exactly the same. As I walk, I gaze at their reflection in the still waters of the small canals. My excitement mounts as I cross the Accademia Bridge. The more time passes, the more masked and costumed people who emerge to stroll through the narrow streets. St Mark’s Square is slowly coming to life. Even the pigeons, permanent guests over the centuries, have already taken their places.

A MASKED PRINCESS
The fog has lifted and the sun is trying to show its face amidst billows of cottony clouds. A flurry of activity is under way at the Quadri and the Cafe Florian where the tables are being set with care. Soon the regulars will come to sip their coffee and peruse the morning papers. But with one difference: instead of their usual clothes, all will be dressed in exquisite costumes and unique masks, each one a work of art. Passing the Leoncini, I cross the little bridge and come to the flashy shop that I visit like a museum. This is the hardest part, choosing one costume from among the hundreds. On the return I saunter down the Merceria and come out in front of the Torre dell’Orologio. Decked in a heavy satin gown, incrusted with pearls and decorated with layer upon layer of lace, and wearing an enormous heavy wig and a floral-printed pink mask that covers my entire face, I’m like Cinderella transformed into a princess at the touch of a magic wand.
Venice’s fairytale atmosphere is soon going to become even more vibrant, further enlivened by the rhythm of the music that resounds at dusk every evening, summer and winter, on St. Mark’s Square. Amidst the sumptuous costumes of the mad crowds that have been waiting all year long, the ten-day carnival is going to create a further dream in the enchanted atmosphere of the palaces, churches and bridges - and, above all, of this square - whose elegant splendor has graced the city since the Middle Ages. Thousands of people of every age and nationality  throng the streets with child-like joy in the easy anonymity afforded by elaborate makeup and a unique mask.

IT’S CARNIVAL TIME!
The gondoliers are slowly lifting the covers off their barques, which are moored along the ‘Molo’. The fog has lifted. The island of San Giorgio Maggiore is in full view now, Palladio’s matchless lines echoing the majesty of ancient temples. And on the quay’s wooden steps, masked fashion models of stunning beauty vie with each other to pose for the photographers.
The sea is coming to life. A light rain is falling as the waves lap the steps of the ‘Molo’.  For Venice is a city on the sea. And the Venetians have generated myriad solutions to overcome the almost insurmountable difficulties this poses. Long wooden platforms are always at the ready. As the rain comes down harder, they are hauled into place, end to end, so people can walk through the square without wetting their feet. One vaporetto pulls away as another arrives, bringing the crowds caught up in the carnival atmosphere, the bands of tourists staring gaga-eyed, and of course the lovers, from Santa Lucia, the Lido and the islands. No one feels the February chill. As the masks and costumes complete the picture, beautiful women and elegant gentlemen invoke the spirit of the old days with gracious bows. But the magic reaches its zenith at the balls held in the centuries-old palaces with gracefully carved chairs upholstered in velvet and decorated with gold leaf,  heavy brocade draperies, and tables set with gilded porcelain, snowy white tablecloths of Burano lace, and delicate Murano crystal goblets, all to the strains of Vivaldi of course.

A DREAM VEILED IN MIST
As day fades into night the fog descends again. On one corner a group of merrymakers playing with gaily flashing yo-yo’s conjure up images of fireflies on a summer’s night. Not far ahead others wait impatiently in front of a makeup artist who is working minor miracles with his brush and brilliant paints. Fat yellow suns on some faces, stars of fantasy films on others. A group of foreigners goes bananas over the mad costumes of the Venetian dukes and duchesses dancing to the accompaniment of madrigals on a large platform on the square. The aroma of sugar-coated ‘fritelles’ mingles with cries of ‘Salute Venezia’. A virtual human flood flows through the narrow streets opening onto the square. All the buildings in the vicinity are lit up. Neither the February chill nor the day’s weariness can stop these people from attending the mad entertainments that will last until morning. Being part of this scene, reminiscent of an enchanted drawing of an opulent medieval interior in the pages of a book of fairytales, is like a dream. With the bearing of a true Venetian princess, I join the swooning crowd and experience the dream for myself. Rays of red and yellow light blend in pleasant harmony with the white cloud of mist falling over the square. Slipping away from the crowd that fills the Piazetta, I go back down to the ‘Molo’. In the fog, the glow of the elegant street lamps, unique to Venice, that line the Schiavoni quay vanishes in a thin thread at the other end of the island. As a fireworks display lures even the most romantic lovers out of the crevices and down to the shore with its red, yellow and lilac bursts that fade into purple, green and turquoise on the lagoon’s shimmering waters, the gondolas fall in with the rhythm of the water, swaying from right to left in a dance-like accompaniment.
Is all this real, or just a dream? As I ask myself this question again, I jot down a final comment about Venice in my notebook: Venice was created out of nothing by the touch of a magic wand. And, again by the touch of a magic wand, it preserves its enchanted air as a fairytale city even today. Especially at carnival time.