Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Filming with Andrea Pirlo

I was watching Italian television today in the early afternoon, mostly because all of the North American shows that I follow are currently on a mid-season hiatus and also because I was searching for a mind-numbing pastime that might help me to kill the hour before work. After being somewhat mesmerised by a program that featured a chimpanzee that no one seemed to realise was not in fact a human being, I began to flick through the channels aimlessly. Suddenly something caught my eye, it was a television commercial for a national Italian bank. The reason why this particular commercial was of interest to me was because it was set in Lodi. The advertisement featured various people in business suits walking around the city with red coat arms. It sounds a little bit strange I know and I remember wondering what the deal with the coat arms was when I passed by the crew filming in Piazza della Vittoria a few months ago.

For most cities, a film crew along with minor celebrities would be a big deal, but to the locals of Lodi, it is almost a regular occurrence. Lodi is actually a very popular destination for the filming of movies, television shows and advertisements. I think that its proximity to Milan, along with the beauty and charm of its square and surrounding streets make it the ideal place to showcase traditional Italian living. It is not uncommon during the summer months, to take a stroll through the city centre and stumble upon photo shoots complete with glamorous models or massive buffet tables filled with food and drinks for hungry camera men in the piazza. The most amusing thing is that ninety percent of the time, the locals simply go about their routines as normal; weaving their way through the mess of tangled wires and crew members that occasionally litter the streets without so much as even casting a glance in the direction of the action. Of course there are rare moments, such as when a truly massive superstar comes to town, when even the most jaded of the Laudense take notice. I witnessed one of these moments up close last summer.

It was just like any other day in June and I was headed towards Piazza della Vittoria to buy more minutes for my cell phone when I noticed a huge crowd gathered around the square. As I approached it to see what all of the fuss was about, I quickly realised that a film crew were shooting something and that there was some kind of a football player at the centre of all of the attention. After a few more moments I recognised him as Andrea Pirlo, one of Italy’s most famous players.

Personally I have only a passing interest in football, or soccer to many of my North American friends. I grew up watching every World Cup with my father, who is somewhat passionate about it, and listening as he launched into an array of tirades aimed at different players who he believed were underperforming. The one that I recall being the most frequent of these rants was “Baggio…Baggio!” After Italy’s disappointing defeat in the final of the 1994 World Cup, that was all I heard for the next several months and to be honest the chant is even still brought up to this day! Anyway, back to Andrea, for those of you who are unfamiliar with him, he helped Italy to win the World Cup in 2006 and currently plays for Italian Serie A team Juventus. In Italy, the man is basically a God.

So there I was, standing shoulder to shoulder with people dressed in AC Milan (Andrea’s former club) jerseys, complete with Pirlo’s name emblazoned on the back, while struggling to take pictures of the megastar. After all, my father as well as every European male acquaintance of mine would surely kill me if they learnt that I had seen Andrea Pirlo and not managed to take at least several photos. The scene that was being filmed seemed to involve Andrea kicking a football towards a group of school children and the director, who looked slightly goofy sporting a Mohawk and wearing army shorts, made the actors involved repeat their lines at least twenty times before calling for a short break. While his young co-stars took a few minutes to drink soft drinks and eat from the buffet, Andrea greeted his fans, who swamped him for autographs the moment that he made himself available to them.

It seemed as though it would be virtually impossible to get within several feet of Pirlo, let alone obtain his autograph or have my picture taken with him. Luckily for me, however, just when I was about to give up hope and move along, fate provided me with a backstage pass to the film set. The whole crowd was being controlled by several security guards and kept in check by a barrier of caution tape. Basically those who were on the right side of the tape were allowed unlimited access to the filming and everyone else could get no closer than about twenty meters away. When a city bus had to pass through the square, the tape had to be raised momentarily and when it was lowered once more, I suddenly found myself on the desirable side.

When one of the security guards smiled and nodded at me, I took it as a clear sign that I was being allowed access to the area and decided to inch ever closer to Andrea Pirlo and the rest of the film crew. There were quite a lot of people involved and I doubt that they all knew one another. The atmosphere was fairly relaxed and a number of other spectators had also randomly been granted a closer view of the action. As various passers by nodded at me as if I was one of the group, I did what anyone else would do and nodded back in acknowledgment. I told myself to keep my mouth shut because although the security guard seemed fine with me being there, I didn't really want to disturb anyone who might want to kick me off of the set.

After my initial nervousness, I soon relaxed when it became apparent that nobody was concerned with my presence. Andrea had now moved on to a photo shoot where he had to hold a ball with wings while wearing what appeared to be a Juventus-themed housecoat. The whole thing was mildly comical and Andrea looked a little bit fed up as he posed uncomfortably for countless shots. I positioned myself directly behind the camera man and took a few pictures of my own. Once again no one even questioned my presence; they simply smiled at me and nodded. At one point even Pirlo himself noticed me and squinted in my direction. His face pondered who I was and after a few moments he simply gave up trying to figure it out.

I waited patiently for the shoot to finish and when Andrea Pirlo stepped away from the cameras, I swooped in and asked for a photograph. I told him that my father and boyfriend are both huge fans of his and he happily agreed. Although he was obviously tired, he was friendly and very down to earth. He was certainly a great deal more relaxed than some of the other famous sports personalities who I have met over the years. Once my mission had been accomplished, I slipped quietly back onto the other side of the caution tape and rushed home excited to see the photograph on my computer. Unfortunately it is an absolutely horrendous picture of me, I look like I have a double chin and I am making a very rodent-like expression that has since been named “the chipmunk face” by my family and friends. I think that the person who took the photograph snapped it while I was in the midst of talking to Pirlo or something. Still, as embarrassing as it is, I proudly display the souvenir in my apartment. After all, I have a photograph of myself with Andrea Pirlo, can you say the same?

Just in case you were interested in the actual commercial itself. It turned out to be for the Sky Sports television network. Here is a link to the finished product:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gelato Gratis

What’s one thing that’s better than ice cream? Free ice cream! That’s right, today while walking in town I stumbled upon an ice cream parlour that had the two sweetest words in the Italian language posted on a sign just outside the window. “Gelato Gratis!” It stated in bold letters. The announcement alone was enough to stop me dead in my tracks, after all who wouldn’t want a tasty treat free of charge? The fact that this was also no ordinary ice cream, but rather Italian gelato, which is basically frozen heaven in a cone, made the whole thing even sweeter. It seemed as though the locals were also fans of a bargain as they flocked in hoards to sample the ice cream for themselves. Men in business suits stood in circles outside, happily eating cones filled with various pastel-coloured flavours. Groups of school children crowded together inside the shop. They demanded chocolate, pistachio and every other kind of ice cream imaginable from the exhausted ladies behind the counter. While waiting in line, a breathless teenager asked me if all of the ice cream was indeed free. When I replied that it was, he turned around to his group of friends and exclaimed “Si!!!” In an instant it was as if they all became little kids again. They abandoned their blasé attitudes and bored facial expressions, cheering out loud while giggling excitedly. It’s too bad that Kimi Raikkonen is currently busy preparing for the second round of Barcelona testing. If anyone in the paddock knows how to enjoy an ice cream, it is certainly him!

Speaking of the Barcelona test, all of today’s major Formula 1 headlines circulated around the upcoming engagement. It seems as though both Ferrari and Red Bull will have to run along with the masses starting on March first and finishing on the fourth. As I stated in Sunday’s blog post, the two teams had originally planned to start the test a day later than the rest of the field and finish on the fifth. The FIA, however, decided today that all the teams had to complete the meeting together, thus putting an end to Ferrari and Red Bull’s logistical plan.

There was disappointing news too for Marussia, who announced today that they will miss the Barcelona meeting because their new single-seater failed its final FIA crash test. The failure means that Marussia will arrive at the first race (assuming that they indeed pass the crash test before Melbourne) with no mileage on their new car. This is surely not the way that drivers Timo Glock and Charles Pic wanted to start the 2012 season.

The final piece of news that caught my eye today was another story about Kimi Raikkonen’s motivation. It seems as though the resurrected Finn is keen to shed his reputation for falling asleep behind the wheel. “People always talk about motivation, but the people who write it probably don’t even know me.” Raikkonen told F1 Racing magazine. “It’s not a lack of motivation if your car is shit and even if you drive your best and still can’t get a good result. My feeling is that I drove one of my best years in my last year for Ferrari. I’ve never had a problem with motivation.” Until I see otherwise, I will believe Kimi when he says that he is adequately motivated for the season ahead. Still, if I were Eric Boullier, I would have a fridge stocked full of ice cream and an electric cattle prodder on hand during every race! As I said earlier, it's a shame that both Boullier and Raikkonen didn't make it out to Lodi today, they probably could have gotten themselves a pretty good deal.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Thanks for the Memories Part One: Rubens Barrichello

Last week Caterham announced that they would be replacing veteran driver Jarno Trulli with Vitaly Petrov for the 2012 racing season. Although rumours had been circulating for several months regarding the popular Italian’s seat, the news still came as a shock to many who have since questioned if Formula 1 is becoming a sport where money always speaks louder than talent and experience. Trulli’s departure from the grid makes him the second elder statesman to be forced out of the formula in less than two months. He now joins Rubens Barrichello in exile, although seems to be handling the news a lot more gracefully than the disgruntled Brazilian. Whether both Williams and Caterham are lining their wallets or simply opting for fresh blood is something that none of us can say for certain and yet as the dust settles one thing is clear, it is the end of an era.

I remember when I first became interested in Formula 1 as girl. Rubens Barrichello had already been in the sport for several years. At that time he was best known for his horrific crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The incident almost claimed Barrichello’s life and in the days that followed both Roland Ratzenberger as well as Rubens’s mentor and countryman, Ayrton Senna, sustained fatal injuries at the Imola circuit. The death of Senna was a tragedy that shook Barrichello to his core and with the expectations of a mourning nation weighing on his shoulders the young man, whose fans called him Rubinho, struggled and began to develop a reputation for being fast but inconsistent.

Things began to look up for Barrichello in 1997 when he joined the Stewart Ford team which was run by Formula 1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart and his son Paul Stewart. The tight knit squad had a friendly family atmosphere and they adopted Rubens instantly, nurturing his talent and providing him with the support system that he needed to produce results. Although the Stewart SF01 was a midfield car at best, Barrichello drove it to a plucky second place finish at the Monaco Grand Prix. The television pictures were emotional. Sir Jackie Stewart hugged his son with tears in his eyes and the team’s mechanics cheered ecstatically. At the centre of the jubilation was a vindicated Rubens Barrichello, lapping up the attention with a massive grin plastered across his face. I recall that being the moment when I first took real notice of the future Ferrari driver. He had driven with passion and courage and in my mind seemed to be the perfect fit for the Maranello-based squad. Ferrari’s Jean Todt agreed and less than three years later, Rubens stood waving outside the historic front gates of the Ferrari factory, wearing a cream turtleneck sweater and an innocent smile. Little did he know, he was about to enter what some have referred to as the serpent’s lair.

Statistically Barrichello’s time at Ferrari was extremely successful. Driving what were amongst the most competitive cars on the Formula 1 grid, the cheerful Brazilian racked up an impressive range of victories and podium finishes that any driver would be immensely proud of. The first of his victories with Ferrari came at the 2000 German Grand Prix. The race was littered with unexpected events, including the strange case of a former Mercedes employee running out onto the track and forcing the deployment of the safety car. In the end it was Rubens’s talent for wet weather driving which saw him turn eighteenth place on the starting grid into the first win of his career. The podium ceremony was one of those celebrations that few enthusiasts will likely forget. Indeed it seemed as though everyone present in the Hockenheim pit lane that day were shedding tears of joy for the likeable driver. As Rubens took the top step of the podium, he wept emotionally while clutching a Brazilian flag. Throughout my many years as a tifosa, I have often revisited an old VHS tape that I have of the event and remember it as one of my favourite Ferrari triumphs. To this day whenever I watch it I can feel my eyes well up and my heart remembers the feelings of hope and possibility that the result inspired within me. On that day Rubinho was on top of the world and it seemed as though all of his struggles had been worthwhile.

Being a tifosa, I do not usually develop great attachments to drivers. Of course, they grow on me and I come to admire many of them but usually after they leave, I do not mourn the loss of them. During his time at Ferrari, Rubens quickly became the exception to this pattern. I absolutely adored the fiery Brazilian, who I truly believed could challenge Michael Schumacher for victories and ultimately the Championship itself. Unfortunately for Rubens, Ferrari had other plans for him and he was quickly slotted into the unofficial number two position within the team. At first Barrichello’s role did not draw major attention but Ferrari’s decision to allow Michael Schumacher to overtake Rubens on the final lap of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix created international outrage. The incident, which drew boos and jeers from the attending crowd, lead the FIA to issue a ban on team orders.

Although manipulation is nothing new in the world of Formula 1 and indeed Ferrari has practiced it throughout the team’s existence, this particular instance seemed unnecessary at a point in the season when Rubens was still mathematically in contention for a Championship that Schumacher was already leading quite comfortably. In the aftermath of the race Barrichello’s relationship with Ferrari began to sour, indeed you could visibly see the hurt on his face in Austria on that May afternoon. Although he remained with the Italian team until the end of the 2005 season, a part of Rubens’s passion and faith in both the team and sport seemed to die after that race.

I often wonder what could have been had Rubinho joined Ferrari at another point in his career or even what he could have achieved if Michael Schumacher had not been the squad’s unofficial number one. I guess there is really no point wondering what might have been. In the end Rubens became bitter about the team that he had once so adored and went on to speak negatively about Ferrari to the media and anyone else who would listen. The fact that I am able to forgive him for this indiscretion only highlights exactly how much Barrichello meant to me.

After his departure from Ferrari, Rubens spent several unproductive years at Honda before the team was rebadged as Brawn Grand Prix in 2009. As unlikely as it would seem the underdog team produced a dominant car which saw Barrichello and Jenson Button win eight of the seventeen races during the season. Ultimately Button’s youth and consistency claimed him the World Championship and Rubens moved to Williams the following year where he stayed until it was announced that he would be replaced by Bruno Senna this season.

Many of Rubens’s critics are quick to point out that the Brazilian veteran was well past the peak of his career in the last several years. Indeed the only person who refused to read the writing on the wall up until the very end was Rubens himself. He maintained that he had a good chance of retaining his drive up until Senna was announced as his replacement and had to be figuratively dragged out of his cockpit kicking and screaming. Rather than see this in a negative light, however, I prefer to see it as a testament to a man who was used to being the underdog throughout his career and whose will to carry on and push himself has made him the most experienced Formula 1 driver of all time. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that this feat alone deserves a great deal of respect.

When I think of Rubens, I envision him on the podium. He is beaming widely and grasping a winner’s trophy in his hands. All of a sudden he pretends to fall down, twitching violently from side to side in a comedic manner. The entire crowd laughs and are instantly enamoured. Thanks for the memories Rubens, I will miss you.

To be continued…

Be sure to check out part two when I talk about Jarno Trulli!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Barcelona Days Two, Three and Four

Sorry for my several days absence everyone, I caught a nasty flu (the second bout of illness that I have endured over the past few months) and have been confined to my bed since Thursday. Thankfully I am on the mend now, but it really is amazing the stuff that you miss when you turn off your computer for just a short amount of time. For example, I could not follow the final three days of testing thanks to my illness and have only just begun catching up with all of the Formula 1 gossip that I have missed.

Wednesday’s test in Barcelona saw Nico Hulkeberg top the time sheets in his Force India VJM05. The German was followed closely by Ferrari driver academy member Sergio Perez whose Sauber C31 finished only 0.04 seconds adrift. If these times are any indication, we should have a very competitive midfield this season.

Sebastian Vettel completed an impressive 104 laps in his Red Bull RB8 and managed to clock a time that was good enough to claim third fastest spot. Fernando Alonso finished the day, which was spent comparing various exhaust solutions, in fourth place. The Spaniard would later admit that while many of the other teams have switched their focus to conducting race simulations, Ferrari is still trying to understand the F2012. “It’s true that we keep getting information out of the car, information that we should already have in our pocket, but the car seems quite complex and we need to keep understanding better what the behaviour is.” Alonso stated. “But then I remember last year when we did a race distance in the first day and we were one and a half seconds behind Red Bull in Australia. Race distances are always welcome, but I would prefer to have a performing car and then we find reliability than have a very strong car that is slow.”

Day three of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya did not see a further change in Ferrari’s pace or reliability issues but the arrival of the sun and heat at the Spanish track did see an unlikely name at the head of the field. Pastor Maldonado clocked a time of 1:22.391 while on supersoft tyres in the Williams FW34. Maldonado went on to complete 106 laps with only Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button being able to produce similarly productive stints totalling over 100 laps. After his moment in the spotlight, a pleased Maldonado told the media that podium finishes may even be on the cards for Williams this year. “The car looks competitive; much better than last year’s car for sure. Everything is working- engine, gearbox, aero of the car, mechanically- so, it’s not a perfect car; it’s still early and we have lots of things to improve but I’m very happy.” He summarised.

The Venezuelan had another impressive day in the Williams on the fourth and final day of the Barcelona meeting. He managed to complete a total of 134 laps in the FW34 and set the second fastest time of the day behind Kamui Kobayashi, who highlighted the latest Sauber’s promising form.

Felipe Massa drove the F2012 to fifth place of the day, but in the process completed a total of 103 laps, indicating that Ferrari may finally be finding their form. In the wake of the test the Brazilian was upbeat about the direction that the team is heading in. “In the morning I was not sure if I was able to do more than eight or nine timed laps consistently and then we changed so many things for the afternoon and I was doing much more than this in a very consistent and good way. I think this is very positive.” Massa said. “For sure, we still need to work a lot on the car, but at least we have found the direction to have a much better car to drive. Not just for lap time but also for consistency.”

The second Barcelona test is scheduled to begin on the first of March, but both Ferrari and Red Bull have elected to begin the test a day later, ending their running on March the fifth. The struggling Lotus team, which was forced to sit out the second test of the season due to chassis problems, may also join them. They have already petitioned the other teams for permission to test an extra day and their request is expected to be granted. Ferrari’s twitter account also states that the team will be at the Circuit de Catalunya on the 28th and 29th of February, completing some promotional filming that was cancelled on February 3rd. There will therefore be just a few short days spent at the factory before the circus re-emerges once more and speculation begins anew.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barcelona Day One: Lost in Translation

Yesterday marked the beginning of the second pre-season Formula 1 test at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain. The Barcelona track hosted eleven of the twelve teams on the opening morning, with only HRT missing the first of four planned days of running. The Spanish team’s 2012 campaign has gotten off to a rocky start after its latest single-seater failed two crash tests in the run up to the second meeting of the season. Of the teams competing in this year’s World Championship, only HRT and Marussia have failed to turn a lap in their 2012 challengers and with only seven days of testing remaining (including today) it looks as though neither is destined to move closer towards the sharp end of the grid anytime soon.

HRT wasn’t the only team with woes in Barcelona after yesterday’s action. Lotus's E20, which had a very promising first test in Jerez, only completed a total of seven laps before Romain Grosjean was forced to sit out for the rest of the day. In the wake of the disappointment, Lotus technical director James Allison revealed that the E20 was experiencing chassis problems. “Before we were due to fly chassis E20-01 out to Barcelona in replacement of chassis E20-02- damaged this morning- we ran a series of simulations at the factory based on the data provided by our brief running on track today.” He stated “As a result, we were able to identify an area which requires some additional work. It will be more productive for us to carry out these modifications to both chassis at Enstone rather than send E20-01 out to this week’s test. We’ll put the right measures in place and we will be able to fix the problem before next week.” Even though missing the rest of the Barcelona test due to chassis problems is a huge and worrying setback, Eric Boullier is remaining calm and positive at least when speaking to the world’s media. “We draw faith from the fact that the E20 was quick out of the box in Jerez and showed its reliability there.” The Lotus team principal insisted “We have a lot of work ahead of us over the next week but everyone at Enstone is ready for this challenge.” Faith is most likely something that Boullier will be desperately hanging onto in the coming days.

One team that carried on its almost untarnished record during the first day of the test was Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel drove the intimidating Red Bull RB8 to the fastest time of the day, beating out Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg by just over three tenths of a second. Initially at least, the time itself did not seem particularly daunting, but when I discovered that Vettel had set it while on hard tyres, I was left to wonder exactly how fast the World Champion’s latest car is capable of going. No doubt the rest of the teams have taken notice and more than one aerodynamicist will be asking themselves exactly what they have to do in order to best Adrian Newey.

As for Ferrari, the Maranello-based team’s F2012 carried on its puzzling form by setting the fifth fastest time of the day. The team’s official website stated that they were concentrating particularly on data acquisition and trying to gain as much information about the new car as possible. Fernando Alonso once again reiterated that the only times that matter are those that the car sets during race weekends. “I know there is much expectation from the outside, but we are totally focussed on ourselves, without giving a thought to what is going on around us. We will only start to properly understand the situation in Melbourne.” Bizarrely and worryingly enough, the quote itself reminds me of something that my friend Walter came up with one afternoon while we were still in high school. Walter had just learnt how to drive and was explaining his driving philosophy to me “The key” he stated knowingly “is to focus only on yourself and not pay attention to the other cars around you!” Not surprisingly Walter was one of the worst drivers that I have ever met. He once even crashed his car into a parking stall in front of my apartment! Anyway, the point that I am trying to make is that while I’m happy that Ferrari are so focused on the task at hand, I hope that they aren’t completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. Hopefully whatever Alonso really meant to say was simply lost in translation!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Carnevale in Lodi

The north of Italy is about to experience a warm front that will apparently reach up to twenty degrees Celsius this weekend and today was the first day in a long time that the locals put away their heavily padded coats and opted for something lighter. It was mid-afternoon by the time that I emerged from my apartment and as I unzipped my winter jacket, I couldn’t help but feel that spring is just around the corner. Even though I had heard that Lodi’s Carnevale celebrations were kicking off today, people had warned me that the city does next to nothing to mark the occasion. Still, I ventured towards Piazza della Vittoria, curious to see what, if anything was happening. I should have guessed that the people who are known throughout Italy for hosting an annual competition that involves grown men pushing wooden horses around in circles wouldn’t leave me disappointed.

As I entered the square I was surprised to see hoards of small children and their families, all in costume and having a wonderful time. The children had just been let out of school for the day and clutched bags of confetti. They threw handfuls of it at one another, screaming joyously as they ran amongst the crowd. Princesses battled with lions and a boy dressed as a clown clutched a superbike balloon while picking his nose. Stalls had been erected amongst the mayhem, selling cotton candy and silly string and a large inflatable slide drew a line of eager youngsters. Several horse drawn carriages and chariots took excited passengers for a ride around the piazza’s perimeter free of charge. The proud animals remained calm amongst the confusion and allowed their adoring fans to caress them when they were not on the move.

There was a very Italian situation when several city buses attempted to cross the piazza only to be met head on by a fleet of horse-drawn carriages. The humorous stand-off lasted several minutes and created an animal pile-up which somehow ended up with a llama rear-ending a chariot! Thankfully no one was injured and after extensive police direction, the carriages, buses and of course, the llama, were all able to continue along their separate courses.

In addition to the horses and llama an exotic guest had been invited to the party. A large dromedary joined the festivities and mingled amongst curious bystanders who flocked to greet it. Various costumed youngsters worked up the nerve to touch the beast as it paraded around and even stuck its tongue out, much to the amusement of those in attendance. A group of teenaged boys sniggered amongst one another as a little girl recoiled when the dromedary came a little too close. Hearing their commotion, the single-humped creature quickly turned its attention on them, provoking several high-pitched shrieks and much laughter.

Although Lodi’s Carnevale celebrations only lasted a few hours and cannot even be compared to the festivities that I witnessed in Venice, they were still a lot of fun and somehow fitting for this quirky Italian city. There may not have been fancy buskers wearing elaborate costumes like you see in Piazza di San Marco, nor were there thousands of international visitors in attendance. Still, Lodi does have one fantastic thing that the world-famous Venice does not. Lodi has a dromedary!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Costumes of Carnevale

There were so many amazing outfits at the Venice Carnevale yesterday and I think that they all deserve special acknowledgment for making the event as colourful and spectacular as it was. The following are some costume photographs that did not make my blog post on the event but I still wanted to share.

The 2012 Carnevale di Venezia

It’s Monday morning, the rain is pouring down in Lodi, every muscle in my body aches and I feel as though I could go back to sleep for another eight hours. I guess you could say that I’m suffering from a Carnevale hangover. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, yesterday my friend Charlotte and I made our way to the historic Italian city of Venice for their world-famous Carnevale. On the day that was rumoured to be the biggest day of celebrations this year we had an amazing experience that neither of us is likely to ever forget.

The morning began before the sun rose as Charlotte and I elected to take one of the earliest trains leaving from Lodi. This was partially by choice and also because the majority of seats on trains headed to Venice had been sold out days before the actual event itself. As we watched the train cars fill up with various excited tourists and Italians carrying bags of costumes, we sleepily discussed our expectations for the day. Like me, Charlotte had been warned by friends to avoid Venice during Carnevale. We had been told that people would be crowded into every inch of the city and that if claustrophobia didn’t ruin our day, the ridiculous prices certainly would. Thankfully, when the train pulled into Santa Lucia station less than three hours later we quickly discovered how wrong Venice’s critics were.

From the moment we stepped off the train, our senses were instantly bombarded from all directions. There were crowds of costumed people chattering happily amongst one another, groups of casually dressed foreigners laughed and took photographs as they put on their souvenir masks for the very first time and brightly coloured trinkets were available for purchase all around us. We hadn’t even left the station and already Charlotte and I were fans of Venice.

Once we made it outside, we were both eager to see and do everything. Although there were hoards of people bustling around in different directions, the majority of them were relaxed and polite. The atmosphere was one of friendly revelry that had not been soured by excessive drinking. Stands selling masks lined the streets and any kind of mask that I could envision was available for purchase. There were simple monochrome masks, extravagant masks with painted lips and matching feathers and even animal masks covered in glitter. Charlotte and I exchanged various gasps of awe with each successive stand that we visited and what was even more astonishing than the beauty of these creations was their price. They started as low as five Euros and even the most intricate of masks could be purchased for thirty Euros. Each was marked on the inside of its forehead with an ink stamp that proudly stated “Original, hand painted, made in Italy, Venezia.” Of course, for those who had a little more money to spend, there were also specialty stores all over the city. These treasure troves were filled with the most luxurious masks and costumes imaginable. Some were covered in diamonds and lace. Others were made of velvet and trimmed with fur. There was even one store that had a whole variety of masks made exclusively from leather.

Another affordable souvenir that Venice is famous for is its hand-blown glass. After purchasing several masks for friends and family, I couldn’t resist also buying a few glass figurines and some jewellery, all for only three Euros! As the hours passed by Charlotte and I noted that it would be easy to come to Venice, spend the whole day shopping and not even see any of the beautiful sights that have gained the city notoriety. After exiting what seemed like the hundredth store, we made a pact to head in the direction of Piazza di San Marco before spending any more money.

One we had set a course that was free from retail distractions, we started to near the center of the city. The closer we got to Piazza di San Marco, the more breathtaking the scenery became. Although the facades of the buildings in Venice were weathered and crumbling, they had a unique charm that made them picturesque. The doorways in the alleys were adorned with various carvings that harboured a haunting presence in the winter mist and the hazy silhouettes of distant buildings created mystery. The air was cool and moist and yet our enthusiasm kept us warm as we meandered along the streets, crossing over narrow canals on bridges made of ancient stone and wood. Gondolas and row boats passed beneath us as we walked across them, some vessels were decorated and their crews all dressed in costume to celebrate the occasion. From time to time the scent of fish tickled our nostrils and yet the smell was not as intrusive as I was prepared for it to be. To be honest it only added to the atmosphere, which was distinctly Venetian.

Amongst the architecture were the people who injected colour and life to the otherwise grey afternoon. Many present were wearing outfits that ranged from traditional to a more modern Halloween style of dress. There were street buskers, who obviously spent a great deal of time and money on their outfits and posed for various photos. There were also enthusiastic amateurs, who donned elaborate costumes for the celebration and happily soaked up the attention from adoring tourists. My favourite costumes were the ones that contained the element of humour. I enjoyed in particular one group that was dressed as Cruella Deville and her dalmatians and the most amazing costume of that day was without a doubt two men who were disguised as large, fantastic red birds.

Just before we arrived at Piazza di San Marco, Charlotte and I decided to find a place to eat the sandwiches that we had made ourselves for lunch. In the absence of a picnic table, we elected to perch on the stairs of a doorway and were startled when the door suddenly opened. An aloof woman breezed by us with only a scowl of acknowledgment, she was obviously more than used to unwelcome midday squatters outside her home. We giggled mischievously before cramming the last few bites of bread into our mouths and moving on.

As we approached the piazza, the alleys became narrower and the masses of people crushed together trying to squeeze through them. This was the only point during the day when I felt claustrophobic and the feeling subsided once we entered Piazza di San Marco itself. The only word to describe this landmark is incredible; the Basilica di San Marco was spectacular and the Carnevale crowd filled the piazza, creating an atmosphere of revelry and excitement. As many clambered to catch a glimpse of the final of a costume competition that was taking place on a stage in the square, Charlotte and I decided to weave our way through the sea of people and spot as many different costumes as possible. Songs like “Paris Latino” by Bandolero rang out over the loudspeakers and those in attendance were in a festive mood. Swaying to the music, they sang along with the lyrics and cheekily threw confetti at one another.

After spending some time mingling amongst the other Carnevale visitors and deciding to forgo a visit to the inside of the basilica due to an epic line outside, we made our way to the lagoon nearby. Although we were curious to explore the city further, we wanted to be certain that we could make it back through the maze of Venetian streets before our train departed. It was a good thing that we left ourselves some time since our feet were aching after a day spent wandering around and it seemed to take us forever to reach Santa Lucia.

Once Charlotte and I were within view of the station, we sat down at a local bar and discussed our adventure over a hot chocolate. It was a fantastic and unforgettable day that was filled with fun. In fact, I can honestly say that I have nothing negative to say about the Venice Carnevale whatsoever. My only regret is that I chose to see the event in just one day and not over the course of a week. I would have also loved to dress up in one of those beautiful costumes that I admired so much as a tourist and attend one of the dinners or galas that were advertised on the internet. In a way however, I suppose it’s a good thing that I didn’t do it all in one visit. After all, if I had left no stone unturned yesterday what new experiences would I have to look forward to next time?!