While the drummers march through the streets of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the old luster of Venice is reborn in a festive atmosphere of indulgence and escapism. For exactly ten centuries, Venice has been the mother of all the carnivals in Europe and the Americas. Its masks and Renaissance costumes, pearl necklaces and anonymity were the inspiration for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Carnivals of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, and in many other places that are still adopting this ancient form of social explosion.
In America, the ambassadors of Carnival were the French, the Spaniards and the Portuguese, three old colonial powers that gave life to this tradition that has its roots both in the Roman Bacchanalia and in the Christian celebration of lent.
Venice hosts the most famous Italian carnival, but not the only one. Dozens of other cities hold these festivities in which the morality, associated with the constraints of royalty and the clergy, are momentarily hidden behind a mask. Lent is a liturgical observance where Catholics remember the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. If to this period of self-flagellation we add an oppressive monarchy and an unforgiving religion, you can have more or less an idea of the events that went on in the streets of old Europe during the days of Carnival.
Alcohol, gluttony and debauchery gradually replaced elegance and decorum; rich and poor exchanged roles right before Ash Wednesday. The idiot was King for a day; the priest became a criminal, the King a beggar and the lady a woman of easy virtue.
A day later, everything returned to normality, and for the people that held the religious and political power of the time, the rule was a hangover that healed the sins of the soul with a deserved physical pain and a postmortem but welcome amnesiac state.
Although a little more “civilized” in the present, carnivals on both sides of the Atlantic are still celebrated between January and February each year. In Venice, for example, the 2014 carnival began on 22 February, and in Rio de Janeiro it starts on February 28. On the other hand, a little further away from the Catholic influence brought by the French to the Louisiana territory, in New Orleans the celebration begins on January 6 –the day of the epiphany – reaching its apogee in Mardi Gras, the eve of Ash Wednesday, which signals he end of all carnivals. This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 4.
There are other pre-Christian traditions that— in one way or another— have been absorbed within this ancient tradition. The Germans, for example, celebrate their carnival in November in accordance to the old lunar calendar, which set the date of the harvest and, therefore, the abundance before the arrival of winter.
For travelers, getting reservations in any of the cities that celebrate carnival is no easy task. It is recommended that before you embark on this journey of pleasure and fun, you should know what to do and where to go. It would be unforgivable, for example, to leave New Orleans without trying some of its most typical dishes, like a thick, rich jambalaya, a spicy gumbo or an alligator sausage po-boy. But to enjoy the best traditional cuisine in a truly elegant setting, the best bet would be to go to Antoine´s in the French Quarter, a culinary landmark since 184o and an elegant family-run restaurant with various environments where you can taste the famous seafood from Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
To appreciate the rhythm of the city there are several places where you can listen to live jazz without leaving the French quarter, like the traditional house of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And, of course, every tourist who comes to New Orleans should stroll Bourbon Street to enjoy one of the world’s biggest parties.
Rio de Janeiro celebrates one of the most famous Carnivals in the world. It is the largest but not the only one in the country. Other major carnival destinations in Brazil are Recife or Salvador de Bahia. The enormity of the events that take place in the Brazilian carnivals can be experienced in the popular parades of Cordão do Bola Preta in Rio, or Galo de Madrugada in Recife, among many other sites.
But perhaps the best known and the most attractive for tourists are the parades that feature the emblematic samba schools. The most important are held at the Sambodromo da Marquês de Sapucaí in Rio de Janeiro, and the Sambodromo do Anhembi in Sao Paulo.
Each year, the list of free events and musical performances is more impressive and varied. And to feed the multitude of spontaneous samba dancers, there are few options beyond the thousands of food carts that line the streets offering everything from hot dogs to the famous espetinhos, a Creole version of meat and vegetable skewers, not to mention the beer and the caipirinhas that flood the streets of every Brazilian city during these days.
Of course, there is also the possibility of a glamorous dinner in Rio de Janeiro. Giuseppe Grill in Avenida Bartolomeu Mitre or Aprazivel in Santa Teresa are some of the best hiding places in Carnival. Both specialize in novel versions of the complex traditional Brazilian cuisine, already famous for cassava meal and succulent meat on the grill.
If the carnival experience feels like a “Brazilian overdose”, an Italian restaurant is always an alternative. Gero is a good option in the heart of Ipanema Beach, Rua Anibal de Mendonça.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
In Venice, the festivities start on 15 February, but the best of this Italian carnival takes place on weekends, particularly the days leading to March 4. For those who want to enjoy the finest festivities, Piazza San Marco is the meeting place to enjoy the most stunning creations that compete for best traditional costume.
This year, organizers have made an effort to decentralize the Carnival and celebrate some events at the Arsenale di Venezia. Away from the streets, there are more exclusive parties, such as the annual masquerade ball of Gran Ballo della Cavalchina, considered the most spectacular in Venice and held at La Fenice Opera House. This year’s theme is Spain and will take place on March 1.
You do not need recommendations to eat well in Venice. The city has numerous gastronomic experts that successfully impress the enormous mass of international visitors with their cuisine, though you can always visit some of the most famous restaurants in the city. For example, Locanda Cipriani, located 30 minutes from the Center of Venice, which was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway.
The menu is unpretentious and focuses on traditional Italian cuisine, with recipes from the Cipriani family, which has owned this property since its inception. Antiche Carampane is another favorite of celebrities, such as Natalie Portman, Monica Bellucci and Bill Murray, but also favored by Venetians. It dishes out traditional Venetian haute cuisine and attracts a large number of people, so reservations should be made in advance. ■