The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy

Carnival Weekend in Venice and Verona

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As early as January, I made plans with language assistant friends to visit Venice for the February festival that is Carnevale. Venice is well known to the best place to celebrate carnival: the masquerade tradition involves pretending to be someone else amidst music, dance and hedonistic processions. We knew that we would encounter crowds of tourists going nuts over masks and costumes as well as the usual gondolas but with a four-day weekend off work, it was the perfect opportunity to take a trip up North and experience the party atmosphere.

Day 1

Saturday the 1st of March saw me tiptoeing through the sleeping streets of Molfetta, trying not to roll my suitcase too loudly. I got the train with Katie to Bari airport and boarded a flight to Venice-Treviso airport, Treviso being the actual city of arrival (sneaky old Ryanair). To be fair to my least favourite airline, they have started allowing you to take an extra little bag on board, jazzed up their website and even (good gosh) allocated seats! Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this last fact until I had tried to get on the plane at the wrong end, and had to burrow back down the stairs through a crowd of sighing passengers.

We boarded a bus that would take us from the Airport to Piazzale Roma in the centre of Venice, and ate a whole bag of Apulian taralli between us, as a consolation for the awful weather lashing against the windows. We couldn’t see anything as we drove onwards, and when we arrived, we had to grab our suitcases and run through a downpour to try and catch the right water taxi to our hostel. We bought a three day ticket, got on the right Vaporetto, thought we had got on the wrong boat, got off and then got back on the right one again. It was cold and people were taking pointless pictures of water, but we kept our spirits up because Venice was still impressive as we pulled up to the Zitelle stop to check into the Generator Hostel.

The Hostel is pretty swish inside, all black and white floors and carefully chosen mismatched furniture. The rooms were also modern and very clean. I would recommend it as a place to stay for a few nights, the only drawback being the slightly unfriendly staff (Izzy would have things to say about our reception). We met up with Charlie and Sophie, dumped our stuff, said an awkward hello to the girls sharing our room, and then trotted back onto the Vaporetto to have a look around the main island.

Even if I had received some odd looks in sunny Bari for wearing wellies, it was entirely justified that day: people were gliding around like fluorescent ghosts in waterproofs and umbrella wars were breaking out in the streets. We wandered in the rain, looking around until we found a weird little lunch place in a backstreet, that sold gnocchi and tigelle, tiny sandwich specialities from Modena. We then tracked down some masks for the Masquerade ball that was being held at the hostel that evening. Bombarded with the choice of colours, glitter and feathers, I eventually chose a black and cream one with gold trim.

Then the weather got worse. So much worse. Suddenly, the vicious weather gods decided we were in for some misery: torrential rain started, whipping us horizontally with freezing water. We hid in a doorway but to no avail. It started hailing so much that it physically hurt your thighs when you walked. We were desperate to get back to the hostel, but it was what Italians would call a ‘casino’, a total and utter confusion of soggy people and water taxis ploughing through rough waves. We struggled to find the right station to get on the boat, split into two groups and finally got onto the crowded Vaporetto bound for the hostel. I looked like a drowned spaniel and wanted the ground to swallow me up and take me to the Bahamas. The weather can really have an impact on your appreciation of a city, and the four of us were not impressed with the situation, at all. However, our mood improved once we had temporarily changed into pyjamas, dried our hair and filled the radiators with sodden coats and socks (wellies only do their job up to a certain point, then it becomes a squelch fest inside them).

We made friends with an American room-mate, and prepared for the ball. Not knowing what to expect from the dress code, Katie and I had had a stressful dash round Bari’s shops the evening before. Luckily we both found some black dresses, which matched the other girls’. In fact, Katie and Charlie had even bought the same one: this can easily be explained by the ubiquity of Zara here in Italy.

Masks on, we took a few photos and went down to experience the revelry of Carnival. The evening was a dark blur of loud classical music, American accents, the freakiest masks I’ve ever seen (including a dragon), prosecco, half-naked dancers, creepy finger puppets and fruit lying around for show. There was next to no actual food, which was very disappointing: the table that was supposed to be “groaning with sweetmeats and delicacies” according to the party’s advert, was actually quite able to support the measly array of cheese chunks, bread and gherkins that we were offered. Seriously. It was soon cleared off because the aforementioned dancers had to do a dance and take even more of their clothes off to reveal gold body paint. One of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a while.

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Day 2

Day 2 started late, and gingerly, as prosecco on an empty stomach does not make for a fun morning after. The weather was improved however: we watched some music and magic acts in Saint Mark’s square under grey skies, went for lunch and then strolled on to the Rialto to look at the bridge. We got to appreciate the views of Venice from the water taxi, as the sun came out to shine on the water. All the walking and crowd jostling can get quite exhausting however, so we headed back to the hostel for a rest before going out for the evening. We all felt like eating a big pizza and then ice cream, so that’s what we did before going back to Piazza San Marco, taking bad pictures and trying to avoid being hit on the head by those glow-in-the-dark things that street sellers push on you. What would possess anyone to buy one, I don’t know. We were glad to get back, because the next day we’d decided to visit Verona: a relatively early start for a Monday morning.

Day 3

Over a muesli breakfast that we probably should have paid for, we had more conversations with American travellers. The Generator seems to attract a lot of people from the US, who take advantage of time in Europe to see loads of cities: we met some au pairs, some free spirits and a snowboarder. We didn’t hang around long, because we had to board a train to get to Verona: a journey that takes an hour and twenty minutes, more or less. It was such a beautiful day of sunshine that I felt rather silly in my wellies, which, apart from heels, were the only shoes I had packed. I almost broke my neck in them about five times, tripping over the pavements in Verona. With this natural clumsiness, all the bodies of water and with Charlie nearly pushing me in a canal, I’m surprised I came back to Molfetta unharmed.

Verona was really lovely, the façades bright and colourful as we went through the arch into the old centre of the city. We had a picture next to our fellow countryman Shakespeare, then wandered towards the Arena, before heading to Juliet’s house. We were feeling very happy with the pretty surroundings and the sun on our faces, and even more so after our stop at the famous balcony by the door covered with coloured padlocks professing people’s love for each other. The walls were also lined with spots of chewing gum, which made quite an interesting effect, but was also pretty disgusting in my opinion. We went to find somewhere to have lunch, singing Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ on the way.

We ate pasta in this dark little restaurant in a side street, very rich but interesting combinations. I had leek, cheese and speck pasta, while Charlie had some pumpkin ravioli with chocolate shavings on it (crazy, a very weird flavour). After eating all this food, what we did next was a terrible idea. We decided to go up the Torre dei Lamberti, the clock tower in the main square of Verona. The choice to face the 386 iron steps instead of taking the lift was something I regretted about a quarter of the way up. At the top though, once we had caught our breath from the climb, it was taken away again by the lovely view over the city and the hills in the distance. Luckily we decided to go down again just before the clock struck four, or else I think our eardrums would have had a shock from the massive bell tolling the hour.

We rounded off the trip with a bit of shopping and, as per usual, got lost next to a main road on the way back to the station. At least the way back was quiet, except for a Venetian man who wanted to practice his English by asking invasive questions, and we spent the evening walking on the island of Giudecca, marveling at how weird Venice is to be floating amidst all that water and watching distant Carnival fireworks from a bridge.

Day 4

On the Tuesday, Charlie and Sophie had an early morning flight, so we said our goodbyes bleary eyed and, for me, still in stripy pyjamas. After breakfast, Katie and I headed out again to fit in some cultural fun before our impending return to the South. I went into the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) alone (Katie had already been the year before) and wandered around taking in the regal atmosphere of the courtyard. I almost injured myself yet again on the Golden Staircase, craning my neck so far back that I almost fell over, and looked through all the rooms of stern looking Doges and artefacts. The residence of the Doge was impressive, but the main institutional chambers were even better, the ceilings so ornate, the floor space so wide and in the huge Senate Chamber, the enormous painting by Tintoretto was really wonderful to see. I then went into the Armouries, which impressed me less because I imagine that the weapons killed people, and then down to the Prisons, an experience which was slightly marred by loud French people making annoying comments up front.

When I got out of the Doge’s Palace, I saw that Piazza San Marco was full of water. For a second, this confused me because it hadn’t rained, but then it dawned on me: ahhh, the famous high tide was upon us. I felt smug again in my wellies: other people had to fork out 10 euros for flimsy unattractive plastic moonboots to continue their Carnival excursion. Katie had been trapped near the Rialto, and couldn’t make it back to where I was without being ankle deep in water. Another problem was, that the water taxis were being altered because of the high tide, so I had one hour to return to the hostel, get the suitcases and meet Katie at the bus stop to go to the airport. I asked three or four different people which line to take, grabbed the cases and finally made it to my destination, with 15 minutes to spare. We returned to Bari without problems, just slight exhaustion, which I tried to keep at bay with espresso and the thought of meeting my family at the airport. That’s right: the very evening of my return from Venice, Mum, Dad, Izzy and my two little dogs were coming to visit, ready for a fun-filled, jam-packed week of seeing where I live. It was raining when we landed in Bari, provoking comments from my family, which I fully expected (“I thought you said it was always sunny”). From there it was back to Molfetta and out for dinner to celebrate my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Katie and I discussed whether we preferred the North or South of Italy when we were waiting for the plane. She said that she liked the North better. For me, Italy is so varied in all its regions and cities and people that I couldn’t say that I prefer one half of the country or another. What I do know is that I was very happy to get back to Puglia, to the coast, to the people I have met here: this part of Southern Italy has made a strong and positive impression on me.

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Author: Elly Cooke

Recent graduate of English Literature and Italian from the University of Leeds. Book lover and part-time Italian speaker.

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