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Carnevale di Viareggio: A Local's Guide

Italy's most famous and exuberant carnival celebrations through a local's eyes.

Carnevale di Viareggio: A Local's Guide

I was born in Viareggio and have been living here for my whole life. As a discrete lady, I will not disclose my age...but I can affirm I have credit to write about the Carnevale di Viareggio, not only as local but also as an affectionate fan of this magical and ephemeral event.

Viareggio's Legendary Floats

We might certainly refer to it as an historical event that dates back to the 19th century, when Viareggio was a small fishing village and summer resort for the Tuscan upper class. The wood and sail masters used their spare time in winter to build paper mache masks set up on wood frames and modelled with clay. Floats would stroll around the main streets and beach front followed by crowds of children and adults throwing confetti before Lent period started.

The Viareggio promenade, running over 3 miles along the coastline, is a refined sidewalk lined up with art déco boutiques and cafes where floats have been parading through for 150 years, scratching the top of roofs. Today, in fact, we cannot talk about the Viareggio Carnival without mentioning the gigantic floats that invade the streets with their enormous shapes and a multitude of frolicking performers on foot. This is probably the main difference with any other carnival parade around the world: here music, disguises, and choreography are outclassed by the extraordinary work of engineering, design, and art by float makers.

They are neither artists nor engineers, but ace builders with a crosscut skills in design, art, modelling, mechanics, welding, choreography, and scenography. They have not studied in order to become float builders, but entered the carnival world when they were young and begun to put their hands on paper mache from scratch.

Floats are created with the help of many volunteers who support builders in manual labor such as spreading glue on newspaper, sticking paper bits on plasterworks, and so on. After paying their dues for years, they will be given the chance to build a single mask, which will be judged during the parade. The next step will be winning group masks in the second category of the floats podium, until they can compete as first category float makers. Each step implies a growth in skills, manpower, and budget. Each builder presents a draft each year to a special commission according to a budget, which rises depending on the category. First category floats cost more than €150,000!

Hidden Messages in Paper Mache

It's not intuitive for visitors to grasp the metaphor of a float at first sight, although characters are usually easy to recognize from the world of politics, show business, music, entertainment, and even nature. My friends from outside Viareggio usually ask me what each float is about, because each tiny detail represents a wider concept.

Last year, the Cinquini Bros, some of the best 1st category builders, presented a float entitled "Revolution is love", which was dominated by a huge portrait of John Lennon hiding behind his hands and wrapped up in black cloths. A sudden music change unveiled a huge crowd - almost 300 performers - dressed up as Nutcrackers' soldiers throwing confetti and flowers from a big cannon. The significance upon first glance was a tribute to the legendary singer and his song "Imagine", but the hidden meaning drove attention to a disease of our society which puts business, appearance, and power into the foreground, forgetting about love, which is able to drive real changes in the world. We are all soldiers controlled by the power of guns, but we can change our lives and make them happier simply using the power of love.

Political satire can be even sharper, addressing scandals, gossip, or news stories. You might recall of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, that inspired a big mask of the American President smoking a big cigar. This is also the reason why many floats have been subject to censure in the last 50 years.

At the entrance of the Carnival parade a leaflet is usually distributed, containing a description of each float as the builders presented it to the Evaluation Committee. Unfortunately, there are no English translations, which means you might have to to hire a guide or simply call on an Italian friend to help you better understand the sharp logic of these eclectic artists.

Costumes and Music

Another chapter of Carnevale as an insider belongs to disguises and music. As far as the first one is concerned, every year there is a new fashion in costumes, although everyone frees up their creativity according to their preferences. People start at Christmas time to cut and sew their dresses to be ready in time for the first parade at the end of January. When I was a teen, we used to create tailored made fake fur costumes to hinder the winter cold; today we use modern laminated or fluorescent textiles, gorgeous make-up, and technological fabrics to avoid wearing too much underneath.

The Carnevale in Viareggio cannot be appreciated without wearing a mask. It is like being inside the crowd but not with it. People are friendly and talkative, all willing to hug you, dance with you and offer you drinks...it's a real blast, but you need to be ready for it and do not get uneasy if somebody grabs your hand and pulls you around dancing and singing.

There are many traditional carnival songs that all people know word by word and we do not expect you to understand our slang, but you will soon get familiar with their rhythm and boogie. So, if you see a multitude of people crouched down, hands twirling above their heads, simply kneel down and wait for the sign to stand up and dance!

Carnevale by Night

Before you finish reading and you believe Carnevale di Viareggio is only about the parade, I recommend attending a night street festival, or Rioni. The first half of the evening is about food and here you might have the chance to taste some delicious local recipes for thrifty prices: seafood at the Rione Darsena or tordelli fresh pasta at Rione Marco Polo . After 11 pm, they turn into frenzied parties for teens and adults of any age, where alcohol flows copiously and music bands plays no stop.

Now, you might be a bit scared of attending the Carnevale or crazy for it. Either way, Carnevale di Viareggio is not simply a colorful parade, but a mood for many local people who are fully devoted to it for one entire month, showing off on floats, parading, attending night parties and local folklore events.

Are you ready to be a Carnevalaro, i.e. Viareggio Carnival fan?

Here some useful tips:

Program and information: Fondazione Carnevale
Cittadella del Carnevale: Citadel of Carnival, where floats are built. Entrance is free, take a stroll around or hire a guide to visit hangars and meet the builders.
Workshops and souvenirs: Botteghe della Cartapesta
Food: you can eat your way along the parade's circuit at several fast-food stands. Stop at Misericordia for pizza and look for fried doughnuts, the "bomboloni", for dessert. I recommend eating inside the circuit before the parade starts, so that you do not need to wait in line or find your way through the crowd. Some beach resorts are open and in case of sunny weather are a perfect solution for getting the first warm rays while eating some spaghetti allo scoglio, check at Bagno Nettuno. I use to book at Perla del Tirreno and have gelato at Anisare, next to the Royal hotel. Outside the circuit, you might check in at Adone for some tasty sandwiches.
Tickets: they are available at the ticket booths at the entrance of the circuit. Adults pay 18€ and children up to 7 are free.
Rent a costume: there is only one shop which rents costumes, Bazaar. A costume costs 200€ per day on average.

Photo credits: Alberto Macaluso

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