The Lunatic's Ball

23rd February 2019

A bucket list or a list of things you would like to do before you "kick the bucket" is something we all should have, and if you're fortunate, you will get to do one or two of them in your lifetime.  Attending a masquerade ball during the carnivale in Venice was high on our list and we were about to tick that one off.

It was 3:00am ... and I was wide awake waiting for our alarm. I was just a tad excited.

I let Julie sleep it a little longer, until the agreed time. When I got back from keeping our overnight bag in the car she was already awake, equally excited of course but her enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by her crippling anxiety. Flying doesn't get any easier for her.

We were staying at the Hampton Hotel because it was literally directly opposite the terminal at Liverpool.  Breakfast was included in our room rate but we decided not to enjoy their hospitality.  In the past when we've considered eating there all they had to cook with was a microwave. Perhaps they've improved since but we couldn't imagine their breakfast being up to any great standard. We would still stay here again, being a two minute walk to the terminal is unbeatable.

At the Easy Jet check-in desk a cheeky chappy went through the formatlities.  "How could anyone be that cheerful at this time in the morning?"  we wondered. Although the guy collecting for the Sunflower Charity wasn't so chirpy, despite our generous donation.

At the security checks , I practically got undressed to walk through the metal detectors. Shoes off, hoodie off, belt off, pockets emptied,  we made it through without any further questions.

Our first port of call was breakfast, which came in the shape of two glasses of prosecco. A trip to Venice simply had to start with the Veneto region's most famous tipple, regardless of the early hour.  It was followed with some food, a little toast and porridge.

Time flew past so quickly. By the time we had finished breakfast, bought our customary champagne and tolberone and had another glass of prosecco it was time for us to go to the gate. Despite already knowing it was gate 7, (cheeky check-in Charlie had already told us) for the first time ever we heard the "last call" annoucement. We had somehow missed the first call and ended up being one of the last to board the plane.

It got a bit stressful getting everything that we needed for the flight, iPad, ear plugs, diazepam, wallet, all from the depths of our hand luggage.  I even dropped the foam ear plugs and lost them beneath the seats somewhere.

After several fruitless attempts at finding them we finally sat in our seats and buckled up. We took off right on the scheduled 6:25am. Julie was quite unsettled, quite agitated and at one point she reached out for the sick bag. She was teetering on the edge of a full blown meltdown.

Fortunately, the longer the flight went on the calmer she became.

By the time we had reached the majestic peaks of the Alps she was marvelling at the glorious view. We reminisced about our two Alpine trips to Grindelwald and Zermatt and how much we really enjoyed them. "We must plan a return trip" said Julie who was now positively blaze about being 36,000 feet up.

Self-medicating helped as we topped up the Dutch courage with more prosecco which we made into a bucks fizz with some cheap orange juice.

Just over two hours after leaving Liverpool the Venice lagoon came into view. From this lofty height the city looked surprisingly compact, just like a pop-up map, where we could see the entire city.

Moments later we were coming in to land at the Marco Polo airport. It was a smooth and trouble-free touchdown which really pleased Julie.

At passport control we joined the EU queue possibly for the last time (the UK were due to leave the European Union on the 31st March 2019).  

Instead of rushing out of the airport we had agreed before hand to take our time, sit down, have a coffee, and let the rush of people go on ahead. We'd follow later, in our own time.

It was a great idea. The coffee at the Torrefazione Cannaregio cafe was good but their Fritella, a local doughnut, was amazing. We shared one, and despite it being filled with chocolate Julie really enjoyed it. They had three choices plain, custard or chocolate so I went back for the other two varieties and they were even nicer!

Riding our sugar rush wave we walked the short distance to the airport's harbour where the water taxis waited. The cheapest option to reach Venice would have been by bus, driving over the bridge that connects the island to the mainland but there's only one way to do it properly and that's on water.

We made a b-line for Line B, the route that would take us to Ospidale, the nearest stop to our hotel.

We had 25 minutes to wait so we joined the queue and at 11am precisely we left, chugging slowly at first  before accelerating at full steam ahead to Murano, the small island famed the world over for its glass work. A few got off, and a few got on,  we then sailed directly to Venice passing along the way the macarbe cemetary island of San Michele.

The windows were filthy dirty and we couldn't see a thing out of them which was disappointing.

The first stop in Venice proper was  Fondamente Nove, abbreviated to  F.te Nove. We could have got off here and walked along the esplanade that skirts along the back, outside the city walls but it made more sense to get off at the next stop, Ospidale. The name refers to Ospidale SS Giovani e Paolo, Venice's main hospital.

We got off here, as the boat continued its journey around to St. Mark's Square. It was only a short walk to the end of the esplanade where we had to take the alleyway into the city. It felt like we were sneaking into Venice through the back door.

With google maps to hand we followed the cobbled Calle Cappuccine Castello to a small square from which we exited to the left crossing a bridge over a canal. In front of us was the impressive facade of the Liceo Scientifico Benedetti, a renowned Venetian high school housed in the former convent of San Guista.

We were in a district known as Castello, and in one Venice's least visited corners,  but even here there were still some fascinating places to see.

Over another bridge, and down another alleyway we then turned left onto a street called Salizada San Guista. Our hotel was here somewhere. 

At no. 2926 we came to some imposing doors above which was a carved angel, of sorts. It was a very rotund balding angel holding a scroll whose wings were hardly noticeable.

This was the grand entrance to Palazzo Contarini della Porta di Ferro, a bonafide Venetian palace and our home for the next few days.

We rang the bell and the doors buzzed as they unlocked. At first the entrance was dark but as we walked further inside it opened out into an inner courtyard complete with its own water cistern just off centre.

To the right there was a beautiful stone staircase, which at first glance appeared to be an original feature from the 14th century. Whether it was or not didn't matter. It set the scene perfectly. 

We walked inside the palazzo, into a large reception hall yet despite what its name suggested the hotel's actual reception desk wasn't to be found. Instead we had to lug our luggage up to the first floor.

It was about 1pm, so too early to check into our room. We left our luggage at the hotel and headed back out into the streets and alleyways.

Within minutes we stumbled across this flamboyantly dressed masked man walking through the empty streets of Castello. His headress was explosion of ostrich feathers and sparkling gems set into a extravagant golden crown. He wore an emerald green suit with gold embroidery and a long cape to match.

Looking closer, whoever they were had even gone to the effort of wearing coloured lenses to transform their eyes into green. The carnival did have a "best dressed" competition and this guy was surely going for it! Although if I were judging, it was a bit more Rio Carnival than Venice.

Today was an important day in the carnival calendar, known as Festa della Marie, it was a "procession of maidens" from the Arsenal to Piazza San Marco and it officially opened the carnival.

Our plan was to walk towards to the furthest point away from the crowds, if that was at all possible.

We worked our way down to the waterfront with surprising ease, emerging onto the Riva degli Schiavoni from the alleyway between Hotel Metropole and the scaffolded Church of the Pieta.

We should then have turned right but I couldn't resist but to turn towards the crowds to catch a glimpse of the heart of Venice, St. Mark's square with its incredible belltower and the beautiful Doge's Palace.

It was certainly busy, filled with so many people wearing masks. Some had gone the whole hog, hiring the full costume whilst most regular tourists had simply donned a cheap mask they had just bought from one of the many stalls along the waterfront.

This one guy had this amazing beaked mask, a very traditional Venetian mask known as the Medico della Peste or the Plague Doctor's mask. I have to admit to having a little mask envy.

We turned around and walked away from the centre, making our way down the Riva degli Schiavoni to where it splits, into the wide boulevard of Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. You couldn't help but think that it was the most un-venetian of streets and that it should have been a canal.

It was a lovely crisp winter's day, with clear blue skies but it was cold, and even colder still if you stepped into the shade. My poor fingers were suffering from hyperthermia. I always struggle to keep my fingers warm. It must be poor circulation or something but I always feel like they're going to drop off.

We looked for a cafe to sit outside and wait for the Festa della Marie procession to march past but all those in the sun were full, and those which were empty were in the shade.  So we kept on walking.

Along the way we came across this wonderful scene down a side street decorated with garlands of laundry. There's something very Italian about hanging out laundry. 

It didn't take us long to reach the end of Via Guiseppe Garibaldi, to the point where the street had narrowed and a canal began (Rio de Sant' Ana). We sat at a table overlooking the water (and more importanty in the sun) and were soon approached by a waiter from whichever bar it belonged.

We ordered a few drinks. Common sense should have made us order a hot drink but Julie had a wine and I went for an Aperol Spritz, very popular around these parts.

Time passed with nothing to look at other than this barge flled with empty wooden crates which would be transformed into a colourful fruit and veg stall when open.

And still we waited.

We even moved tables, as we had slipped into the shade, leaving Bar de Valentino and crossing into Bar Pasticceria Baldo Emilio.

Finally we heard the sound of drums heralding their arrival. The route from the Church of San Pietro di Castello was along this narrow canalside path so they all shuffled along making very slow progress. We were sat in the perfect spot to see them all.

The procession was led by who I assumed was his serenity the Doge, the chief magistrate of the Venetian Republic but he had the wrong shaped hat. Whilst of course they were just re-enactors in fancy dress costumes, (he wasn't really a Venetian political leader), I'm sure they would be keen on historical accuracy and know more than Wikipedia, so his hat was probably correct. 

The origin of this celebration begins in the 10th century. It was customary at the time for the church to celebrate the sanctity of marriage every year on the 2nd February by offering a blessing and loan precious jewellry to a dozen brides in return for a donation which they ceremonially presented to the church in ornate wooden boxes.

In 946 marauding Dalmatian pirates attacked the church of San Pietro di Castello during the ceremony, stole the donation boxes and kidnapped the brides.

The Doge Pietro Candiano III lead a rescue mission to chase the pirates down. They caught up with them at Caorle, some 30 miles up the coast where they defeated the bandits. It was a cause for great celebration when they safely returned to Venice with the twelve brides.

It must have been one hell of a party as they decided to celebrate its anniversary every year. They recreated the truimphant procession, choosing twelve fair maidens from aristocratic families, two from each of the six districts Venice. And so the Feste della Marie was born.

Today the twelve would be carried (when possible) on sedan chairs to St. Mark's Square where they are presented to the crowd and like a glorified beauty pageant one amongst them is crowned the Maria of 2019.

The winner then returns the following year to take part in the "Flight of the Angel" where she must climb the belltower in St. Mark's square and jump off , flying down to the ground along a zip wire.

The pomp and pageantry was marvellous but before the procession could properly start they all needed to get beyond this bottleneck and onto the wide Via Garibaldi. There must have been hundreds of participants, medieval marauders and troubadors, some dressed fine and dandy  full of ruffles and feathers whilst others were representing the dowdier end of Venetian society.

We decided to move, and follow the procession along its journey. Chasing the pack down Garibaldi was straightforward and by the time we were on Riva degli Schiavoni we had reached the front of the procession.

Here, they carried painted cut-out figures of the twelve maidens which was also a traditional feature. Back in the day the festival of the Marie would last for eight days, so to spare the ladies from having to be ever present they used cut-out figures in their place. 

The crowds had now gathered in great numbers, but we were determined to follow them. At one point we became part of the procession, moving forward amidst the re-enactors.  

Eventually we decided to give up the chase and watched them disappear out of sight over the next bridge. Julie sat outside Hotel Danieli whilst I stood and photographed the rest of the procession as they passed in front.

Some of them looked really cool as if they were straight off the set of Games of Thrones. I often wondered what kind of person enjoys taking part in re-enactments but for the first time I recognised a part of me which would find it fun. 

I'm not too sure if I could be bothered to be involved in re-enacting the Battle of Bosworth but dressing up like a 15th century pirate looked like a blast.

When the last of the Feste della Marie procession had past it was time for us to check-in to our room. We made our way towards the alleyway between the Hotel Metropole and the scaffolded church but that was easier said than done. The Riva degli Schiavoni was filled to bursting point with thousands of  revellers. No wonder Venice is sinking!

Once we had reached the side street it was surprisingly easy to find our way back.

Not far from our hotel, on a street known as the street of cats (salizada de la gatte) we popped inside a small cafe Ai Do Gati. There was no one else inside. It was just about closing for the afternoon. We were however warmly welcomed in by the lady behind the counter.

We browsed their selection of paninis but there was nothing meat-free available. "mozzarella e pomodoro?"  I asked in hope. "Si, si, si" she replied and set about making a fresh sandwich for me, before slapping it between two hot plates for a delicious warm snack. 

With our hunger satisfied we returned to the hotel and checked-in.

The receptionist showed us to our room (401). It was plenty spacious and wonderfully unfussy. It had a low beamed ceiling which could have been an issue if I were a few inches taller or wearing a hat but otherwise it gave it a cosy feel. It was also nice and warm which was very welcomed.

We even had a canal view from our window which was an added bonus even if you had to stand at the window and look down to see the aquamarine waters. 

It was time for a siesta so we drew the curtains and closed the windows, to shut out the traffic noise (it wasn't a busy canal just that every now and again a noisy diesel engine boat chugged its way past).

We emerged several hours later hungry, ready for supper.

As we headed out for the evening we caught a glimpse of the hotel's main dining room. It had been decorated as if they were holding a wedding reception. Everything was white, bathed in a blue almost ultra-violet light.   Eventually the penny dropped that it was of course in preperation for a ball.

Guests were already gathering in the reception hall downstairs. There were some amazing costmues and wigs on display. 

Instead of leaving we stood and waited for a while and watched all the guests file past. The whole pomp and ceremony was exciting to witness.

Some of the costumes were incredible. It made me a little worried that we were going to be somewhat under dressed for our ball tomorrow evening. I was just going to turn up in black tie, none of that Louis XIV regalia.

Once all of the guests had made their way inside we left Palazzo Contarini and walked the short distance to a restaurant called Da Jonny. We hadn't made a reservation. We thought that with it being out ot the tourist centre it wouldn't be busy. Well, we were wrong. The place was packed!

Fortunately they squeezed us in, literally, into a small table for two by the window.

We began with a bread basket which was far more interesting than it sounded. We had a delicious cornbread,  homemade chunky grissini (breadsticks) and a black bread roll, which imagine could only have been coloured with charcoal!

I decided to have an antipasto. It was described as bruschetta di cardi e fromaggio. I had to google what cardi meant and it told me it was "thistles". I was expecting a plate of purple flowers or at least something like artichokes (which I knew was called carciofi but is related to the thistle) but it turned out to be very similar to leeks. 

For my primo piatto I went for the lighter option of a salad, although there was plenty of lovely scamorza (smoked mozzarella) cheese in the dish.

Ultimately however I found both dishes a little underwhelming. The leek-like-thistles needed more gusto, and equally the radicchio, pear and walnut would have benefited from a dressing just to season and bring the dish together.

Julie on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed her dish of monkfish wrapped in proscuitto which was cooked to perfection and delicious.

The meal was rounded off as it so often does in an Italian restaurant with me eating a tiramisu. This one was amazing!  Not too much chocolate, or coffee soaked sponge but plenty of the sweetened mascarpone. We paid our compliments to the chef and paid the bill.

Walking back to the hotel, down the street of cats, we stopped at a small bar which had a live band in the window.

They were quite entertaining. Whilst the locals danced away we sang along to familiar songs like Come Together by The Beatles.

 It was a fun end to a very long day!

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