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Posted by Julie

Ah, Venice: the epitome of charm and romance – alongside Paris, of course. Venice has been made up to be this fantastic, magical place in everything that I’ve seen and read, so I’ve imagined this mystical aura over the town and had fantasies about the stone lions roaring to life from atop their towers at the stroke of midnight.

Forgive me, maybe this sounds childish – and even if it does, what is so wrong with a little whimsy? But since I was little and stayed up late reading The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke with a flashlight after my parents tucked me in (sorry, Mom and Dad), I’ve dreamed of Venice, but this weekend I actually got to go. Not only did I get to go, but I got to go during Carnivale. (Be still, my heart.)

On the train down, the story was running through my head. Scipio and a black mask with the long, birdlike nose and the gold and silver spoons and the anonymous antagonist on his boat were all images swirling inside my head in a jumbled mess, as it’s been several years since I’ve reread the tale. I had a lot of time to sort it out and think through it, though, as it took a grand total of 18 hours to reach Venezia by train; there were so many stops and layovers in cold stations. Each time we changed trains, the number of people traveling from GTL dwindled until it was just us at a station to whittle away an hour and half before the rest of our journey.

Arriving in Venice was craziness with a pinch of revelry: tracking everyone down from their different trains, organizing for our walk to the AirBnB through the masses of people, and clamoring over the colorful masks at every street stall. Despite the walls of feathered, beaded, and bejeweled masks, there were few other indications that Carnivale was in full swing. There was some confetti here and there, and an occasional Renaissance noble strolling the street, but otherwise everything was calm – normal, even – until Saturday, when those who had costumes arrived at the famous Saint Mark’s Square for photoshoots and revelry. The colorful costumes, strange movements, and immovable visages captured everyone’s attention and imagination.

Venice, not surprisingly, looks exactly like the pictures; however, these visual representations capture the appearance, but not the character. It can’t capture the feeling of traversing a maze of buildings with Google Maps only to be lead to a dead end at a waterway, the sound of fisherman conversing while throwing the catch of the day to their friend on the boardwalk, the calm aura created by the halo of early morning light and quiet in residential areas, the easy rock of the gondola as the cloudy teal waters of the Grand Canal rush up and slap the sides, or the clink of jewelry and snap of professional cameras with each dainty, calculated motion of the masked and costumed in Saint Mark’s Square.

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A white figure in the crowd at Saint Mark’s Square.

One can only wonder who these characters are – do they lead regular lives in Venice just to don wigs and twirl into the spotlight during the traditional festival? Venetians themselves are hard to find, though; few live on the island anymore with the increasing tourism and rent pushing them off the island that they have known and loved. According to Franco, the sixth-generation gondolier who toured the city by waterfront with us, many have left for cheaper waters. He himself, born in southern Venice, now lives a bus ride away because of the outrageous housing costs. Most of the city has become hotels or other dedications to the 26 million people that visit annually, so I was worried that the magic was just funded by capitalism.

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A quiet residential Venetian street – complete with clothes on the line.

Despite the vast amounts of money to spend and make, there is a true magic to the city – but it’s not just in the buildings. The vibrancy comes from the environment and culture and traditions. You can see it in the early mornings when the river glows in the soft light and where you can see old friends catch up with the owner of the small café on the corner over an expresso at a table outside. I saw it in the way that Franco looked as he spoke about his home away from home.

So yes, although I didn’t get to see the stone lions fly from their cultural pedestals at midnight, I am happy to report that Venezia is very much magical, and at the very least, navigating their streets is mystical. All is right with the world.