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Viareggio Carnevale


Feb 22, 2015

Viareggio, Italy
Viareggio comes alive when thousands of costumed revelers parade elaborately decorated floats and huge, towering characters past a million spectators.


Since 1873, people have flocked to the Tuscan coastal city of Viareggio to party during Carnevale , the one-month period before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It's a long tradition that has grown over the years, making Viareggio the lively, fun-loving venue of one of Europe's most famous and largest Mardi Gras-style festivals. In Italy, it's second to Venice as the most popular Carnival in the country. Millions of Italians tune in to watchCarnevale's Fat Tuesday parade, which is broadcast live on national TV each year.

A triple cannon shot from the sea announces the start of each Carnevale parade, and lavish floats topped with huge papier-mâché figures, some reaching four stories high, begin their slow move along the Lungomare promenade.

Viareggio, the main city along the Tuscan coast known as Versilia, is a resort town with a dual identity. On the southern side of the Burlamacca Canal that crosses Viareggio, there's an industrial port where the uber-rich build and fit their luxury yachts. On the northern side of the canal lies the elegant resort stretching along miles of wide, sandy beaches beloved by generations of Italians. In the summer, families bask in the sun on neat rows of lounge chairs, returning as they have for years to their favorite beach clubs.

Viareggio's broad seaside promenade is lined with grand buildings designed in what Italians call Liberty-style architecture that is similar to Art Deco, alongside fashionable boutiques, bars, nightclubs and seafood restaurants. Just a few blocks inland are acres of park-like pine forest la pineta where lovers stroll, children play and bicyclists and joggers get their exercise under the shady canopy of trees. Among Viareggio's frequent vacationers over the decades were the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and opera composer Puccini, who lived nearby.

A Seaside Resort Transforms

When Carnevale time rolls around each year in February and March, the elegant town is transformed with a riot of color, music, and creative energy.  Viareggio's businesses and residents hang banners and flags with red-and-white clown-like figure, Burlamacco, a smiling Commedia del'Arte character created in 1930 that is Viareggio's Carnival mascot.

A triple cannon shot from the sea announces the start of each Carnevale parade, and lavish floats topped with huge papier-mâché figures, some reaching four stories high, begin their slow move along the Lungomarepromenade. About a million people each year visit Viareggio for month-long Carnevale, taking in a variety of concerts, sports and cultural events, but mostly flocking to watch the awe-inspiring procession of elaborate floats accompanied by hundreds of costumed and masked revelers, dancing to music. 

Televised Parades and Complex Puppetry

Of Carnevale's five parades that take place each year, three are held on Sunday afternoons leading up to Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), when the fourth is scheduled – and televised live on national TV. The finale, on the Sunday following Fat Tuesday, takes place in the evening, when the floats are lighted and the winners of the prizes for best floats are announced. The entire event is capped in grand style by a spectacular fireworks show.

The floats and huge figures are designed locally by teams of artisans, some of whom learned the art from their fathers and grandfathers. The towering characters are funny, whimsical, allegorical, mythological or often satirical takes on political, show business and historical figures.  Not only are the figures stunning in their visual artistry but, underneath the animated surfaces, they are run by sophisticated machinery that moves limbs and facial features by complex mechanisms. Some liken watching the Carnevale parades to attending exhibits of moving art.

Visitors can get in on all-night revelry at veglioni, masquerade parties at Viareggio's many discos and nightclubs. During the day, tour the festival's workshops at Cittadella del Carnevale , the vast hangar-like complex where 25 teams of papier-mache craftsmen create and build the magical figures. Inside is the Carnevale museum where a variety of Carnevale-related souvenirs are for sale and an array of exhibits showcase the artistry of the masks and floats that have wowed spectators over the years.