The Viareggio Carnival has become, since its humble beginnings in 1873, one of Italy’s most popular and famous festivals. This otherwise charmingly modest Tuscan seaside resort – known to generations of schoolchildren as the beach where Shelley’s funeral pyre was placed – for just a few weeks before Easter each year, attracts over a million visitors to its streets.
The origins of the Viareggio Carnival crosses interesting class boundaries. A group of wealthy, middle class businessmen decided to organise a town parade of floats decorated with flowers, going up and down the streets. As a protest against high taxes, a large group of working class people attended the parade wearing masks and mocking several of the town’s authority figures. From these opposite positions, the Viareggio Carnival developed.
The main defining characteristic of the parades that are held now are the truly enormous allegorical papier-mâché figures depicted on the floats of the procession. These mammoth works of art – the largest can weigh an unbelievable 40 tons – satirise leading political and public figures or sporting and pop personalities – and come complete with moving arms, opening mouths and rolling eyes. Amazingly, though, each figure will have inside it, like some modern Trojan Horse, up to a dozen people who have to work complicated systems of weights and counter-weights that keep the contraption upright. In addition, there will be as many as 200 other people on each float, all costumed out and firing off ‘missiles’ into the crowd. These phenomenal creations make their slow but spectacular way along the seafront, where the proceedings come to an end with lots of food, drink and fireworks.
It takes the whole of the year to prepare the floats – they’re built in gigantic barn-like structures near the beach – and the people of Viareggio certainly get good value for their time spent constructing them with five processions in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Of course, carnival time in Viareggio is also a period of parties, street theatre, shows and general merriment. There are usually a number of concerts held during the period and the town’s bars and discos make sure that the true carnival spirit is always in full flow. A word of warning to the unsuspecting tourist, though; carnival time is a time to play practical jokes on the unwary, so stay on your guard.
Viareggio is one of Tuscany’s favourite beach resorts. With wide, sandy beaches, good shopping and excellent cafés, restaurants and discos, it’s a really family-friendly seaside town. There is even a museum in the town dedicated to the carnival’s history. Add to that the fact that it’s only 20 kilometres from Pisa and the walled city of Lucca and only an hour’s drive from Florence and you can see why many people love to come here.
It’s also an easily accessible place to visit. If you want to drive down then Viareggio is just off the A12 Autostrada, which travels along the coast from France. The town is also on the main train line between Rome and Genoa. Additionally, Pisa Galileo Galilei airport is only a 30 minute drive away which is served by a variety of airlines from all over Europe. Once you’ve arrived, there’s a wide range of hotels to select your accommodation from.
There can’t be many better family festivals than the Viareggio Carnival. A chance to get on the beach in February; great Italian food and drink; open-season for the kids to play practical jokes; and some truly unforgettable carnival caricatures. You can search for further information on the official carnival website.