Carnevale in Italy brings a burst of color to the dark, cold months of winter.   

A huge final celebration to eat, drink and be merry before the restrictions and solemnity of Lent, the festivities in Italy aren’t reserved just to Mardi Gras.

Starting about a month before Ash Wednesday, revelers in Italy celebrate for multiple weekends with sweeping parades, elaborate masks and plenty of brightly colored confetti. You can find traditional Carnival sweets in the bakeries and plenty of tricks and mischief. After all, a Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale! That is, anything goes during Carnival. 

Carnevale in Italy  

A Carnival parade in Putignano, Puglia. Photo by Salvatore Capotorto from Pixabay

If the celebrations seem a little over-the-top, consider that the roots of this festival can be traced to Ancient Greece and Rome in celebrations that honored the god Bacchus (of wine) and Saturn. Some say they go even further back to primitive celebrations of the end of winter and beginning of spring.  

Though its history is pagan, the festival was so widely celebrated and the tradition so strong that it was quickly adapted to fit into the Catholic rituals. During the 40 days of Lent, parties were forbidden and meat, sugar and fats were off-limits. Carnival fit in perfectly as a last hurrah and a way to finish all the stores of rich food and drink before Lent.  

After weeks of mischief and parties, expect a more pious and solemn atmosphere in Italy during the weeks of Lent. Easter in Italy is as strongly felt and celebrated as Christmas.  

Officially, Carnevale is held on Fat Tuesday – in 2020 that is on February 25 – but of course the weekend before sees celebrations just as big or even bigger! Future Carnival dates are February 16, 2021; March 1, 2022; and February 21, 2023.   

Where to Celebrate Carnevale in Italy  

Though everyone knows of the masks and parades of Venice, every town in Italy, even the smallest, has its own Carnevale parade. Small towns will have day care centers and school children march in the street or ride atop team-made floats and school bands play. Bigger cities will bring together floats, bands, dance troupes and group costumes for the parades.  

There are some cities, however, that regularly outdo themselves. Here are some of the biggest, most famous Carnival celebrations in all of Italy:  

Venice, Veneto 

Photo by Serge WOLFGANG from Pixabay

Full of mystery, mischief and intrigue, the Carnival of Venice is undoubtedly one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the entire world.  

Though the start of Venice’s Carnival is disputed, most attribute it to 1296, with an official document from the Senate of Venice declaring a public celebration on the day before Lent. Created as an allowance for citizens for some fun and revelry, the mask fit in perfectly, allowing citizens to celebrate independently of social class or religion.  

Carnival masks remained a fixture through the Renaissance, and masked comedy troupes would perform in the piazzas of Venice in the 16th century. These same masks and bacchanalia were banned by the Austrians in the 18th century and again by Mussolini in the 1930s.  

After many years, the holiday returned in 1979 in a celebration of the history and culture of Venice. 

The 2020 Venice Carnival will begin on Saturday, February 8 and end on Tuesday, February 25. Visitors can view events like the water parade, mask competitions or the infamous flight of the angel, or simply stroll the UNESCO World Heritage city and to see the elaborate and unique costumes.  

Today roughly 3 million people travel to Venice to participate in the infamous festa Veneziana, making it the most important event of the city and the biggest carnival celebration in Italy.    

Viareggio, Tuscany 

Another one of the most important Carnival celebrations in Italy is in Viareggio, on the coast of Tuscany. Started in the late 1800s by the rich bourgeois class who wanted to freely express their discontent of the high taxes, today the attitude continues with massive papier mâché floats satirizing big political and cultural names.  

The celebration is most known for these elaborate and impressive floats, made with extraordinary detail and engineering. The tradition is so important, that float-makers begin their work an entire year before Carnival!  

Besides the allegorical floats, the entire Carnival of Viareggio is followed by all night musical dances in the streets. This tradition started in the 1920s as “colored all-night dances” or veglioni coloratiwhere women dressed in specific colors and even the jewelry, confetti and decorations had to match. That plus the city’s Art Deco architecture make for the perfect scenography. 

The Carnevale di Viareggio takes place on Fat Tuesday, as well as the four Sundays preceding it. The final parade is followed by a huge fireworks show. Though admission is charged to view the parade, there are festivals, cultural events, concerts and masked balls for free throughout the season. 

Acireale, Sicily  

Photo by Carnaval.com Studios (flickr)

Repeatedly described as one of Italy’s most beautiful Carnivals, this is likely thanks to the intricate floats decorated with fresh flowers, adding beauty and perfume to the streets of Acireale.  

Allegorical papier mâché floats parade down the Baroque streets of Acireale during the Carnival season, but the surprise is in the flower floats.  Dating back to the 16th-century, revelers once celebrated Carnival in Acireale by throwing rotten eggs and lemons, but when those games were officially banned, they were replaced by a much more cultured character: Folk poets, known as abbatazzi, who improvised verses on the streets of the city.  

Today, both the floats and poets can still be found and the Carnival of Acireale is widely entitled the “best Carnival in Sicily.” It is so popular, in fact, that the entire thing is reproduced in the balmy summer air of August. 

Ivrea, Piedmont 

The Carnival of Ivrea is likely the most unique Carnival celebration in Italy. Every year Ivrea, a tiny city near Turin in Piedmont, hosts its famous Battaglia delle Arancie (Battle of the Oranges) in the final days of the Carnival season.  

The battle symbolizes an event in 1194 when the people of Ivrea rebelled against the Royal Napoleonic Troops. It is said that the miller’s daughter, “la Mugnaia,” slayed the hated tyrant who ruled the city after he tried to take her, kicking off a rebellion that ultimately won the townsfolk a bit more freedom.  

Today, la Mugnaia is always represented by a local beauty, and the event is remembered with an enormous orange battle between helmeted “soldiers” in carriages and unprotected “townspeople” representing different districts on the ground. Those that don’t want to participate wear the traditional berretto rosso, red hats, to be excluded from the battle and can stay protected behind massive nets.  

Putignano, Puglia 

The region of Puglia in Italy’s heel likely has the most Carnival celebrations of any region, but the most famous is in Putignano.  

Located in the beautiful Itria Valley, home of trulli houses and interesting karst caves, the ancient town of Putignano is home to the longest Carnival celebration in all of Italy. Every year it starts on Santo Stefano, December 26th, with the Festa delle Propaggini, in which poets recite in local dialect, and ends on Fat Tuesday with a parade and the “funeral” of Carnival, represented as a pig.  

Not only is it the longest Carnival celebration, but it is one of the oldest in all of Europe. Putignano’s Carnival dates as far back as 1394, when relics of St. Stephens were transferred inland to Putignano for protection against invaders. The move was so celebrated that peasants left the vineyards to follow the procession, exploding into song and dance upon arrival, as well as improvised lyrics and poems, satirizing against politicians and news, habits and current events in the local dialect. 

After December 26, this long Carnival is celebrated every Thursday, but it’s not until the feast day of St. Anthony the Abate, January 17, that Carnival really takes off with parties, feasts, pageants, and parades. From then until Fat Tuesday, every day is Carnival!   

Fano, Le Marche 

Photo from @ilcarnevaledifano

It’s not confetti or tinsel or ribbons thrown about during Fano’s Carnival, but sweets. With the “getto” or throw, the masked floats toss hundreds of pounds of sweets, candies and chocolates to the crowds below. (The crowds come prepared with paper cones to catch the goodies!) 

Said to have started in 1347 during a rare moment of peace between two rival families of the time, the Carnival of Fano is known as the sweetest Carnival of Italy.  

The floats parade up and down the streets of Fano, ending in a final round with a “luminaria” with lights, fire and color added as night falls. Finally, a massive papier mâché puppet known as “Pupo” or “Vulon” is burnt in the main square to large crowds on the day of Mardi Gras, a practice that is said to take away winter together with the sins of the townspeople.   

Cento, Emilia Romagna  

The Carnival of Cento is known as far back as 1615, thanks to frescoes by hometown painter Gian Francesco “Guercino” Barbieri that document the celebration, but its most celebrated traditions are more recent.   

In the early 1900s the people created their own king to symbolize the city’s Carnival, a character to represent his fellow citizens, called Tasi.   

During the final parade, Tasi is burned in a bonfire in front of the Rocca while an impressive fireworks show lights up the sky in a scenographic display. Before he is burned, his will is read in the local dialect and his possessions are given to Cento’s most famous citizens – actual citizens of Cento!  

In 1993, the Cento Carnival was twinned with the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro and began displaying allegorical floats inspired by the exhibitions of Rio. Running for five Sundays prior to Lent, the parades circle the city multiple times and throw inflatable and soft objects into the crowd.   

Milan, Italy 

Photo from inLombardia

Technically, the Carnival celebrations in Milan aren’t much different than any of the others. There are parades and parties, confetti and costumes. The difference here is all in the timing.   

Milan’s carnival is the last to be celebrated. The Ambrosian Carnival, named after Milan’s patron saint, holds its final party after the Italian Carnival has officially ended.  

As tradition has it, the city’s patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) was on a religious pilgrimage and asked to postpone the final Carnival celebrations until he got back. So every year, Milan’s carnival is celebrated four days later on the Saturday after Fat Tuesday, ending the Carnival season in the beautiful Piazza del Duomo. 

 

Similar stories

9 Reasons You Should Visit Stunning Puglia, Italy

An Easter Feast!

A Guide to Piedmont: What to Do, See and Eat in One of Italy’s Top Culinary Regions

Umbria is Italy’s only land-locked region, but it’s not complaining.  

Known as Italy’s green heart, vibrant Umbria is a nature-lover’s paradise. Though it lacks a coastline, the mountains and hills of Umbria are still awash in water thanks to the Tevere River and the Lago di Trasimeno, the largest lake in central and southern Italy.  

Spello, Umbria (Photo by Ken Sandberg)

Though long overlooked for its popular neighbors of Tuscany and Lazio – that’s a huge part of Umbria’s charm. Sometimes called “Tuscany without the tourists,” it’s true that in Umbria you can still get off-the-beaten path with ease. A bit more rustic, more natural than its neighbors, Umbria nevertheless has delicious, high-quality food products, a long history and excellent Medieval and Renaissance art, all while maintaining an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Not to mention enchanting hill towns that you can’t believe you haven’t yet explored!  

Where to Go

Perugia 

Photo by tonixjesse from Pixabay

Umbria’s largest city and the capital of the region, Perugia has a lot to offer visitors. The historical city center is small, but packs a lot of history. There are different ways you can get atop the hill to visit the city center, but perhaps the most suggestive way is with the escalators in the Rocca Paolina. Technically a fort, it feels like an entire a 16th-century city preserved under today’s Perugia. Once in the city center, head to Piazza IV Novembre to dive right in to most of Perugia’s tourist sites: the beautiful 13-century Fontana Maggiore, the unfinished San Lorenzo Cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and the adjacent Sala dei Notari.  

Home to the oldest university in the region, Perugia isn’t just an ancient city on a hill, but is lived and lively, with actual locals along with the students and visitors (something that some big-hitting Italian towns are starting to lack). Equidistant from Florence and Rome, Perugia is easy-to-reach and a great introduction to Umbria.  

Lake Trasimeno 

Lago di Trasimeno, near Perugia, is the largest lake in central and southern Italy and a veritable natural paradise. A popular vacation place for Umbrians and Tuscans nearby, there are several charming towns along the lake to explore. 

Castiglione del Lago sits above the ruins of Etruscan tombs. Tour the castle, the medieval walls of Palazzo Ducale and the nearby Rocca del Leone fortress. Visit Città del Pieve to walk down the narrowest alleyway in all of Italy and see several works by Pietro Vannucci (also known as the Perugino) who was born there. Or, take a boat to tour the three islands on the lake. Maggiore Island is the only one still inhabited. The largest island on the lake, Polvese, is used as a public park. 

Assisi 

Photo by Valter Cirillo from Pixabay

Assisi is known the world over thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, the city’s patron saint and one of two patron saints for all of Italy. Pilgrims have been visiting the Basilica since its construction in the 13th-century to pay homage to the saint. The gorgeous St. Francis Basilica with upper and lower levels truly is worth a visit, but you don’t need to be religious to visit Assisi. One of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Italy, the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most of the major sites to visit are churches in Assisi – a testament to the city’s deep religious history – but there is also the Rocca Maggiore atop the hill, with views of Perugia to the North, Assisi below and the surrounding valleys beyond. Try visiting the city during the Christmas season. St. Francis is considered the first person to create a live nativity scene and today you can find nativity scenes throughout the city, as well as a living nativity scene with town participants and actors.  

Montefalco

Often called the “balcony of Umbria” for its position and panorama (from here you can see to Perugia, Assisi and even Spoleto), Montefalco is most celebrated for its wine. Città di vino, this tiny town is the home of the celebrated Sagrantino red, a DOCG wine whose dark and dense wine is unique to Umbria. The area’s extra virgin olive oil is nearly just as prized, thanks to its fresh yet intense flavor.

Besides excellent wine, Montefalco also produced six saints over the centuries. The town itself starts from five different gates located at five different parishes. Five lanes climb up the hill until reaching the central piazza and the town’s highest point.

Gubbio  

Photo by Giacomo Zanni from Pixabay

Located in northeastern Umbria, Gubbio is a gorgeous Medieval town filled with lengthy stories and quirky traditions – like an annual race up a mountain carrying enormous wooden prisms that weigh anywhere from 600-700 pounds.  

Known as the Festa dei Ceri, the race is held every year in May to celebrate St. Ubaldo, the patron saint of Gubbio, as well as St. George and St. Anthony. Participants run from the main square in front of Palazzo dei Consoli to the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, on the top of the mountain, all while carrying a statue of their saint on an enormous wooden prism. Maybe that’s why Gubbio is traditionally called the “città dei matti,” or city of crazy people!

Both locations are sights to see, race or no race. The massive, 14th-century Palazzo dei Consoli towers over the central square, Piazza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful in Umbria. Then, be sure to take the funicular from the Porta Romana to the beautiful St. Ubaldo Basilica to see the planks for the famous Ceri race as well as some of the best views of the town. 

Foligno

Foligno was severely bombed in World War II and suffered a powerful earthquake in 1997. Since then, much of the city has been rebuilt and today it is an industrial and commercial center in Umbria.

Visit the two-faced Duomo, with an official facade opening to Piazza del Duomo and another, perhaps more interesting, facade facing south on Piazza della Reppublica and be sure to tour the Trinci Palace, but the real draw is the city’s atmosphere. With a modern appearance and an important commercial background, Foligno is an active, lively city with great shopping, restaurants and aperitif spots and, of course, wine!

Spoleto

Spoleto is a stunning sight framed by the Apennines. Founded by the Umbri, it was quickly taken over by the Romans who built one of the most popular sights of the city: an aqueduct that became the foundation for the Ponte Delle Torri. A huge medieval bridge sitting over a deep gorge, it’s awe-inspiring even today. There’s also a nearly completely intact Roman amphitheater. Later, Spoleto changed hands again, to the Lombards, but its beauty and strategic location ensured that the town flourished. 

Today, it is best known for its three-week summer festival, the Festival Dei Due Mondi, featuring events in opera, dance, music and art.

Spello 

One of the ancient gates that still exist in Spello, Umbria. Photo bychatst2 from Pixabay

Build on a slope of Monte Subasio, The village of Spello is circled by remarkably intact fortified Roman walls that seem to drape around the centro storico. Originally a Roman settlement, the walls are a testament of Spello’s strategic position along the road to Perugia, but the magnificent gates to the village are just as impressive. Head to the west side of town to see the Porta Venere, a gate flanked by a pair of 12-sided towers. The Renaissance artist Pinturicchio had the biggest artistic impact on the town. It’s here that he painted the Madonna in Trono e Santi, his masterpiece for the altar in St. Andrew’s, as well as the colorful frescoes in the Baglioni Chapel inside Santa Maria Maggiore. 

Small Spello is the Italian village you’ve dreamed about with winding streets, stone houses and beautifully decorated balconies. In fact, it’s these floral balconies that have helped Spello officially win the title as il borgo più bello d’Italiaor one of the most beautiful villages of Italy. Flowers are also the star in the Infiorata del Corpus Domini, without a doubt the village’s biggest event of the year. Every summer, various cities throughout all of Italy decorate their streets with elaborate designs made of flower petals. Spello carpets more than a kilometer of road with flowers for the event. 

Norcia 

Located in southeastern Umbria, Norcia is known for its fresh air and spectacular scenery. Sitting under the high peaks of Mount Sibillini, many use the town as a base for mountaineering, hiking and other outdoor sports. It is also a popular hunting zone, especially for wild boar.

Those looking for a more relaxing visit can enjoy the cuisine as Norcia is especially known for its high-quality cured pork products. Norcia’s pork butchers have become so accomplished that they’ve been given their own title. In Norcia it’s not a butcher, macellaio, but a norcinoWherever a norcino goes he can open up a norcineria to sell the Umbrian wild boar and pork products famous throughout Italy. Today a norcineria has become a synonym in Italy for a place that sells prestigious salumi. 

Orvieto 

Orvieto is a tiny town with an oversized appeal. First and foremost, there’s the town’s impressive 14th-century Duomo, with its gold-plated Italian Gothic façade. Besides the pleasant town streets, there’s also a 7 km path that circles the entire city, a double-helix well dug deep into the town’s tufa rock and a veritable city underground.  

Orvieto is built atop soft tufa rock made on an old volcano neck. Easy to dig, over the centuries the entire town has essentially been carved out into cellars and basements, offices, bomb shelters and pigeon breeding rooms. Today you can take a tour underground to visit just some of the approximately 1,200 various caves, tunnels and cisterns carved under the streets and buildings of Orvieto. Come while you can – nearly entirely hollowed out, the fate of the town is clear, just not the when!

What to Do

Umbria is filled with festivals. You can find food festivals, music festivals, sports events and more. From local, traditional events to international affairs, it seems there’s something to do year-round.  

Music aficionados will enjoy the Umbria Jazz Fest, held twice a year. Nearly a week-long event of jazz concerts and encounters, it’s held in Perugia in the summer and Orvieto in the winter.   

Perugia is also home to the annual EuroChocolate Festival (no wonder, with its roots in chocolate production) as well as the International Journalism Festival for journalists and media members.  

In Spoleto, you can find the Festival dei Due Mondi in June and July, when the city becomes the busiest town in central Italy. The festival is an immersion of music, dance, theater and literature in a picture-perfect setting. 

alt=""
Photo by crilaman from Pixabay

Nature-lovers can visit the Marmore Waterfalls near Terni; hike, cycle or horseback ride in the Monte Subasio Natural Park; or fish in Lake Trasimeno. The more adventurous can go on an excursion in an underground cave on Monte Cucco

Finally, deep-dive into the Umbrian culture with a traditional festival like the aforementioned Festival of the Ceri in Gubbio

What to Eat 

The food in Umbria is generally simple, rustic fare, but the high-quality pork from Norcia and the legendary black truffles of the area elevate the cuisine to something well-worth tasting. In fact, Norcia and its surroundings are perhaps the true birthplace of Umbrian cuisine, but the fish-based meals from Lake Trasimeno offer something different to the rich dishes of the land-locked country.  

Remember, Italian food is entirely regional. So when in Umbria, here’s what to eat:  

Zuppa

A classic minestrone (vegetable soup) with the addition of farroa local grain. Soups in general are popular in Umbria, especially with legumes and beans like the fagiolina from Trasimeno, lentils or chickpeas.  

Black Truffle 

The prized black truffle of Umbria is a must-try while in the region. With a strong, earthy taste, these delicacies are hometown heroes. Choosy about where they grow and difficult to find, they’re perhaps the most sought-after delicacy in Europe and they grow naturally in the Umbrian countryside! More abundant here than anywhere else in Italy, black truffles are integral to Umbrian cuisine. Try them shaved fresh on top of homemade pasta, eggs or risotto.  

Go on an authentic, private truffle hunt in the countryside of Umbria with a local truffle hunter and his trained dog. Then follow your outing with a truffle tasting (along with pasta, bruschette and wine) on a private Ciao Andiamo tour. 

Pasta alla Norcina 

Pasta made with a black truffle sauce with anchovies or else with sausage and cream. Be sure to ask which sauce you’ll have before ordering as both dishes go by the same name. 

Strangozzi  

A long, curved pasta strand, this pasta gets its name in a rather unique way. When Spoleto was under the papal rule the citizens who didn’t pay their taxes were given fines by esattari, or collectors, sent from the pope. Angry, they often plotted to strangle these collectors with a long leather cord called a strangozzo and supposedly that’s how the similarly-shaped pasta got its name.  

Norcino 

Photo by GBSurf from Pixabay

The cured pork from Norcia, known as norcinois so delicious that it’s worth mentioning twice…or even more. You can enjoy the norcino in a ragù, but perhaps the best way to really appreciate the meat is with an appetizer plate or in a simple sandwich. Two favorites to try are guanciale (for pasta dishes) and coppa for sandwiches.    

Polombacci 

This is wild pigeon, sometimes served with grapes or a sauce called la ghiotta, meaning the gluttonous, made with cooking juices, olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, olives, lemon, safe, salt and pepper. In a fight with the Vatican, Orvieto was completely surrounded and cut off from the outside world. To survive, the town dug a well for water (the famous double helix well) and bred pigeons, the only animal that could fly off to feed itself and return to roost, and the meat has been on menus ever since.  

Anguilla and perch  

Eel from Lake Trasimeno served grilled or braised in wine, tomatoes, onion and garlic. Try also fish stock, risotto with fish or freshly grilled perch fillets. Every year in September the area hosts the festival of fish. Said to have the largest frying pan in the world, they fry up to two tons of fish per hour. If you’re not there during the festival, try tegamaccio, a stew of carp, pike, trout and other fish straight from the lake.  

Sagrantino Wine

When in Italy, drink as the Italians do – with delicious, local wines. In the hills around Montefalco the celebrated Sagrantino wine is made. There are two different Montefalco Sagrantino’s with DOCG status: the Montefalco Sagrantino Secco, a dry wine, and the Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, a sweet, dessert wine. The Secco is aged for at least 30 months, 12 of which are in oak barrels, producing a rich, full-bodied red with high tannin levels. It pairs perfectly with meat, game or with the regions infamous black truffle! 

Perugina chocolate 

Photo by timothy green from Pixabay

Perugia is famous for its chocolate production and home of the Perugina chocolate factory. Travelers to the city can tour the factory, but anyone can enjoy a decadent Perugina chocolate. Similar in idea to the American Hershey Kiss, a Baci Perugina is made slightly richer with the addition of hazelnut and wrapped in notable silver and blue wrapping, each with a romantic message tucked inside.  

In general when eating in Umbria you want to look for specific ingredients rather than specific dishes, such as black truffle, sheep cheese, lentils (those from Castelluccio are considered the best in all of Italy), mushrooms and farro, an ancient but popular local grain. 

How to Get There and Around 

Get there fast, then take it slow. Photo byMarco Pomella from Pixabay

The closest airports to Umbria are Rome, Pisa, and Florence. Perugia also has a small airport with flights coming from other parts of Italy and Europe.  

It is easy to take a train from Rome or Florence to major cities in Umbria such as Perugia or Orvieto. Unfortunately moving from town to town in Umbria by public transport is a bit more complicated.

Though there are trains, they only connect between major cities and sometimes you’ll have to change trains multiple times.  

The absolute best way to get around Umbria is with a private car. With a private driver it’s easier to take in the beauty of Umbria: the winding roads, country scenery and improbable Umbrian towns. Or, let us take care of the transportation for you!

Wine-taste in Montefalco, cook in an agriturismo in Assisi, tour the medieval town of Spoleto and get a pizza inside the ancient Roman walls of Spello on our Food, Wine and the Rolling Hills trip in Umbria and Tuscany!

 

Similar stories

A Guide to Piedmont: What to Do, See and Eat in One of Italy’s Top Culinary Regions

Umbria or Tuscany: How to Decide Which Picturesque Region to Visit

A Guide to the Green Heart of Italy