February and Lent Season in Tuscany always spell one thrilling word: Carnival. Among the most renowned, both in Italy and Europe, is the one celebrated in the coastal town of Viareggio. Celebrations, parades, street dancing, night parties and food and wine events animate the Versilia coast during a month-long fun factory of colour, music and waltzing, better known as the Carnevale di Viareggio.
The Carnival of Viareggio goes back to 1873, when the wealthy youngsters frequenting the Casino’s café decided to organize a parade, some say to protest against the many taxes they were forced to pay and hence they showed up wearing masks. They continued to organize the parade and then towards the end of the century the first floats appeared accompanied by masked balls and costume parties. In the 1920s, when the gentlemen wore tuxedos, the nightspots along the promenade were venues such as the Principe di Piemonte, the Royal Hotel and the café chantant Margherita. Today local street parties are held on the seafront by the four wards of town – Torre del Lago, Marco Polo, Darsena and Croce Verde – with excellent food stalls offering the traditional, local dishes and bandstands with various kinds of music.
Today the carnival’s main peculiarity is its parade of floats. Initially made of plaster and heavy cloths, the floats were later made of paper-pulp. Now gigantic papier-mâché ‘statues’, depicting caricatures of popular people, such as politicians, showmen and (obviously) footballers, ride down the seafront promenade while onlookers, generally masqueraded, cheer them on their way. Nowadays, thanks to new technologies, these monumental figures are able to accomplish complex movements and even have special effects. In 1931 the Carnival adopted an official mascot, Burlamacco, a clown-like figure depicted by Uberto Bonetti, whose name comes from the town’s river, the Burlamacca, whereas the red and white colours of his outfit were the traditional colours of the beach umbrellas.
Today, at every event, a special jury is asked to rank the floats, which are divided into two categories, as well as the costumed groups and the individual carnival masks. The last appointment is always a nocturnal parade, at the end of which the winners are proclaimed and a spectacular firework show follows concluding the whole month of fun and frolics. However, even outside the carnival period, it is possible to visit the Cittadella del Carnevale, the ‘Carnival Citadel, a specially built complex with huge hangars, inside which the floats can be built and kept inside. Created in 2001, here one can come see the craftsmen at work on their magnificent clay and paper ‘statues’. There are even a museum and labs where one may discover the tricks of the trade.
The Carnevale di Viareggio is also a great opportunity to visit this town, known as the ‘Pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea’, the second largest city within the province of Lucca. Viareggio is not only a well-known seaside resort but also an interesting cultural centre with literary events and awards as well as worldwide famous musical events. A walk along its avenues takes you back into time, going from the 1541 Torre Matilde, a defensive fortification against corsair incursions, to the beautiful Liberty-style buildings. If you’re considering a visit to this part of Tuscany come see our wide selection of holiday accommodations in Versilia.