Carnival in Venice has been on my bucket list since high school, when I was captivated by a movie I saw in a social studies class. The city seemed so adventurous and romantic — the extravagant spectacle of Carnival with celebratory people in masks and flamboyant costumes, parades, bawdy street scenes and gondolas gliding past lavish façades. And I kept reading that the medieval city is one of the Earth's most endangered destinations, with its rising sea level and sinking land. The advice always was, "Go now before Venice is altered forever."
So I signed up for a February photography workshop for which we would have professional costumed models posing in out-of-the-way locations, including a Venetian palace. And the price included a hotel near St. Mark's Square with breakfast and no single supplement. Other than death by freezing, what could go wrong?
Except that I have a bad knee. I can't walk fast or get up and down stairs easily. This a city without cars. There is no public transportation unless you're near a canal, where you travel by vaporetto (water bus). You walk — long walks on ancient cobblestones on twisting, narrow streets and up and down steps crossing the canals.
I arrived in the evening at the Hotel Ala, only a short block from the Giglio vaporetto stop. Our group of 13 photographers, who ranged from amateur to professional, had left for dinner. Jonathan Maher, the workshop founder and our leader, had left me a note that said I should ask for directions to the restaurant. He is British, married to an Italian and has lived in Venice since 2003. He spoke English and knew his way around.
But I was too tired to walk to dinner. Instead, I searched for my toothbrush and fell into bed.
I was up early the next morning, checking out my tiny but charming room with beautiful wood floors, a small desk, a twin bed, a minibar and a desk, plus Wi-Fi and TV. The bathroom had all the modern comforts, with a bidet and a heated towel rack, although nary a washcloth in sight.
Everyone met at the hotel's breakfast buffet, where I was overwhelmed with what greeted us — cheese, cold cuts, tarts, croissants, breads, pastries, cakes, toast, muffins, fruit, yogurt, juice, ham, eggs, coffee, tea and cocoa. We overindulged, a good thing because we often sacrificed lunch for shooting.
After introductions and a briefing, we headed out for a five-minute walk to St. Mark's Square and beyond — way beyond. I tried to keep up with the group. Lucky for me, others were slowed by the onslaught of hundreds of people, most of them with a camera blocking the way or nearly knocking us down. A pushy woman smacked my head with a camera to get me out of her way.
Jonathan told us that if we got lost to return to the hotel and call him; he would come and get us. I was certain that was going to be me, but another woman missed a turn and disappeared. After we regrouped, it was a 10-minute walk to our secluded getaway, San Francesco della Vigna, to meet our three models.
They looked straight out of Central Casting. They were wonderful; they wore gorgeous costumes and posed however we wanted. We skipped lunch, then it was time to head back.
I staggered to the nearest vaporetto stop about six blocks away. I thought it would stop at Giglio, where I would have an easy walk. My mistake. But it did stop at St. Mark's Square, and I knew my way to the hotel from there. The water bus stopped at San Zaccaria, where I made my second mistake. How did I know that San Zaccaria was the stop for St. Mark's Square? So I had a nice little cruise across one more canal, got off and caught the next boat back to San Zaccaria.
It was almost dark as I wended my way back to the hotel. The plaza was lively, so I stopped frequently and enjoyed the music, the lights, the flashy decorations, the three blown-up giant insects (an ant, spider and praying mantis) on parade and dozens of people posing in costumes.
The group had left for dinner by the time I got back. Jonathan had told me that it was a long walk to the restaurant, so instead I walked a block to a neighborhood restaurant, where I enjoyed scaloppini with mushrooms and a small glass of wine.
The next morning we left in the freezing dark for a sunrise shoot in St. Mark's Square. It was so cold that even the pigeons weren't out. I blessed digital; my hands were so chilly I couldn't have changed film in a camera. I was amazed by the number of people milling about, dozens of them in costume, but hesitated to shoot; they weren't our models. "Do they get paid?" I asked Jonathan. He laughed. "It's pure joy for them; they make their own costumes, learn to pose and do it all day simply because they love it." He added that most of the costumed people were French who come year after year; few were Italians.
As we elbowed our way through the crowds back to the hotel, Jonathan told me that the Venice's population is about 60,000, but that 250,000 visitors overflow the city during Carnival.
After image review, we were on our own that afternoon, a treat because I could saunter at will. I headed out among the crowds that easily included several hundred masked tourists — all posing. Even though I could have shot all this without paying for a workshop, having paid models in hideaway destinations was invaluable. I figured I would get shots without interlopers — and also not get crushed by crowds.
We caught a ferry the next morning for the island of Burano, where we were met by our three models dressed as gaudy clowns. When I had a couple of hundred shots, I ventured away on my own to check out the colorful town.
The next day we traveled by vaporetto to another all-day shoot with our models in the secluded Campo dei Gesuiti.
On our last day we walked to a nearby 15th century Venetian palace. Two models in period costumes waited for us in dark, gloomy rooms, which were colder than outside. My flash malfunctioned, so I returned to the hotel, took a two-hour nap, had pizza for lunch and dawdled at stores looking at luxurious items, like a pair of shoes for 1,000 euros (about $1,360).
My flight departed at 5:30 a.m. the next day, so I left the hotel by private water taxi at 3:45 (the vaporettos weren't running yet), hired for 100 euro ($135). At home, reviewing some of my pictures, I knew this trip was a winner, no matter the weather or the worn-out knee.