The carnival season in Italy is a big deal. It takes up several weeks before the beginning of Lent (starting on Ash Wednesday) and involves parties, food, dressing up – it keeps going!
Growing up in Ireland, we didn’t celebrate carnival. I’ve never really understood why it isn’t celebrated there, it being such a traditionally Catholic country. The biggest deal was to celebrate Pancake Tuesday – it seemed a huge treat to have my mum serve up crepes after school with (at the time) amazing lemon and sugar. Even in Norway, carnival is celebrated by children with special foods, parties and dressing the kids up in old Halloween costumes, if you could get away with it.
But here in Tuscany every pastry shop (pasticceria), bakery and supermarket produces the traditional dolci di carnevale – the sweet stuff you only eat at this time of year: in fact you can eat it for weeks before Lent and, strangely, the weeks after too. Lent, Easter, it’s all a bit of a blur here.
Fritelle are like doughnut balls (like the beignet of New Orleans) filled with rice, raisins, cream or fruit. Cenci are biscuity pastries laden with icing sugar and up in the right of the photo is Schiacciata Fiorentina – a plain cake snowed under by icing sugar, usually with a non-iced gap for the Florentine lily in the middle.
In Ireland we certainly had no parties and dressing up and fun before the season of Lenten hardship began. Though St Patrick’s Day was usually in the middle and that was a one-day-free ticket for fun.
The big Italian public celebrations in Venice and Viareggio are well known, but most towns have their own local events. We live in Fiesole, a small town in the hills above Florence, and it’s usually celebrated in the modern way: pile all the kids into a room in their varied costumes (some shop-bought but many homemade, even ours!), feed them up with lots of sweets and give them tons of confetti and cans of silly string and let them wreak havoc for an hour or two.
This year some enterprising parents and local associations organised a more traditional celebration for Fiesole. Our kids got involved and spent a few Saturday mornings working on crafts, masks and games for the big party which happened in the town last Saturday.
Here are some photos from the day – a procession with handmade masks and costumes, led by the town band and down to the central piazza where there were games and general mingling.
Even the regular staff at the bar/cafe at the Casa del Popolo joined in: the community space from where the parade started.
One of the organisers was a master puppeteer (and school dad), Nicola who previously worked on the carnival in Arezzo. He made the princess that led the parade and got the kids doing old-fashioned carnival features like making papier-mache-filled eggs and a giant wooden catapult.
It was cold and windy.
Some of the 50 or so migrants who are housed in the town got involved, in an effort to get to know the local community better. Mostly young African men, they came with their own handmade masks, carried the main princess and created a drumming circle which added some energy to the piazza.
Another group, from the local after-school programme (the wonderful La Barchetta) created colourful bird banners with strips of cloth fluttering in the wind. At the end of the party these banners were burnt in a ceremonial fire (by which time we had long gone home with tired kids).
Our local pasticceria Alcedo, is considered one of the best in Tuscany.
The local band were terrific.
Empty egg shells filled with confetti were part of the games – they still hurt when they land on your head.
The band played on.
Streets and piazzas all over Italy will be full with this paper stuff thrown around by the kids, over several weekends. It’s called coriandoli (though we call it confetti, which rightly confuses our Italian friends).
On the way home we met a goat coming towards us. We don’t usually see farm animals around here and thought for a second this was a strange, vaguely supernatural carnival moment. But she probably just snuck out of the farm down the road at Maiano, which is a few fields/gardens/high walls away. She seemed quite freaked out, and apparently ended up in the piazza, butting her head against the pasticceria window when she saw her own reflection and then disappeared down the steep steps by the library.
The zebra and the musketeer head home, spreading more coriandoli as they pass.