The Best Festivals and Celebrations in Northern Italy
Carnevale (Venice): Every spring Venice brings back the 18th century in all its silk and brocade, pouf-sleeved, men-wearing-colored-hose, Casanova, ballroom-dancing glory. In most Catholic countries, the week before Lent begins has long been a time to let down your hair and party. It all culminates in Shrove Tuesday, the day of feasting before Ash Wednesday kicks off the sober Lenten period. This bash has earned the day the nickname Fat Tuesday -- called Martedì Grasso in Italian, but better known by its French name, Mardi Gras. Venice ranks with Rio and New Orleans as host of one of the most elaborate and famous Carnival celebrations anywhere. Rather than a Bacchanalian bash, Venice goes the genteel route, with concerts and masked costume balls filling performance spaces, churches, and frescoed palaces. Ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday.
Venice International Film Festival: This is one of the movie business's premier festivals, ranking just below Cannes in importance. The best films made over the past year from around the world are screened for audiences and judges at the Palazzo del Cinema, other movie houses, and sometimes even open-air piazzas. Unlike, say, the Oscars, which celebrates highly promoted Hollywood products, this is a chance for all movies -- from would-be blockbusters to low-budget, unknown indies -- to catch the attention of critics and distributors. Late August/early September.
Biennale d'Arte (Venice): One of the most important art festivals in the world is hosted every 2 years by the city of Venice. Contemporary artists (both celebrated modern masters and talented unknowns), critics, and art aficionados from around the world fill the hotels to attend shows and peruse the works displayed in the gardens and Arsenale warehouses at the far end of the Castello district. June to early November, odd years.
Regata Storica (Venice): Every Venetian must have an 18th-century outfit mothballed in a closet to break out for yearly fetes such as Carnevale and, of course, this "historical regatta" -- less of a race than merely a parade of gorgeously bedecked gondolas and other boats laden with costumed gentry for a day cruising the Grand Canal. First Sunday in September.
Partita a Scacchi (Marostica): A living chess match may be a throwaway gag to Mel Brooks or a special-effect sequence in a Harry Potter film, but it's the highlight of Marostica's calendar. This pretty little medieval hamlet, which barely fills the bottom third of the ring made by its ancient wall clambering up the hillside, would probably be overlooked if it weren't for the biennial festival that turns the checkerboard main piazza in front of the castle into a weird piece of yesteryear. After a parade of costumed gentlefolk and medieval-style entertainers (jugglers, fire-eaters, clowns), people dressed as chess pieces fill the piazza's board, the players sit atop a stage ready to call out their moves, and the match begins. Actually, it's technically not chess as we know it but rather a medieval variant, and it's not a proper match, since they're, in fact, re-creating, move for move, a game played in the 15th century between two noblemen vying for the hand of a fair lady. Still, it's all great fun. Marostica has only a handful of hotels, so book a few months in advance. Second Sunday in September, even years.
Concerti in Villa (Vicenza): The Veneto region around Vicenza opens up its villas or their grounds for a series of summertime concerts and performances. From famous masterpieces like Palladio's La Rotonda to little-known Renaissance villas, the settings are memorable and the music is sweet. June and July.
Opera in Arena (Verona): La Scala and La Fenice may be more famous, but few opera stages in Italy have a more natural dramatic setting than Verona's ancient Roman amphitheater. Every season they put on Aïda as they have since 1913, surrounded by other operatic masterpieces by Giuseppe Verdi. For a huge 2,000-year-old sports stadium open to the sky, the Arena enjoys surprisingly good acoustics. Late June through August.
Festival Shakespeariano (Verona): Verona mixes its two powerhouse attractions -- ancient Roman heritage and Shakespearean fame -- in a theater festival of Shakespeare's plays (along with ballets and concerts, from classical to jazz) put on in the garden-set ruins of the Teatro Romano ancient theater.
Palio (Asti): Medieval pageantry precedes a breakneck horse race on the piazza. The 2 weeks leading up to it are known as the Douja d'Or, a grape-and-wine festival and trade fair. Rival town Alba spoofs the event with a race of their own -- riding asses -- in their Palio degli Asini on the first Sunday in October. Third Sunday in October.
Sanremo Festival (San Remo): It's the Grammy Awards meets Sundance meets American Idol. Since 1950, Sanremo has been Italy's beloved festival of pop music, where faded Italian stars get to strut their stuff, major international rock stars and artists are invited to perform, and scruffy teenage musicians from across Italy get the chance to play that carefully crafted song they just know would be a number-one hit if only they could sign a record contract (and many do). If you want to hear what will be belting out of boom boxes and Fiat speakers this summer at Italy's beaches and pumping in the discos, listen to the winning performances here. Late February or early March.
Sagra del Pesce (Camogli): Take the world's largest frying pan (3.6m/12 ft. across) and place it on the wide, waterfront promenade of this tiny Riviera fishing town. Fill the pan with sizzling sardines and the town with hungry folks ready to party. There you have a sagra, or celebration of food -- in this case, seafood, the town's traditional economic lynchpin. Second Sunday in May.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.