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Such a lot of posers at Carnival in Venice

The watery city is packed at Carnival time. One visitor headed there as part of a photography tour. In addition to her group's private models, she found plenty of people in costume.

January 31, 2011|By Nancy Hoyt Belcher, Special to the Los Angeles Times

reporting from Venice, Italy — At the last minute, I added long johns to my suitcase. It was 29 degrees and snowing in Venice, and the one-week forecast called for snow or rain every day. By comparison, it was sunny and 58 at home in the Bay Area.

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.

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