Elegantly dressed courtesans waltzing to Vivaldi at a masked ball, mysterious caped figures drifting past the shadows of Venice’s Grand Canal–for many travelers these are the images that an Italian Carnevale evokes. But for those with a penchant for the quirky and bizarre, a trip to the town of Muggia affords an alternative Carnevale experience with a week chock-full of wackiness.
Across the bay from Trieste, the capital of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Muggia is the last stop before reaching Slovenia–and the only town on the Istrian peninsula to remain within the Italian border. Surrounded by Slavic territory, the town exudes an old-world charm that blends the essence of Italy with a hint of foreign exoticism.
While Muggia is an easy half-hour bus ride from Trieste, the ferry service from Trieste’s port makes for a considerably more scenic approach. Pastel-colored houses line the mandracchio (harbor), while the medieval castello looms overhead.
Originally a prehistoric castelliere (fortified settlement), the castle was transformed numerous times over the centuries–by the Romans, the Patriarch of Aquileia and later the Venetians–but eventually it was abandoned and left to ruin. The tower, built in medieval times, is the main surviving feature. In the 1990s, the castle was bought and restored by a local sculptor and is open to the public for cultural and musical events throughout the year.
Continuing on further up the hill, more medieval ruins may be found in Muggia Vecchia (old Muggia). With a panoramic view of the Gulf of Trieste, Muggia Vecchia is home to the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria Assunta, as well as the Parco Archeologico, where the remains of medieval dwellings lie scattered on either side of the main road.
Inhabited from the 8th to the 15th century, the hamlet was gradually abandoned in favor of a new settlement by the sea called Borgo Lauro–what is now Muggia’s centro storico. It is here that the narrow, winding alleys and Venetian Gothic architecture reveal the town’s ties with La Serenissima.
In 1420, Muggia–along with much of northeastern Italy–fell under the reign of the Venetian Republic, and so the distinguishing marks of Venice steadily wove their way into the fabric of the town. Tucked away in a back alley, not so unlike one of Venice’s enigmatic calle, is the Casa Veneta, home to Muggia’s Museo Archeologico. This 15th-century palazzo features the white-trimmed, tri-lobed windows that are characteristic of the Venetian Gothic style.
Just steps away from Casa Veneta is Piazza Marconi, a small square bordered by more pastel-colored palazzi. At one end is the Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which features a striking tri-lobed façade and Gothic rose window. Across the piazza sits the Palazzo dei Rettori, home to Muggia’s government offices. This orange and yellow building dates back to the 13th century but was renovated following the Venetian occupation, adding to the façade a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark, symbol of Venice. Many have since speculated that the lion’s disgruntled expression perhaps reflected the town’s displeasure with its new–and unwelcome–Venetian government.
As Muggia’s central gathering spot, Piazza Marconi makes an appropriate site for the commencement of Carnevale Muggesano, known in local dialect as “Carneval de Muja.” The festivities begin with the presentation of the Re Carnevale (Carnival King), followed by the Ballo della Verdura (Dance of the Vegetables).
This ritual dates back to ancient times when it was choreographed to represent the mythological victory dance after Theseus killed the Minotaur. Today the dance marks the official opening of Carnevale on giovedì grasso (Fat Thursday). Representatives from the various groups perform their routine while waving boughs of greenery and giving the public a sneak preview of their elaborate–and typically quite imaginative–costumes.
While the Carnevale celebration thrived under Venetian rule, and even into the late 1800s, the event was interrupted during the turbulent era of World Wars I and II. After the final battles had ended, Muggia was reintroduced to the idea of a Carnevale masquerade by a group of friends who frequently convened in a trattoria to contemplate the joys of Carnevale season. They named themselves Brivido–meaning “shiver”–following a harrowing boating incident on a wet and windy day.
One year they decided to dress up as gauchos and march through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.
Today, there are eight companies that participate in Carnevale Muggesano: Brivido; Ongia: dialect for “fingernail,” because the original members, who worked at the Trieste shipyard, often found themselves suffering from bashed fingernails; Lampo: “lightning,” the nickname of one of the founders; Bellezze Naturale: “natural beauty,” since the group’s initial mission was to bring awareness to Muggia’s unique charm; Bulli e Pupe: originally Muli e Pupe, dialect for “boys and girls”- the word muli eventually morphed into the word bulli, meaning “ruffians;” Trottola:“spinning top,” to convey a sense of fun and verve; Mandrioi: “beetle,” named after the Volkswagen model driven by one of the founders and La Bora: the cold, northeast wind that blows through the province of Trieste each winter.
Every year, these groups choose a theme and design a tractor-pulled float with matching costumes. During the Sunday parade, performers dance, play music, and pantomime scenes. Themes have ranged from the contemporary (The Simpsons cartoon, Disneyland) to literary (The Wizard of Oz, Dante’s Divine Comedy), from geographical (Mexico, Africa, India) to culinary (coffee, chocolate, pasta).
A prize is awarded to the most lavish or comical–not surprisingly, the original group Brivido has won first place most often. In 2011, their winning theme was Water–firstly fresh water, featuring a giant sun float, followed by rainbows with a colorful array of balloons, rainclouds carrying umbrellas, and snowflakes joined by frolicking snowmen; next salt water, starring penguins and walruses, dancing ocean waves, and a colossal animatronic Triton riding a fish; and finally water “da Brivido,” with townspeople of all ages dressed as old folk partaking in the eternal water of youth.
Trottola was a close runner-up, with the broad theme of “El Se Trasforma!” (in essence, things that transform). Highlights included the Transformers, with cleverly designed costumes that transformed cars into walking robots; fairytale frogs hoping to be kissed by a princess; gigantic hatching eggs; and a huge popcorn popper complete with ears of corn. Other notable themes of 2011 were Bellezze Naturali exploring life underground (from the garden to the sewers), Mandrioi representing coffee in all its incarnations and Lampo taking a voyage to the Caribbean.
Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will seldom see a masked face. In fact, the town has abolished the donning of masks except in rare cases when they are absolutely necessary for a specific costume. Contrary to the practice of traditional Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have chosen to expose their individual character. This comes, perhaps, as a natural response in a town that has struggled to assert its identity in the face of domination by so many foreign cultures.
The culinary ritual dubbed “A ovi” takes place on the Monday following the parade. This tradition, which dates back to the 1800s, begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make the megafrittata–thousands of eggs and several hundred pounds of pancetta cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the event, the groups perform a tragicomedy routine. Following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople then throw a lifelike “corpse” of Re Carnevale into the sea.
So if you think dancing espresso cups, slithering sewer rats, and human popcorn sound intriguing, cast aside your Venetian masks and head to Muggia for an unforgettable Carnevale celebration.
–Elisabeth Antoine Crawford
A former modern dancer and Pilates instructor, Elisabeth Antoine Crawford is the author of Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. She lives in San Francisco and blogs about her travels at www.FlavorsofFriuli-blog.com. Learn more at www.Flavors-of-Friuli.com
How to Get There
Take public bus #20 from the piazza outside Trieste’s train station or the ferry service from Trieste’s Molo Bersaglieri. Once in Muggia, bus #27 climbs the hill to Muggia Vecchia. For more information, visit www.triestetrasporti.it
Where to Stay and Eat
Hotel Ristorante Al Lido
Via Battisti, 22/A
(39) 040 273338
Closed Monday for dining.
Rates: Rooms are 60 to 75? per night, or a bit more with breakfast.
This elegant waterfront restaurant specializes in seafood, particularly local dishes such as scampi alla busara (langoustines in tomato sauce).
Via Colarich, 92
(39) 040 273363
Open daily for dining.
Rates: 35 to 40? per person, per night.
Tucked away in a rustic farmhouse in the hamlet of Santa Barbara, this tavern features Triestine and Istrian specialties such as sardoni apanai (breaded sardines), jota (bean and sauerkraut soup) and spaghetti with granzievola (spiny spider crab).
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