In my first moments in Viareggio, I was welcomed by clear skies, warmth, and the troop of clowns crossing the street. I had just come from another area in Tuscany, the cultural hotspot—Florence. Yet, it was that colourful crew that showed me what I had already been hoping to see: the beginning of the Carnevale season.
Viareggio’s CArnevale Icon: Burlamacco
Viareggio is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. So, we were positive that this year’s celebration would be special. Before taking the short train ride over, I had already looked up passed years’ traditions and floats. I knew to look out for Viareggio’s unique Carnevale character, Burlamacco.
Burlamacco is a mischievous-looking guy wearing a bright red and white jumpsuit and a bell-shaped cap. In about every iteration of him, his eyes squint in a charming smile.
He and his friend, Ondina are both “Zanni”. Zanni are in every Carnevale. Each has a different personality, but most of them are Harelquinesque, comedic, and the life of the party. Arlecchino is a famous Venetian one I had heard about before coming to Viarreggio.
Burlamacco and Ondina were everywhere on our way to the parade. They were on the sides of buildings, on flags, on tickets, and on postcards. My roommate and I knew to look for him and follow the line of costumed locals to get to the celebration.
The Viareggio Experience
We were both surprised and charmed to see the streets flanked by orange trees in bloom. Our chins were tilted up towards the vibrant green leaves and ripe fruit right above our heads. It was the first, but not the last time our eyes would be drawn upwards.
Under those trees and over the cobble roads, Viareggio felt gentle and inviting. Then one road turned from serenity into a fury of color and music. Thousands of people gathered to see the floats. We stood opened-mouthed, heads titled up yet again. In the front of the pack stood a float several yards high, and on it sat a whimsical giant. His long hair fluttered in the breeze as he swayed to the music. A drum sat at his back and a dog sat between his knees. He looked like he might come alive and play a tune on his harmonica.
We watched him in awe when he moved by and were shocked again when the next float came. Each float started its journey with a performance. Performers of all ages dressed in elaborate costumes and moved together to music as the float drew closer. On the floats were more performers, waving, dancing, and tossing confetti into the air. The closer they got the more the crowd squished together. We stood should to shoulder and lifted our gaze to reach the tops of the floats.
Through the parade, there were silly little incidents. While watching a float, a child threw confetti straight into my face and down my shirt. An odd stranger later insisted on picking one piece out of my hair (just one piece of the dozens tangled in my strands) At one point, a float was so wide that we had to duck down twice to avoid being mowed over. Meanwhile, another child blared a colorful horn at every opportunity. Through it all, we giggled, shouted, and hummed along. We walked along the street and peeked into food stands. We bought tiny sparkly masks for gifts.
When we had seen every float twice and the sun was long gone, we escaped to the beach. It was so dark that the sea was more of a sound than a sight. The inky waves brought in a chill breeze and rolled onto the soft sand. The music, still joyously pumping, felt far in the background. I was reminded, quite suddenly, that I was in Italy. I kneeled down to touch the water and feel a sea that wasn’t mine. And after a few more minutes of walking forward, the fireworks began. Beneath the illuminated sky, the sea was blue, then pink, then gold. And our faces shined back––blue, then pink, then gold.