When I stepped off the train, I liked Viareggio immediately. A charming seaside Italian city that reminded me of New Orleans for some reason. Not exactly in the architecture or the language, it was a feeling, the city’s soul. Some places are just like that. And this place felt laid back and ready to party, but not in a frat kind of way, in a mature kind of way that starts off with lunch cocktails, drinks plenty water, and lays down a base layer of greasy meat for a marathon of drunken merriment late into the night. I could tell this even though the flat neat streets were deserted at midday without even a car driving by. The sea was in the air and the briny winds made my muscles relax just by breathing. I was happy we took the detour to the coast.
And of course there was the Mardi Gras connection. If you’re in Viareggio for the weeks leading up to Lent, you’re probably there for Carnival. And that’s exactly how we found this city, on a list of the best places to celebrate Carnival in Italy. The city hosts a massive parade throughout the month of February on the weekends culminating in the fat Tuesday celebration. What makes the event unmissable is the enormous parade floats that feature 5-6 story tall human powered mechanical puppets with a team of puppeteers and accompanied by an army of costumed and syncopated dancers. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been to Burning Man more times than I can count on my fingers.
Plus the food is good, the people are nice. It’s the kind of place where you start window shopping for apartments in real estate office windows.
I had seen a few pictures online but I was giddy as a first grader when I saw my first float in person. A massive five story tall super hero looking guy in metal armor with the word “Idol” behind his head, posing and moving around, his massive mouth opening to rumbling inhuman sounds, eyes moving and blinking, clouds of white smoke streaming from the intricate copper pipeworks and gears assembled behind it with a set of bleachers between his feet crammed with probably 20 costumed dancers going crazy, impossibly small by his enormous feet. Nothing really prepares you for the scale of these things. And the fact that all of the movements are physically performed by people’s hands pulling ropes and spinning wheels makes it all the more impressive. Watch a video of it here.
The next float was probably my favorite performance of the parade. Initially you’re presented with three gigantic characters from the Wizard of Oz: the Tin Man with his heart exposed, the Cowardly Lion with his new found courage wearing emerald glasses, and the Scarecrow, dancing groovily to the music and the Emerald City constructed as a backdrop. But then suddenly the front building begins to turn around and out of nowhere a colossal figure of Greta Thunberg in her iconic yellow raincoat holding the earth in her hands emerges in lifelike detail. Mixed into the music thumping is the speech that she gave to the UN demanding climate change response. Her words are penetrating. I can feel them roll through me. Seriously, it gave me the feelz. With Greta looming overhead booming, “How dare you!”. Then the music stops as she delivers the final line of her speech, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” It was stunning. The three Oz characters represent the heart, intelligence, and courage we need to confront the problem embodied in Greta. Watch a video of it here.
But then on and on, one fantastical float after the next. Each float had a theme about the world, some I didn’t fully get because of the local political nature of the theme, and some were interesting local perspectives on American and other global politics, but they all were impressive.
One float featured an enormous sci-fi female head that split apart and opened up to reveal an electric brain.
Another float depicted a rusted Mickey Mouse head on a tattered American flag being crushed under a futurist shiny white plastic wildcat. The dance team wore Chinese military costumes and Mickey Mouse masks. The float was entitled, the Two Giants Clash. Seemed firmly in the Chinese camp.
Another depicted a giant minotaur with a keyboard and globe belt (I’m assuming the world wide web) and towers of books around him. The dancers wore facepaint themed in web apps and sites. I’m assuming it represented the weapon against ignorance in the information online. It didn’t seem to acknowledge the similarly powerful weapon of propaganda and “alternative truth”.
Another with giant lions seemingly targeted people killing lions. One with a giant tree guy and people dressed like fire. One with a huge face looming over the crowd with a crown and a circle of Teletubby people behind him embraced in a circle (no clue). One illustrating famous Italians wearing fake beards. One about Italy and something about drinking and weed with the people on paper boats in a red sea. One with giant hands painted to look like goose heads menacing over dancing couples and statuettes. An Alice in Wonderland depiction of the internet as a cautionary tale.
One particularly visual one depicted a brightly painted bull holding a red cape and the bullfighter making horns with his fingers looming over the crowd with animated eyebrows and mustache. I’m not sure what the broader theme was but it was amazing. Watch a video of it here.
And more than one not-so-favorable depictions of Trump destroying the world or championing greed in a variety of ways.
The parade was topped off with a fireworks show and then dissolved into a street party. But we had already made our way back to the apartment by then, feeling exhausted by the crowds.
Walking around town
The town itself is a great mix of relaxing small town and seaside carnival. The mom and pop bistros all seemed to have great food and welcoming demeanors. The streets were flat and in a grid, you could see from one side of town to the other in every direction, so it was easy to navigate. And lots of shops bars around. I found fresh meat, cheese, and vegetables in easy reach at market stands. We both felt at home here immediately.
And the beaches are incredible. Deep soft sand beaches running the length of the town. I imagine in the summer this place is mobbed by beachgoers from the nearby towns. But in February they are deserted even though it’s unseasonably warm.
The “boardwalk” and pier
Actually just the pedestrian street running parallel to the beach. The property along the beach has been developed so there’s no walk there strangely but just in front of that is a road lined with tourist shops, carnival rides, and Carnival related art. I’m not sure what it’s like at other times but I assume in the summer this area is bumping. This northern portion of this road was blocked off for the parade but there was a bit to the south that was still open.
At the southern end of there is a long pier built out into the water to create a harbor with lots of locals walking and fishing.
Restorante da Stefano
Katy found this place online for our first dinner. It was rated well on Google and was close by. A great atmosphere with art on the walls and welcoming staff. Lots of locals eating. The food is your basic Italian fare, nothing fancy, but we were happy with our dishes. And much more affordable than Florence or Venice. They only had wine by the bottle but at 8 euros that was an easy choice.
Lunch at Osteria Piazza Grande
Another Google find that we were surprised by. They were closed for dinner because of Carnival but open for lunch and essentially every table was reserved for lunch except for the one we lucked into. The food here was rustic too but at the level I would expect at an expensive white table cloth place. We got the seafood starter plate which was a wonderland of yummy bites and we saw the meat plate go by which looked similarly impressive. We chose to split the meat stuffed artichokes and the shrimp with vegetables. I sadly forgot to take pics but that’s a compliment of a different sort since we were so engrossed in eating. My desert was pretty funny. It was delicious but I wasn’t sure if this was the standard presentation or special for Carnival.
8tto Etti e Mezzo
We stopped here because it was between our apartment and the parade but it turned out to be a decent restaurant. They specialize in steaks and they have a variety of different kinds and ages. Like other place in Italy the steaks are sold in large slices between the rib which usually weigh somewhere between 1-1.5kg, generally towards the 1kg side, and priced by the 100g, so if it’s 8 euros then you’re paying 80-100 euros for the steak and it’s meant to be split between two (or more) people. Although 500g of steak is still a decent amount of food to eat. Prices ranged between 4-9 euros with some more expensive options. But Katy wasn’t feeling the steak so I got the beef ribs and she got a stewed roe deer. The meat platter was pretty good. They split the kitchen from the butcher in the front with a menu for each.
Generally I think the less fancy places would probably give you better value for your money unless you’re in the mood for high end steak.