On our favorite corner, in a respite from the rain.
Bologna is my new favorite city on earth. In the two weeks Sean and I have spent here, we’ve been welcomed warmly by buskers and locals alike. Our visit has been the perfect amount of time to make some friends, find our favorite spots to play, and meet many of the locals who stopped to listen or buy CDs (thankfully lightening our load for traveling). We also had time to become familiar with some interesting characters and performers of Bologna.
Our first Saturday in Bologna was sunny and warm. We’d been told that the main streets were closed to cars and buses and opened up for pedestrians and street performers on the weekends, so before playing our first set, Sean and I headed out to see how the city had transformed. Strolling down Via del Indipenzia toward Piazza Maggiore, we marveled at the crowd, stopping to look at, among others, a bronze statue busker who posed making funny disgruntled faces, a one man circus act, and a busker who had gathered a large crowd wearing a puppet costume of a man and a woman dancing on his back, but who, despite his blaring music, apparently wasn’t ready to start the show yet. He repeatedly stood up and reached out from under the woman’s skirt, that should have been hiding him, to make adjustments, making the couple dance sideways on his back each time he stood up, and completely destroying the illusion.
The scene we witnessed upon arriving at the Piazza Maggiore had been described to us ahead of time by some friends, but we couldn’t have imagined it in our wildest dreams. Every Saturday in Bologna, Beppe Maniglia, a man who appears to be in his sixties, drives his Harley Davidson, which is decked out with gigantic speakers, into the Piazza, sets up his gear, and blasts the melody (strictly the melody, no ornamentation, no improvisation, just the melody) to rock songs like “Angie” and “Hotel California” on his electric guitar, accompanied by karaoke tracks, and his tight jeans and a skimpy leather vest, which reveal his bulging arms and chest. On this particular day, he was joined by the Contessa Melania, who gyrated enthusiastically throughout the crowd, waving her arms and shaking her hips as part of some sort of interpretive dance.
Further investigation ( i.e. interrogating everyone we talked to) revealed a wealth of interesting Beppe trivia. For example, when he was younger, Beppe was famous for using the power of his lungs to explode a hot water bottle.
Beppe Maniglia in younger, scarier days.
We also learned has that Beppe has released several albums, has appeared on television shows including “Italy’s Got Talent” and campaigned to run for mayor of Bologna in 2009, promising a revolution, with the bulk of his platform being the support for and encouragement of street art and music. Several locals speculated that he might be a police informant, as no one can figure out why else he would be permitted to monopolize the entire Piazza Maggiore every weekend.
When we first saw the Contessa dancing for the crowd gathered around Beppe we assumed she was his girlfriend, but it seems that although they do have some sort of performance based partnership and a strange sort of chemistry, she is also a separate and unique character of Bologna- a very uninhibited woman who is known for showing up to major events in the city and dancing like crazy.
During the week we also met another American busker, Detroit Jimmy, who has been playing in Athens, Greece for six years, but recently left because of the economic and political turmoil in the area.
We had read about Jimmy and had seen a video of him on the busking project website, which made hanging out with him, trading stories and sharing our favorite busking spots on the streets of Bologna seem more than a little surreal. The busking world seems smaller by the week.
Busker Detroit Jimmy gets some surprise assistance from an admirer..
On our second Saturday we had a great day playing, and afterwards spent the night strolling around and hanging out on the streets of Bologna, with the idea of enjoying the city like the locals might. We came upon Ludovico Valoroso, an Italian man in his mid forties who croons Frank Sinatra tunes into a microphone on the streets, accompanied by karaoke tracks, to the large crowd that gathers to listen and dance. Sean tipped him and requested a song, which he cheerfully sang, even though he said he had already sang it in his first set. We danced along to “Fly Me To the Moon,” happy to be part of the audience for a change.
The best place for cappuccino in Bologna is Bar Scaletto, an adorable cafe just down Via Rizolli from the Piazza Maggiore. We soon became friends with the owner Gianfranco, his sister, his girlfriend, and the other friendly employees, I was delighted when Gianfranco’s sister made a beautiful and ornate sun in my cappuccino the first day we visited. I hadn’t seen any coffee art since we left Seattle, and this was so impressive! The next day, remembering my excitement, she made a bunny rabbit in my cappuccino, and the next day, a groovy smiling sun. A stop at Bar Scaletto became part of our morning ritual.
Since our friends at the bar worked during the times that we busked, they hadn’t been able to see us perform yet; so on our last day in Bologna, which was incredibly cold and rainy, we stopped in for a little farewell performance. We set up just outside of their shop to play a few tunes for them, and they propped open the door and came out to listen.
Towards the end of our mini set we had a first time experience on this trip. In the midst of a fiddle tune that is so lightening fast that neither Sean or I are capable of speech, a man stooped down in front of us, gestured repeatedly at our case while holding up one finger, and mumbled something we couldn’t understand. He began to slowly remove a euro from the case just as the song was ending, before Sean was able to communicate “No!” (some gestures, angrily taking off your guitar and yelling, for instance, appear to be universal). At that point he reluctantly returned the euro and sulked away. I think in his mind it was okay, as he seemed to interpret our non-response to his mumbling as a go ahead.
We said good bye to our friends and continued on to the piazza, only to decide that it was just too cold and rainy to play after all. Luckily we had had two wonderful sets on Saturday, so it was okay for us to take Sunday off. We had so many things to do to prepare for our day of traveling to Perugia on Monday anyway.
The weather has turned, and it is time for us to keep moving south, but we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Bologna and hope to return in the spring. Ciao ciao Bologna! We’ll miss you!
Glamorous or functional? Pink umbrella in tow, we prepare to play in the rain on our last Saturday in town.