TURIN, Italy — Spontaneous singing, sequin jackets and European flags all around.
Turin is jamming ahead of the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, arguably Europe’s most eccentric music competition.
After two years of pandemic, fans have flown from all over Europe to this Italian city at the foot of the Alps, turning the place into the cultural hotspot of the weekend. On Saturday, more than 10,000 people will gather at Italy’s biggest indoor sporting arena, Pala Olimpico, for the extravaganza filled with blazing pyrotechnics, garish outfits and absurd songs.
In Piazza San Carlo, a 17th-century baroque square, a group waving Spanish flags and blasting music from their phones pose together for a selfie, while in the Eurovision fan area on the other side of town, French girls in dazzling outfits clap to Serbia’s song in Latin about Meghan Markle’s hair.
“The city is alive,” said Chiara, 29, an English teacher who lives in Turin. “There’s this atmosphere of celebration.”
Ukraine is strongly tipped to win this year after Russia’s invasion, but fans are all hoping for their country to be crowned Eurovision star among the 25 contestants from Estonia to Greece to Romania.
“Our presence here is a already a victory, showing our flag, sharing our culture,” says Oleksii, who fled to Italy from Kyiv with his wife and two children at the start of the war.
Hoping for a win
More than 40,000 visitors have come through Turin’s airport over the course of the week, according to Italian newspaper La Stampa, and hotels have filled up.
In the city of 1.7 million, throngs of young people with flags over their backs walk around the city singing, under the fascinated eyes of elderly locals. Billboards with Eurovision posters adorn the city, and stores have joined the party, displaying inflatable guitars in their shopfronts. Notes from Italy’s entry in this year’s competition — a swooning love duet — spill out from the open windows of restaurant kitchens.
The city’s streets are dotted with buskers looking for international attention. At a bar in the hip neighborhood of San Salvario, five Eurovision enthusiasts with Polish, Italian and British flags deplore that Latvia’s sexy vegetarian anthem didn’t make it into the finale.
“Eurovision is like having lots of countries coming together and helping people meet in this kind, relaxed atmosphere,” says Alexandra, 42, from Rennes, France.
Suddenly, dozens of fans start running as a rumor spreads that last year’s winner, Italian rock band Måneskin, is staying at a nearby hotel. Amid the confused honks of dozens of Fiat cars, fans dart across the busy street in hopes of getting a precious selfie.
Trying to get in on the cultural frenzy, even the European Commission got itself a booth in the Eurovillage, next to big drink and telecom brands, to hand out booklets about the wonders of the EU’s lawmaking process and to promote what Brussels proclaims the European Year of Youth.
While most fans overrunning the city are rooting for their own candidates and touting their incredible singing skills and truly emotional ballads, Ukraine’s folk-rap act seems set to take it home. As the country is pummelled with Russian shells, popular support has risen for the band, which got special permission to travel for the contest.
“A lot of people are going to vote to show their support for Ukraine right now through Eurovision,” said Amanda, a 24-year-old student from Geneva, Switzerland.
Yet, many in the streets of Turin were reluctant to think about the political stakes of the music competition. For the occasional Ukrainian flags tucked in back pockets, Spanish, Swedish and Italian colors dominate the visual landscape.
Jesús, a 25-year-old computer engineer from Madrid, thinks that politics shouldn’t be part of the show. “It should only be about music and musically speaking, Ukraine is not the best number,” he says.
While the organizers of the show, the European Broadcasting Union, go to great lengths to keep politics out of the show, Russia was banned in February from participating in the contest.
Oleksii, who has made Turin his temporary refuge in the last two months after fleeing Ukraine, believes the music contest could be a symbolic show of support from European citizens at a much-needed time.
“It matters for us because it would show that Europe and the world is behind us.”