Today is Tampa at its merriest and most mad, at its lightest of heart and richest of history, its quirkiest, truest self. Today is Gasparilla.
And what says Tampa better than ships on the bay and rich guys in pirate pantaloons taking over the city? Better than cheering masses under impossibly blue skies? Better than cheap beads and cold beer?
Even veterans of the parade and ensuing partying that have been part of Gasparilla tradition for more than a century — I've done a dozen or so myself — have a hard time explaining its history to newbies:
See, these prominent white guys got all dressed up for this big to-do, and the city pretty much shut down for it, and … no, no, the Republican National Convention came way later.
Last year Town & Country magazine assessed Gasparilla as "perhaps the most eccentric — and politically incorrect — civic festival in the country." We're working on it, okay?
Explaining Gasparilla is like describing scachatta, that cold platter of pizza-like bread cut in squares and served at many a Gasparilla party. (Alessi Bakery alone anticipates selling 300 giant sheets of scachatta for today, plus about 1,000 Cuban sandwiches, another proud tradition.) Scachatta is said to be born of Tampa's Sicilian roots, and I've never seen it exactly the same in another town.
And how do you explain to outsiders that those jaunty, life-sized skeletons sitting cross-legged atop Hyde Park bungalows or leering from the balconies of Bayshore mansions aren't just tacky Halloween decorations we never took down?
Don't ask. Enjoy.
Like Tampa itself — which once featured a squat Curtis Hixon convention center, a river hidden from anyone who might want to look at it, and, as its most memorable downtown architecture, a building best described as either a stogie or a beer can — Gasparilla has grown. Gotten better, even.
The history: Ye Mystic Krewe, the first, most prominent and important bunch, was steadfastly all white and all male, a bugaboo that got the whole thing canceled once. In true if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em spirit, some 50 krewes of all flavor now partake.
In other improvements, police started cracking down on public peeing and other distasteful behavior that had become the scourge of surrounding neighborhoods, and also Tampa tradition.
Speaking of progress, the city itself keeps surprising us.
Downtown is no ghost town, the river no longer invisible. We're about to get an urban bike rental program like the kind Manhattan has embraced. A seriously hip hotel — with a rooftop bar, even — just opened across from storied Bern's Steak House. Tampa? Really?
Now, two things about Gasparilla do not change: imbibing and beads. The first is self-explanatory, the second harder to get unless you find yourself in the throes of it. Normal folk with lives and jobs and dignity scream, dance and dive nonetheless, some even flashing body parts, lore has it, to get strings of cheap plastic beads thrown their way. Did I mention there's beer? Tradition!
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So today we gather along the winding ribbon of Bayshore Boulevard to party and play, to see our ship and our parade of pirates (and also politicians. For identification purposes, pirates are the ones with the eye patches.)
Today, we are lighthearted, historic, evolving. Tampa, really.