TURIN, Italy - There's a hole in the middle of every medal at these Winter Olympics for a reason: to honor the open piazzas. So it only makes sense that the city square at the heart of Turin is already THE place to be at these games.
Piazza Castello, the courtyard directly in front of the Royal Palace, kicked off a 15-night run of medals ceremonies and free concerts Saturday night with the kind of show that could have Olympic-goers coming down from the mountains in Sestriere to join the fun.
The concert by opera tenor Andrea Bocelli enthralled the crowd, as did seeing the first medalists of these games receive their well-earned prizes. But the best show was merely soaking in the excitement around the piazza.
"For us Italians, the piazza is the most important place," said Andreina Nuzzi, a 48-year-old Turin homemaker. "It's the place where you meet and where you go to see and be seen. Woe to those who want to take away our piazzas and substitute them for those ugly malls they have in America!"
The buzz was unmistakable at 5 p.m., an hour before the doors to the stage area opened and three hours before the ceremony began.
Surrounding streets were as packed as a Tokyo subway during rush hour, with the biggest crush of people gathered on the corner with a diagonal view of the stage.
People stood in rows taking pictures capturing the palace next to a dazzling stage featuring mirrored triangles shaped into a ball. Those at just the right angle could also catch the red-lighted spire of the city's landmark building, the Mole Antonelliana, with the lucky ones also getting the nearly full moon shining over it all. A clear blue sky provided the perfect backdrop.
The most surprising part? Nearly everyone was speaking Italian.
These gawkers weren't tourists. They were mostly Torinese, as the locals are known, attracted to this gathering point as the place they wanted to soak up their Olympic experience. The festive mood is enhanced by the ongoing Luci d'Artista, an annual display of lights in various colors and shapes that span the streets in the area.
It was like the Torinese were seeing their city through new eyes.
"These days, Turin is more beautiful than usual," said Alessandra Pellegrini, a nurse who came to the piazza with her husband and two children. "We are tourists in our own city."
They didn't have tickets to any events, or even the Bocelli concert. They simply wanted to be part of the scene.
"We couldn't miss an event like this in our city," said Marco Spanu, a 25-year-old designer with an Italian flag painted on his face and three pals by his side.
Working a news stand in the thick of it all, Sabia Caneo laughed when asked if it was always this busy on a Saturday afternoon.
"In the 30 years I've lived here, I've never seen such a crowd," Caneo said. "We are very happy because Turin was a dead city and now it's alive."
That vibrancy probably will continue for two more weeks. Reaching a variety of audiences, upcoming headliners include Kelly Clarkson, Duran Duran, Jamiroquai, Anastacia, Whitney Houston, Avril Lavigne, Ricky Martin and Lou Reed, with Italian and international artists performing the other nights.
On Saturday, most fans began filling the standing-room area soon after the doors opened at 6 p.m. The time passed with warm-up acts and videos, including clips from previous Olympics in Italy.
When the main event began, emcee Simona Ventura went into the crowd and asked what the Turin Olympics slogan "Passion lives here" means to them. The first response:
"Standing here two hours in the cold and still being happy!"
There was plenty of applause as doughnut-shaped medals were handed out. Flags went up and the German national anthem played in honor of winner Michael Greis.
Fireworks shot up behind the palace as the medal winners left the stage and Bocelli's orchestra began settling in.
"It has nice style," said silver medalist Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who took part in similar ceremonies in Nagano and Salt Lake City. "It's a positive surprise."