It is to my eternal shame that, until I moved to Basel, I had never heard of Fasnacht, the Spring Carnival celebrated throughout Germany and Switzerland. I certainly would never have associated the three days of madness I experienced with the normally sedate city of Basel.
Now, Basel being Basel, it doesn’t do anything quite like anywhere else– indeed Fasnacht is celebrated a week later here – but why they do it later, and actually why they do it all, was lost due to the great earthquake of 1356 (yes it’s been going on a long time!).
The cliques (guilds) prepare for months to be ready to for Morgensreich when, on Monday morning at 4 am, every street light in the old town is switched off and the city is plunged into darkness. As the bell tolls, the piccolos and drums drown the city in a wave of music, and the cliques march through the unlit streets carrying huge painted lanterns.
This goes on for several hours. The cliques keep going, but 5.30am is a good time to pop into one of the bars that have stayed open all night to enjoy a beer and some mehlsuppe (flour soup – which, to my British eye, is basically a bowl of gravy). Then everyone goes home for a few hours’ sleep before the parades start.
At this point I think I’d better introduce you to the waggis – a strange a creature who’s a mix of clown, demon and French farmer. They roam the streets armed with confetti, oranges and sweets. If you’re not wearing your plakette (Carnival badge) you’d better beware because you’re fair game to have a handful of confetti thrust down your shirt, and to be honest even if you are wearing one you’re likely to get covered in confetti. But if they do get you, you usually get a sweet – or sometimes a can of beer – as an apology!
The parade is made of costumed marching bands playing drums, tubas, trombones and trumpets and huge floats and wagons, many of them making political statements. It starts early afternoon and continues into the night. As well as the main parade, the small cliques walk down the small back streets, still playing their piccolos and drums – be careful not meet them head on, as they have right of way. Unlike other Fasnacht celebrations, especially in Germany, audience participation is not encouraged and only people in the cliques dress up – Basel takes its Fasnacht very seriously!
Day two is Children’s Fasnacht where the children dress up and run around the city, and there’s a mini version of the Monday parade complete with little waggis. If you missed the lanterns from Morgensreich they’re all on display in the Munster square. There are food and drink stalls everywhere; my particular favourite is the prosecco stall which sets itself up in the entrance to the Mont Blanc shop.
Tuesday evening is the battle of oom-pah bands. And you’ve not lived until you’ve heard I Kiss A Girl by Katy Perry played on a tuba! I’ve also heard interesting versions of Dirty Old Town and Queen’s Fat Bottom Girls.
Just when you think you’ve had enough, Wednesday arrives with another full day of parades. And, since this is the last chance the Waggis have to offload their confetti, be prepared to get covered.
I’m sure I’ve not done Basel’s Fasnacht justice. It’s a truly marvelous experience, and one that is very difficult to describe. But if you ever have the chance to go, jump at it. You won’t be disappointed!
Bio and Links:
Rebecca Cohen is a Brit abroad. Having swapped the Thames for the Rhine, she has left London behind and now lives with her husband and baby son in Basel, Switzerland. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and a cup of Darjeeling in the other.
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