Basel is the New Orleans of Europe…

…As in, a Carnival capital. Given that 363 days of the year Basel is nothing more than a scenic provincial-sized town known only for housing the HQ of several multinational pharmaceutical companies makes it all the more remarkable.

Most shops in Basel have had masks on display for several weeks now...

But then Basel hosts its pre-Lent Fasnacht celebrations (held a week after the rest of the world celebrates Fasnacht) and for 3 days from Monday morning (4am!) until Wednesday the place goes Absolutely. Mental.

Before going any further, listen to “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses to get you in the mood for the rest of my blog post. Okay… 

An effigy prior to nightfall and burning.

For me, the party kicked off on Sunday night with the fire parade in the nearby village of Liestal, Chienbäse. The name apparently derives from the word for witches’ brooms and the handheld torches are in the shape on an upturned broomstick. For 90 min these burning torches are paraded through the old town: the most macho of the paraders will run and twirl with their massive flaming brooms. In case that was too tame for the pyrically-inclined, there are plenty of pyres towed through the streets on carts. A couple were stacked so high with wood that the flames reached up 3 storeys! Insider advice warned to stay at least 3 rows back from the paraders to avoid the ferocious heat, embers and subsequent eau de barbeque.

My camera’s batteries gave out quite promptly, leaving me with few decent images of the night. Not that I was able to get good pictures in the darkness anyway.

My friend & I decided against hanging around Liestal for merriment

Burn baby burn

afterwards…because of course straight after Sunday night came the Morgenstraich, when the Basel-Stadt celebrations officially kicked off. Morgenstraich starts on the chime of 4 am in the city centre: we didn’t have the stamina to do what others do (i.e, stay up all Sunday night drinking & carousing) so promptly headed home.

Eating breakfast at 3am is a new experience, even for me (4.30am was probably my record). However, there wasn’t any way I could roll out of the house at that hour without a suitable cabohydrate loading. Thankfully, the ferocious cold snap had…well, snapped – it wasn’t that hard to get to Marktplatz.

Typical Swiss efficiency. Clocks ring for 4am…all lights in the city go out…marching pipe bands start making noise and are on the move. Most people who’ve seen Morgenstraich once say that it isn’t really worth seeing again. The cliques marched in costume, their masks all had mini lanterns with clique insignia affixed. The larger lanterns on trolleys were all similarly illuminated. It was very atmospheric…but the 3am start thing makes most people reluctant to return for a second year.

The illuminated parades went on until 5.30am…though by that time I was climbing back into bed and relishing another 3-4 hours of quality snoozing. As such, I was suitably fresh for 1.30pm when the more conventional grand parade begun. Scotland and its dour Calvinist psyche doesn’t really go in for Mardi Gras-style festivities…so this was turning out to be quite an adventure for me! Stocked up on Mehlsuppe (flour soup w. cheese topping) and Zweibelware (onion quiche) and Kaffi (the Swiss-German word for coffee) it wasn’t too much of a challenge.

Nourishing Mehlsuppe

With their droll and satirical floats featuring the themes of 2012 (financial crisis, end of the Mayan calendar, Swiss political shenanigans), the Gugge and pipe bands in their matching masks and colourful costumes, the Waggis throwing oranges, flowers, sweets, confetti and the occasional root vegetable into the crowds from their floats, it’s a very fun way to spend a warm spring afternoon. Being near the back of the crowds we avoided the confetti, but some of those blood oranges reached quite high velocities by the time they got near us…

The impressively-costumed musicians

The carnival crowds at the Mon afternoon parade

The Waggis. If you shout "Waggis!" they'll throw stuff at you, some of which is edible! I think they're adorable...

Things certainly didn’t peak at the Cortege parade – for the next two days the central streets of Basel-Stadt and Kleinbasel were packed with wandering costumed characters, lone drummers, parading and stationary brass bands playing tunes such as “Umbrella” with their distinctive catchy, danceable beat.

Gugge masks waiting to be donned

One of many mini-troupes making their way across the city during Fasnacht

I was immedately taken with the Gugge music – so on Tuesday night it was time to head back to Marktplatz for the Guggemusigkonzert. Trapped in the press of the crowds I was a lot more vulnerable to the Waggis and their limitless supply of confetti – I bet I’ll be finding bits on my pillow for the next few months…

Gugge musicians

Tue and Wed night are also the time for going up to the Münsterplatz and admiring the Fasnacht lanterns left on display. I would claim that you can view them at a more leisurely pace this way…except for the throngs of people all doing the same thing as you. Still, you can get close up and try to decipher the Swiss German writing and admire the hours that must have gone into painting these things (most are hand-painted).

Munsterplatz after hours.

Each Clique had a different "subject", or topical event they portrayed on their lanterns & floats

A bit of Euro-crisis humour

Probably my personal favourite lantern

It bares its teeth like a light...

So yes, that’s been my last few days. And know what? I’VE ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. Basel, why you so good to me?

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