It’s this time of year again, where carnival rules in many countries of the world, providing a short-relief from tragedies, natural disasters and personal problems. Carnival celebrations take many forms, from wild and outrageous to rather somber, but always fun and something worth experiencing at least once in a lifetime. In fact the Basler Fasnacht is so remarkable that it is included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Rio and Venice maybe be the best known events, but the carnival in Basel/Switzerland, locally known as Fasnacht is something else.
It is later than in other European countries, this year from 27 February to 1 March. Here is the program for the events and locations.
The Baseler Fasnacht lasts precisely 72 hours
To enjoy the full experience and unique atmosphere, you have to be an early riser and wrap up warmly. The first of the three crazy days starts with the Morgestraich.
Here is why you have to wrap up warmly and get out and about super early:
On the dot at 4 a.m., the inner city of Basel is plunged into utter darkness. Even shopkeepers can be fined if they don’t switch off their shop lights. Out of the pitch dark emerges an eerie spectacle, the flickering, swaying light of huge lanterns carried on poles, accompanied by marching feet and the sound of drums and pipes/flutes.
As they come closer, the spectacle is more and more fascinating and a bit scary, because then you can also distinguish the oversized and strange costumes , frightening masks and huge wigs marchers are wearing as they make their slow way along several established routes around the city and over the bridges.
No cars, no traffic and no trams, either; just a multitude of silent spectators, who – like you – have defended their best viewing point for something like two hours against the freezing temperatures and more often than not, swirling snow and a heavy breeze off the Rhine River.
When the sun comes up and the street lights are back on, the countless pubs, in Basel called Baizen, open and fill in record time with freezing revelers who look to get warm with the Fasnacht breakfast specialty – Mehlsuppe.
Everybody eats on long communal tables, spoon at the ready. Mehlsuppe is a piping hot, thick soup on the basis of beef broth and flour into which big chunks of cheese are stirred. Bread to dip into is on the table and it is all washed down with rivers of beer, mulled wine and fruit schnapps, preferably Pflümli, coffee with schnapps and whipped cream.
A more serious affair than in Germany
Then the day is spent promenading around the city and over the bridges, looking at the members of the different cliques (brotherhoods), dressed in traditional costumes like waggis, alte dante and several more, all of which have symbolic character.
For hours, lone pipers and drummers wander around, alone or in small groups, tirelessly playing their haunting melodies.
Despite the alcohol, getting drunk or misbehaving is seriously frowned upon, unlike the carnival in neighboring Germany. No linking arms, shouting or singing or worse. Fasnacht is fun but also a serious affair with a very long tradition of Gaelic and Celtic roots.
The second day is dedicated to a long parade of elaborate floats. The floats follow a designed route and often start on the central Barfuesserplatz. Each clique has their own float with their own theme and are often working the whole year on making them. The atmosphere is very different from the silence of the Morgenstreich.
People mill around, cheer and clap and admire the floats. The floats vary from satire, scenes from current or political events and funny displays. The occupants of the floats also laugh and cheer, throwing sweets into the crowd, much to the delight of the kids. In fact a whole afternoon is dedicated to the little ones. In between and in the evening there are theatre performances, satirical cabaret and several formal balls.
Everything and everybody is in motion with plenty of food and drink around, either from stalls or the ever popular inns.
Whereas the spectators at the Morgestraich come without costumes, they now are dressed up in the traditional outfits, wearing masks that cover the entire face. Disguise is the purpose of this phase of Fasnacht, the entire body, including the hands, must be covered, much like in Venice.
Another thing you absolutely should do: Buy a fasnacht pin for charity and wear it on your lapel. They come in gold, silver and bronze and are sold everywhere. If you don’t and not wear it in a visible place, Waagies (the bad guys) might spot you and whack you with paper clubs for being mean. And he isn’t shy of telling you what he thinks of you, although you might not understand what he says but you’ll l get the drift!
Listening to the singers, the satires and theatre performances also may be a bit lost on you because of the language, but it’s fun to watch and rub shoulders with the locals. If you want to see how the elegant Fasnacht dwellers go about their festivity, try to book yourself a ticket to one of the balls. You need to rent a full length costume and a mask.
My absolute favorite is at the Trois Rois Hotel, and I recommend it for your stay during Fasnacht. The 5-star luxury old lady of Basel hostelry is located directly on the Rhine and thus central to each for whichever event you want to attend.
(Note: The bar currently is being redecorated.)
As Fasnacht started at 4 a.m. sharp, so does it end exactly 72 hours later. The Swiss are nothing if not precise. One last march, the last drum rolls and sounds of flutes and pipes and it is all over until next year.
Read more about Basel here in Dispatches’ archives.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel and lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits among many other publications.