Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


After Karneval in Cologne, I was very curious to see how Fasnacht in Basel - the only Protestant Carnival in the world - would compare. Fortunately I didn't have to wait a whole year to do so, since Basel kicks off its fesitivities six days after everyone else finishes theirs. No one really knows why, though I've heard a few explanations:

1. Fasnacht is the original festival. After the Protestant Reformation, the areas around Basel stopped observing it. Basel did not.

2. Lent is supposed to be 40 days long, but there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Protestants dropped six days to make the correct number; Catholics did not, and instead claim that Sundays don't count as Lenten days.

3. Basel moved its holiday by a week, just to be different.

Irrespective of why, each year Fasnacht begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday with the Morgenstreich. At precisely 4 am, all the lights of the old city are turned off, and over ten thousand costume-and-mask wearing participants take over the streets, playing fifes, beating drums, and carrying gorgeously painted lanterns and light screens. It's a unique event, so I wanted to experience it at least once. But when the alarm went off at 3, my resolution melted. Rain was pattering on the shutters outside, as it had been doing off and on all weekend. "Mmph," I said. Swissy Pie correctly interpreted that to mean: hit the snooze button so we can go back to sleep.

There must be something magical about Fasnacht, though, because half an hour later, the rain decided to suspend its own festivities, and we found ourselves somehow stuffed into our clothes and stumbling through the chilly canyons of Basel's streets. We weren't alone. While the sidewalks were hardly jammed, I'd never seen so many people walking around before. Unlike Karneval, no one wore costumes. One exception: children, who were generally bundled into cute jester or penguin outfits.

By the time we made our way to the Mittlerebrücke, the crowds had swelled. Spectators lined the streets and poured over the bridge. Some had even crawled on top of the horse sculptures next to the Hotel Drei König. Everywhere I turned, I could see clusters of costumed participants at their collection points, grotesquely deformed masks in hand, darkened lanterns resting on the ground, waiting for the start of the parade.

Then, somewhere, a switch was thrown. The old city, with its gothic spires and Roman stonework and ancient bridge, disappeared into the twilight. Drumrolls burst in the air like gunfire. The high-pitched, relentlessly cheerful piping of piccolos joined in. Over 200 small round lanterns and huge light screens, some of them 2 meters tall, flared to life, seeming to float above the ground.

In less than one second, we'd been whisked back to a primeval, primitive time.
With the city doused in darkness, and spectators' camera flashes flickering eerily on the buildings like St. Elmo's fire, the robed paraders with their exaggerated, oversized masks looked entirely otherworldly. If it hadn't for the light-hearted music accompanying them, the paraders would have been downright terrifying.

The lanterns, however, were far from primitive. Each group of paraders, or clique, had chosen a theme. Some had decided to be merely decorative. Others mocked famous figures or made political statements. Local officials, soccer clubs, Vladimir Putin, the Pope, and corporate executives were among the targets.

Though it was easy to let the parade flow past, the lilting lure of the pipes soon drew us out to walk behind the cliques. They seemed to move around in a haphazard manner, but it was wonderful to see the city alongside them. With them, we circled into the choked Marktplatz, crossing the paths of other cliques and proceeding according to some predetermined order of precedence. Around us, the narrow side streets up the Spalenberg glowed with streams of bobbing lanterns. Spectators watched from apartments and offices, and from wine bars and restaurants, which were open and serving. The whole city teemed with activity, and it was scarcely 5 am.

Eventually we grew exhausted and home. But the cliques kept going. They marched through sunrise. They marched when the rains began again. They marched in a parade in the afternoon. In the evening, when we finally went back to the old town, they were still marching, wading through the thick layers of confetti that slicked the streets.

By then, the crowds had dispersed somewhat, and the groups were fewer in number than they had been . (Many were taking dinner breaks themselves). But in the meantime, the survivors had been joined by brass bands playing Gugge music, so festive music still echoed in all the alleys. Puppets plays were being performed on wooden stages scattered throughout the main squares.
Booths everywhere sold Glühwein (mulled red wine), cheese tarts, and sausages. We hit a couple of wine spots, tried a few types of wurst, got confetti dumped on us, and visited our regular bar by the university hospital before making our merry way home.

There are still two days of Fasnacht left to celebrate, but I can already say that the festivities in Basel and Cologne are too different to compare. Which do I prefer? Both are exhausting. Basel's seem more low key and family-friendly. The parade is also more impressive here. And although Köln throws a far better (and longer) party, there's something about being able to go home at the end of the night that's tough to beat.

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Blogger Ale said...

you're just a party animal! good for you that a way to kick off in the new land :)

February 27, 2007 at 5:58 PM  
Anonymous jessica said...

Are you a librarian? Where do you get all this info!?

I'm glad too that you're so positive upon coming to a new place.

March 2, 2007 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Ale - I picked a good time to arrive! Timing is everything!

Jessica - Not sure which portion you're referring to, but most likely it's from my boyfriend. He's a wealth of information! Partly it's his mom, partly he's just an enormous geek. Some of the other information (eg attendance) comes from newspapers.

March 3, 2007 at 12:33 AM  
Blogger My Brand New Swiss Life said...

Oh my God... Where was this post when I was trying to explain Fasnacht to an American friend visitor?? Think the explanation I gave her was half made-up fiction...
This is great!

March 4, 2007 at 2:44 AM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Thanks Brand New Swiss Life! But I can't swear to the truthiness of anything in this post...

March 4, 2007 at 10:22 PM  

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