So it’s time to stop racing down the slopes, frolicking in the feather light snow and chasing perfect snowflakes…
… we have a festival to go to!
Long before we arrived in Hasliberg my Swiss buddy had planned for us to join them at the city of Basel’s Fasnacht Festival!
I was told (perhaps warned?} that we were in for a whole lot of ‘local’ fun. Fun that was to include enormous amounts of noise, strange characters wearing bazaar masks and loud costumes, truck-loads of lollies for the kids (sweets or candies for my non-aussie mates) single roses for the ‘pretty girls’in the crowd (more on THAT later!) and kilos & KILOS of confetti.
We arrived by train in a cloud of floaty, misty energy from our very serene and ‘quiet’ little landscape of Hasliberg – straight, smack-bang into the middle of total chaos.
I’m not sure if it was the sheer amount of people or just the stark contrast from our simple village life that had me instantly on my toes, I wasn’t taking any chances here. I promptly went into ‘travelling parent survival mode 101’ and wrote my mobile number on the kids arms with permanent marker (a good little travel tip that could be a life changer in a crisis!) The streets of Basel were bursting at the seams with excited Baslers all scrambling for the perfect position to view the Cortège (the carnival procession). Through the crowd we stumbled and tripped and pushed until we found ourselves on a median strip, between two main roads. I’m still not sure if this was the best option for us little newbies, but there we were – the cortège running full steam in front of us, and full steam behind us – 360° – no escaping it. Nothing quite like jumping into the deep end right?!
The fresh mountain air was pushed right out of my lungs with the beat of that first drum. The silence of the snowflakes was replaced with the desperate cries of the kids pushing their little hands forward, heavy with the promise of lollies!
The here and now a complete contrast to our past 2 weeks in the snow.
To explain the scale of it, there are 12,000 carnival participants with 300 ‘chaise’, or what we know as floats.
Hanging out of these chaise are the ‘Waggis’. Outrageously dressed characters with larger than life masks whose job it is to throw all sorts of goodies into the crowd. Some of the missiles that whizzed past me were carrots, oranges, turnips, lots of potatoes, apples, radishes, bunches of spinach, packets of chips and flowers that resemble our Aussie wattle. And not to leave the kids out, there were showers of lollies, and of course confetti – SO MUCH confetti.
Marching before and after these huge and elaborate floats are an endless stream of musicians, called ‘cliques’.
Drums and flutes make up some of the troupes, and then there are the ‘Gugge ‘ – the shiny brass bands that follow on with their big bold sound. It was colourful, and LOUD, it was creepy and funny and scary and it was a total sensory overload of mammoth proportions.
As with most festivals across the globe there is quite a history, and with that a tradition to uphold. All of the groups that participate in the cortège run to different themes, usually something of significance that has happened over the past year, sometimes religious or cultural events, sometimes local or sporting, but mostly political it seemed. (needless to say there were a few Don’s running about in this year’s festival!) As well as the chaises and the bands, there is one other part of the group that is significant to the procession. This part could be easily overseen in all the flurry of activity, but it was interesting all the same. They usually have on the most interesting costumes and masks, and they walk along handing out printed papers to the onlookers. The papers are printed with poems or lyrics related to the theme that they are playing out, all in the local Basel dialect. Understanding this is difficult even to the Swiss I’m told, so literally impossible for us, but regardless of this, and with Jed not one to say no, I ended up with my pockets jammed with pamphlets as the afternoon wore on.
So – it doesn’t take long to figure out that most things in Switzerland have specific and strict rules. There is perfect order in this country. Think the ‘Swiss watch’.
The Fasnacht is no exception. The 3 day carnival really is an act of organizational brilliance – year after year after year. Through the chaos and madness of it all there is a solid framework of strict rules and timetables that must be adhered to, the Swiss know it, the visitors feel it! The Fasnacht begins at precisely 4am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday and continues for exactly 72 hours. It ends on the 4th chime of the city clock on the following Thursday morning – PERIOD! Following this the teams of street cleaners move in and within a matter of hours the streets are spotless. The only hint that the carnival has moved through and completely consumed this city is if you look down at your feet, you may spot a stray piece of confetti stubbornly lodged between the cobblestones.
A vital tip given in those specific rules is to buy and wear a ‘plakette’ which translates to a carnival badge. They’re sold around the streets of Basel, and in our haste to get to our destination we failed to take heed of this all-important tip, a mistake that I would later regret! The proceeds of the plakette go towards the running of the festival and basically if you’re not wearing one you’re a key target.
During our briefing from Tanja we were told that the masked characters in the wagon cliques would be not only throwing lollies and vegies but also pick out the ‘pretty girls’ in the crowd and offer them a rose, this, of course, was the ultimate compliment. That said, when I was offered the ultimate prize – being the rose, I shied away and giggled like a teenager, pretending – ‘oh, it must be the lady beside me’, he he he. With much laughter and encouragement by my fellow carnival goers I made my way to the float to collect my rose…. now, remembering here that I wasn’t wearing my badge – BIG mistake! Down came the hand offering me the rose, and without a moments hesitation it had a vice-like grip on my wrist, one that only got tighter the more I struggled. I fought and twisted but to no avail. Before I knew what was happening I was pulled along with the float while a 2nd masked figure proceeded to shove handful after handful of confetti down the back of my coat! I was giggling nervously and yelling to let me free, it wasn’t fun. You can imagine my horror when I finally managed to break loose and was shoved violently backwards into the crowd. To add to the sheer horror of it all during this scramble I took out a mother and baby as I went down! Apologizing profusely and red-face with embarrassment I made my way back to our place in the crowd. Regardless of whether it had been the lure of the rose, or the lack of badge on my coat, the experience of being made a spectacle of had left a sour taste in my mouth. The novelty of the carnival had quickly worn off and I was happy to make my way home, tail between my legs.
Thankfully, Tanja made me ‘get back on the horse’ and after a much-needed rest, and a few hours of the kids counting and recounting their mountains of lollies to see who got the most, we all headed back into the city for the evening Gässle.
This was by far my favourite part of the festival.
The streets in the old city of Basel are really lovely, particularly at night Cobblestone streets with narrow, winding alleyways, dimly lit ‘oh-so-lovely’! The atmosphere was magical. During the Gässle there are no vehicles in the streets, just group after group of piccolo players and drummers wandering through the streets, marching softly to their own hypnotic beat. We found ourselves lured by the carnival compositions of some of these troupes and marched along behind, quietly, happily in a sort of reverie. It was a lovely end to a crazy day!