A UNESCO World Heritage Festival You May Not Have Heard About
We need to talk about European Festivals. In particular the Basler Fasnacht. It's wild, loud and chaotic (strangely un-Swiss!).
A bit of background - Fasnacht is a celebration that happens once a year in Switzerland and some regions of Austria and Germany. In Switzerland each canton has their own date and way in which they celebrate. But the biggest by far is the Basel Fasnacht, which has achieved UNESCO World Heritage list. Pretty cool huh? Read more about it here.
A clique, making their way around the city.
A few facts about Fasnacht:
- Fasnacht lasts for exactly 72 hours, beginning with Morgenstreich at 4am on the Monday, and ending on exactly at 4am on the Thursday.
- There is no prescribed route for the cliques. They will walk whereever they want.
- You must make way for the cliques to pass, or the person in front holding a large stick with a metal ball on the top will push you out of the way.
- Lots of confetti! Ankle deep by the end of the day. Prepare to have confetti thrown into your face, and ending up in your underwear. If you're short like me, be prepared for masked children who will do the same. Confetti will also appear in your belongings for up to a year after the event.
- Lollies, oranges, flowers, onions, leeks, chocolates and small bottles of alcohol are handed out by the larger cliques and floats. A clique member in a float tried to hand me a g-string...and a questionably shaped lolly.
- Once every year during Fasnacht, small cellars in the city will be open for food and drink, and close after Fasnacht ends. Their locations are generally not published - good luck hunting!
- There appears to be two kinds of Swiss - ones that love and participate in Fasnacht, and ones who go out of their way to avoid it.
Prior to Basel-Stadt's Fasnacht, we went to Basel-Land's Fasnacht in Liestal. For their Fasnacht they have FIRE WAGONS. It's called the Chienbäse, involving massive fire wagons going down a hill and people carrying massive burning brooms.
It's a very good idea to NOT stand in the front row.
We headed to Liestal at about half past 5, excited to see the fire. The festival had started earlier and the ground was already littered with confetti. Cliques were walking around playing instruments. Both adults and children were dressed up in random costumes.
Obligatory pre-event feet photo. Told you there was lots of confetti! Photo cred to Valentina Barizza.
We made our way through the crowd, and bumped into one of the significant other's colleagues in a Pikachu outfit. And being a local he invited us to have drinks at a cellar, which we happily obliged.
The cellar was inconspicuous, small and extremely busy. Super cool.
We were advised to order the local special, a Chienbäseli. Also known as Feuerwägli which translates to Fire Wagon. It consists of a shot of coffee, 3 cubes of sugar and a shot of schnapps. Instructions as follows:
1. Place the 3 sugar cubes inside the coffee.
2. Do not stir. Drink coffee at leisure.
3. Add schnapps to the sugar dredges.
4. Light schnapps on fire with the matches provided, or with your lighter. Enjoy blue flames.
5. Caramelise sugar with said flame. When satisfied with caramelisation, extinguish fire by capping the cup with the bottom of the schnapps glass.
6. Pour Chienbäseli back into schnapps glass.
7. Enjoy the warm sweet schnapps.
After some banter and another round of Chienbäseli, we walked to the main streets. A good view was nigh impossible, mainly because we didn't want to stand at the front and because there was already a massive crowd. Who doesn't like fire wagons?
It started at exactly 7:15pm (Swiss punctuality yo). Spectacular! The fires were MASSIVE, with sparks and embers flying off into the air. The heat from where we were standing was intense.
The fire was either transported by a massive wagon, or carried by people on a broom-like device. Some wagons and brooms would slowly wind their way down the hill. Sometimes they sprinted by. The handlers wore fire retardant clothing and most had cloths over their noses and mouths.
Fire brooms and fire wagons!
Just before the end point the wagons and brooms would made their way through a gate - the flames were so large they filled the tunnel and touched the lowest balconies, which were wooden(!!!). And then the fires were promptly extinguished by the fire service on the other side of the gate.
We partied. Then we headed back to our home to catch some ZZZs prior to MORGENSTREICH at 4am!
We woke a bit earlier to walk into town. I had never seen livelier streets, not even on a Saturday.
It was weird, seeing everyone walk to town with such a singular purpose. At 3:50am.
And then we waited, ringing the cliques and their banners. The old town was packed.
At exactly 4am, all the lights in the old town were switched off by the city council. And exactly at 4am the heads of the cliques shouted "Morgenstreich! Forward, march!" and throughout town all the cliques began playing - piccolos, drums, xylophones, trumpets, horns. The noise continued for 72 hours until Fasnacht ended. I know this is a cliche, but I had really never seen or heard anything like it.
Over the course of the 3 days I learned that dry confetti will decrease traction, and to avoid little children who had confetti in their hands. The kids were very trigger happy with the confetti and I was a prime target given my height (rather lack thereof).
The spoils of my festival gatherings, obtained with sweat and copious amounts of confetti, ft. a surprisingly large amount of blood oranges.
FOUND THE LINDT BUNNY AND HE GAVE ME AN EGG. A hard boiled egg...
The Basler Fasnacht is also a little political in nature - the floats that were pulled around are often a social commentary on recent events, complete with a poem written in ironic verse (Swiss German) about the issue they were presenting. Lots of stuff about Trump and Brexit. Pokemon Go also featured prominently.
Things that I learned:
1. Fire wagons are exceedingly cool.
2. I should attend more festivals in Europe.
3. Basler Swiss German looks odd in written form.
4. Assault with confetti is totally ok as long as you're wearing a massive mask and funny clothes.
Special mention: you've heard of La Tomatina, check out Carneval de Dunkerque of France. People gather in a market square, and then the mayor throws throw fish at the people from his window. So weird and awesome.