The alarm goes off at 3 am. Quickly we pull our clothes on and rush to catch one of the few buses that are operating at this time of the morning. We are here to witness the famous Morgestraich, the first event of the world-famous Basel Carnival or Fasnacht.
We jostle our way through the growing crowds to a recommended spot outside the Theatre where many of the bands are assembling. At exactly 4 am – we are in Switzerland – the lights in the city go out and the rallying cry rings out in the darkness, ‘Morgestraich, vorwärts march!’ Suddenly there is a cacophony of sound – piccolo and drums – and the whole cortège sets off to Scotland the Brave!
Basel Fasnacht is the largest carnival in Europe with over 18,000 clique members and countless bands. It is a week later than most carnivals and it is thought that this is because it is the only Protestant carnival in the world, started after the Reformation. Other carnivals predated it and were based on the Catholic Lenten calendar which excluded Sundays for the fast and thus brought the date of carnival forward by a week. Mystery solved.
The floats are traditionally a mix of political – we see Trump, Merkel, G20 and local politicians – and agricultural themes, including global warming, save the bees and big pharma.
On a lighter note they celebrate national heroes such as Roger Federer and Basel Football Club, and ubiquitous comic book characters, like Donald Duck and the Teletubbies.
on the Monday night the Schnitzelbank singers are an embodiment of this as they go around the restaurants and bars singing political songs in Swiss German and handing out their leaflets. It is an opportunity for artistic expression and some of the costumes are really extraordinary.
It feels like complete chaos but as the momentum gathers we see that there is in fact a Swiss orderliness about it all. There is a clockwise and an anticlockwise route, and as the cliques cross, one gives way to the other. After a freezing two hours – it’s barely above zero – and a good 7.5 kms (my poor legs) we retire for a sleep, before hitting the streets again for the grand cortège.
We arrive about an hour early, so there’s time to mingle with the clique members stoking themselves before their gruelling parade, grab a wurst and a wine or two for ourselves.
Here are the big Guggemusik or brass band groups, dressed in the clique’s theme. The oom-pah is spectacular, the costumes amazing.
They are normally led by a waage or tractor, appropriately disguised; also traditional are the fine pairs of horses and carriages, occupied by Alti Tante (old Aunts) who give away their treats in a more refined manner.
The cliques hand out flyers describing their theme, grabbed by the discerning crowds. Not as enthusiastically greeted as the sweets, flowers, beer, and wine thrown at the revellers. The kids are all screaming ‘sweeties’ – some adults too it has to be said, and the burgers of Basel seem adept at collecting sackfuls of loot. I managed a paltry three roses; some women had enough flowers for an arrangement!
The weggis or ‘peasants’ are clad in more traditional harlequin, Napoleon costumes, orDisney characters, all with hideous medieval masks, which obscure the whole face. They hurl vegetables at the carnival goers with deadly aim – but it is all in good humour. Above are some weggis preparing to chuck veggies!
They must not reveal their faces apart from the ubiquitous fag break or to down a can of beer. Drinking and eating play a large part in the festivities – there are wurst stalls, glühwein and several Fasnacht pasties on sale everywhere
Confetti is a defining part of the carnival and is chucked liberally at the revellers. Each clique is only allowed a single colour but after only a couple of hours we are awash with the stuff which comes out of our hair and clothes for the rest of the day. The streets are knee-deep in it, but Ross reports that the next morning the street-sweepers had made a good dent in the mountain.
In the medieval streets of Basel it feels like we have been catapulted back into the middle ages. In a good way.