Three Lovely Days: Basler Fasnacht

There are countless things I love about Basel: the winding stone back alleys behind Marktplatz, the old city gates, the fast-flowing Rhine, the hills and fields and fresh air for running, and all of the festivals, from Herbstmesse to the Christmas Markets to jazz fest in August and, what may be my favorite, Fasnacht.

Fasnacht begins in Basel, officially, on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. For three days, the town celebrates a carnival, complete with confetti, cliques, and a cortege parade. Apparently, Basel’s Fasnacht celebrations date way back, hundreds of years, though the records of Basel’s earliest celebrations were destroyed in the earthquake of 1356. But that year itself gives you an idea of how far back this tradition goes. It was a time of celebration, of driving out the winter, and now, a time to reflect back on political and current events of the past year with humor, satirical poems [sung by folks wonderfully known as Schnitzelbank singers], and gorgeous, hand-painted lanterns.

This year, we decided to also check out the Chienbäse festival in Liestal, which takes place on the Sunday evening before Morgestreich.

At 5:47, we hopped on a train from Dreispitz which transported us, along with dozens of other eager onlookers decked out in old clothes, out to Liestal. What I knew about Chienbäse by this point I could count on one hand: it involves fire; spectators should wear clothes they don’t care about, ones they wouldn’t mind an ember landing on and burning a hole into (does anyone own something like this? Is it possible to reach into a closet and pull out some top and say, ‘Yeah, I’m okay if this catches fire and I need to throw it away.’); it may or may not involve pushing a flaming hay bale down a hill into the river.

We arrived around 6:20pm, with the parade beginning at 7:15pm. A woman on the train advised us to get a spot near the start of the parade, where the carts pass beneath an old tower and into the old town. Before passing through, she told us, they hose down the tower to prevent it catching fire. After the carts pass, they hose it down again. It seems impossible that a fire has not broken out.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, it was already packed. We joined a massive shuffle of humans exiting the train platform, and somehow managed to find a spot on the street near one of the emergency exits (marked on the map), a stone archway that led from the main street to the back alleys. The archway was filled with firefighters, and a long hose extended from the back alley through the archway to where it rested near the main road, just in case.

At 7pm, all of the lights went out in the town, though unlike Morgestriech, this was met with a cheer rather than the sound of a thousand piccolos. We waited along the street for another twenty minutes or so, and then, craning our necks to where the parade began, we could see a procession of little lanterns – and piccolos – marching our way. But what was even wilder was the reflection on the little shop and apartment windows of some bright orange blaze we couldn’t quite see yet. Smoke was rising up in the distance and the night turned orange.

The parade began rather tamely, with chienbäse (a sort of broom made of sticks) bearers walking two by two down a street paved with confetti. What followed was a procession of fiery carts, gradually increasing in size and temperature. These were pulled along the route when they had wheels, or carried when they didn’t. Imagine that – your job is to carry a cart that someone has set fire to and is ravenously burning just a few feet behind you. Brave.

This guy had a little sausage on his helmet – and wiser observers actually had sausages on sticks that they grilled over the fires as the carts passed by!

It helped that firefighters marched alongside the parade participants, pausing occasionally to pat them down and put out fires that had begun to burn through their parade costumes. That’s right. At one point, a group of people dressed in jester attire set down their blazing chienbäses and a firefighter went around patting down their backs. As he lifted the shirt of a man nearest us, we could see that his shirt had actually caught fire; the fireman calmly patted him down with zero reaction and the man hefted up his chienbäse once more, moving forward with a respectable indifference to the fact that part of his costume had burned up.

Sometimes sticks and logs would fall of the carts as they burned, setting fire to the 1-inch carpet of confetti that stretched down the street. Marchers would proceed calmly onward, stomping over and on the burning sticks and piles of confetti.

And the carts – what an absolute spectacle. You’d see the tops of the flames first, and the hurricane of embers they shot flying up into the night sky. The flames went so high it was a miracle they didn’t melt the tram lines.

Then a cart would come by, blazing with flames, and you’d feel the heat, then inhale the smoke, and then swat stray embers out of your eyes and off your shoulders.

In researching this festival, it seems it dates back to pagan times; in addition to driving out evil spirits, the flames were meant to symbolize the sun and the coming summer (I think) as a means to drive out winter. Whether or not a flaming hay bale did roll down a hill and into the river, I know not. As soon as the final cart ambled by, we decided to beat the crowds to the train. This involved a rather worrying adventure, trying to make our way through the crowd of people who remained standing on the parade path. I felt like a little virus wriggling my way through a cell membrane and being fought off by a staunch ensemble of unmoving white blood cells with elbows. I could feel the relief once we’d all emerged safely on the other side of the emergency exit arch.

From there, we piled onto a packed train that deposited us back at SBB around 8:30 and we all parted ways until our next rendez-vous, a mere 7 hours later.

Once home, preparations were made for a 2am wakeup: the automatic coffee timer was set, Fasnacht pins (Blaggedde) fastened to coat lapels, layers of clothing set out on the dresser.

Last year, waking up at 2am felt like a drag, maybe because we didn’t know what to expect from Morgestreich, the 4am parade that kicks off Fasnacht celebrations. This year, knowing the excitement, it felt more like a tradition and I felt more energized. We packed thermoses of coffee and mimosas, I layered on several shirts and long underwear, and we caught an already-crowded 16 tram to where it dropped us at Theater, the closest stop we could get to. (During Fasnacht, the inner-stadt/inner-city of Basel is closed to trams.)

We arrived at a fountain at Rumelizplatz at 3:10am and faced a relatively quiet street. By 3:30, it was thrumming with pedestrians pouring in from the train station. Our friends in Aesch were among the crowd; while trains usually discontinue around 12:50 in the morning and restart again after 5am, on Morgestreich there’s one extra train from Aesch around 2:50.

We crammed in along the curb with the crowds, and around 3:58, the shushing began. All the hum and excitement, the people doing shots, the laughter and the chatter disappeared and everything went silent. In the street in front of us were lanterns and piccolo players in Harlequin dress, and drummers, all waiting on the call. At 3:59 and several seconds, from somewhere in the back alleys came the shout, “Morgestreich, vorwards march!” And at 4am exactly, all of the lights in the city go out and on cue, the piccolos pipe up and the cliques begin a march that lasts the morning and mostly consists of playing the same song over and over again, which I believe is called “Morgestreich”. As an onlooker, you get to see all of the lanterns they’ve worked to prepare, with many of them the result of hundreds of hours of careful hand-painting.

From what I understand, Fasnacht works like this. Each year, there is a theme, which is echoed in the design of the pin. This year’s pin, for example, features a metronome and three of the Fasnacht carnival figures: the Waggis (a caricature of an Alsacian peasant), the Harlequin, and the Ueli (sort of a jester figure with bells). The motto of the plaque is Zämme im Taggt, celebrating everything about carnival being “back in time” again since the pandemic; all of the events are back on and COVID restrictions are lifted.

From left to right: 2021 (Toilet paper, the COVID year, it’s upside down); 2022 (a large drum major, heavy from lots of eating and home office life during the pandemic; 2023 (the metronome)

Each clique chooses a sujet, or subject/theme, and they paint their lanterns to echo that sujet. They also write poems and songs that match it, too. This year, for example, we saw a group with an 80s-themed lantern and all of the children were dressed as Marty McFly or Doc. There are political messages, social messages, commentary on behavior or choices or world events. The lantern near where we were standing was a tattooed male torso on one side and the phrase “Vanitus Vanitum” on the back, along with tattooed images of humans taking selfies, only their faces were replaced by skulls.

Once the lanterns and cliques wound their way past us and the streets were temporarily empty, we wandered around the back alleys, stopping as cliques turned the corner and marched through, admiring the different lanterns.

From there, we wandered down to Marktplatz as they all circled the Rathaus and moved back up into the alleys and up Freie Strasse. We ended at Munsterplatz, where traditional Fasnacht snacks of Feyni Mählsuppe and Kääs und Ziibelekiechli are served and eaten by cold onlookers like us. (The mählsuppe, Swiss German for Mehlsuppe or flour soup, is made of beef bouillion, onion, and flour mostly, with some cheese, and has been eaten on Morgestreich since the early 19th century [according to Wikipedia].) While in line for the soup, a clique appeared in front of the Munster and marched along while performing a Star Wars medley, which warms you up just as much as a soup, really.

I’m pretty sure we lasted longer last year, even catching the sun rise over the Rhine, but Dan and I were on our way back towards home a little after 6am this year. (I blame the fire festival. Exhausting.)

As is quickly becoming tradition, we got home around 6:30 and I slept until 11, waking up to make coffee and hang out, enjoying the slow morning, until I hopped on a tram back downtown to meet Jen S for Cortege, the parade that I think was cancelled last year.

I wasn’t sure what to expect and was wary of people being absolutely insane; I heard that fruit and food get thrown at you from floats and people are drunken and stumbling around.

I was happy to find that this wasn’t true, at least not at 1:30pm. I stumbled luckily upon a spot near UBS (which, on its balcony overlooking Bankverein, boasted a ticking metronome and carnival figures to match the pin I wore on my zipper) where the first floats were beginning their parade.

The floats are gigantic, and are towed along by tractors. On them are the carnival figures, though I think they were mostly dominated by the Waggis figure. As they slowly crawl by, the Waggis throw out handfuls of confetti that look like colorful snow – and, for the record, it was actually snowing a little at the same time, the little pin-prick kind -, hand out beautiful yellow flowers, and throw oranges, leeks, and candy into the crowds. Unlike my imaginings, where they were cruelly lobbing oranges at people’s heads, they look around and try to make some kind of eye contact with you before throwing. You’re meant to put your hands up to indicate you want something, and then they throw it. I caught an orange and got a handful of flowers before finding John and Jen and following them onto Freie Strasse.

The Waggis

John caught leeks, flower seeds, and a bottle of barbecue sauce. Shawn nearly caught a beet, and I watched one Waggi throw a parsnip out to a lucky observer. The floats are incredible, designed to look like chalets and police wagons and, in one case, an impressive hill with pinwheels representing windmills and a telecabine at the back. Jen wondered if it was a statement against wind energy ruining the Swiss mountainside.

I would have stayed all night if I’d had better gloves and didn’t have a dentist appointment. Luckily, the Cortege parade happens again on Wednesday, so I’ll return then with a little bag for the food I catch and much warmer gloves.

Categories: Switzerland

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