When I was younger and living in Italy I used to celebrate Carnival every year. My parents would dress me up in costumes and take me out to play on the streets. Throwing confettis and eating Carnival sweets were my favourite activities. Carnival is surely the most fun holiday for kids, but it can be exciting for adults too. Cities all around Europe fill the streets with colours and music at this time of the year, celebrating with their own set of traditions and rituals.
One of the most incredible Carnival experiences I’ve ever had was in Basel where Fasnacht is celebrated in February or March every year. It is considered Switzerland’s largest Carnival and is such a unique and historical event that Unesco recently recognized it as an event of “intangible heritage”.
Highlights of Fasnacht
Locals consider Fasnacht the “three best days” of the year in Basel. It’s a no-stop party which lasts exactly 72 hours: from 4am on Monday (the week after Ash Wednesday) to 4am on Thursday. It’s a chaotic yet surprisingly organised festival, one that is deeply rooted into Basel culture and history.
Monday Morning – Morgenstreich
Basel Carnival kicks off with a pre-dawn parade, a tradition that’s been going on since 1808. All lights in the city centre are switched off and over 200 illuminated canvas lanterns glow in the dark.
The lanterns are carried around the old town, followed by the “Cliques”. These are traditional formations of piccolo and basler drum players. They pretty much will keep on marching and playing music for 72 hours straight!
It’s a magical and mesmerizing show of light and sounds, which I was lucky to watch it from a top viewing point: a first floor apartment overlooking Marktplatz, Basel’s main square.
After the parade, we walked to restaurant Teufelhof for an early breakfast of traditional flour soup (mehlsuppe) and onion and cheese tarts, before retiring to our hotel Swissotel Le Plaza (15-20 minute walk from Marktplatz) for a hot bath and some sleep.
Monday Afternoon – Cortège
On Monday afternoon, we followed the popular Cortège, the carnival street parade. Fasnacht participants of the cortège wear traditional masks and costumes, such as the “waggis” (ie. the vagabond or day labourer),
Over 10,000 masked participants, the Cliques and Guggemusik bands (traditional brass bands) march on foot or on wagons through the city centre. You can find their set route here.
It is pure mayhem. Confetti are thrown around everywhere…flowers, oranges and candies are as well! Mainly it’s kids who approach the wagons asking for candies, but I tried my luck and managed to get some sweets too. The risk of getting to close to the wagons is that you might receive a shower of confetti!
Don’t be surprised if a stranger walks up to you to stuff a handful of confetti into your coat… Anything can happen during Fasnacht!
Don’t Forget To
Buy the carnival badge (“blagedde”) in copper, silver or gold to support Fasnacht. Profits go to the participating groups to help them cover their costs, such as costumes, lanterns and floats.
Go to Münsterplatz between Monday evening and Wednesday morning to see all of the lanterns on display. They are made from wood and canvas, and some of them are over three meters high! They are decorated with paintings and rhymes that make fun of a particular sujet, a local event from the past year.
A different theme is chosen every year and transposed to the costumes, masks, and lanterns. In 2017 it was “breaking out of the frame”.
You will also find Schnitzelbank performers mainly in pubs, restaurants and clique cellars. They perform rhymed, humorous or satirical verses focused on current events, usually accompanied by a musical instrument.
Tuesday is officially Children’s Day, so while there is still a parade, things are a little bit quieter. On Tuesday evening is all about the Gugge music bands: masked musicians march to Marktplatz following a star-shaped route. The celebrations continue all day Wednesday with more music and parades.
In between Carnival events, take the time time to explore the city – and fall in love with it! Basel has a very pretty town and is full of charming buildings, squares, alleys and bridges.
Basel is known as the culture capital of Switzerland and a great destination for art lovers. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit one of the city’s 40 museums or countless galleries, but I did have time to explore the charming old town.
For places to eat, I highly recommend 1777 Kaffee-Restaurant-Bar which serves nice food in the old town. Finally, I couldn’t leave Basel without visiting Confiserie Bachmann (I loved the schoggiweggli chocolate buns) and buying chocolate at Läderach.
Thursday – Endstreich
Fasnacht ends on Thursday at 4am, exactly 72 hours after it started, with the Endstreicht parade of lanterns and Cliques.
The tired participants take their masks and drums off, but they will treasure the memories of the best three days for the rest of the year. Until the next Fasnacht!
Basler Fasnacht Carnival takes place on 18 – 21 February 2018. You can book a travel package here.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Tourism Basel. All opinions are my own.