Standing in the dark and freezing cold on a windy bridge at 2am takes some determination. Particularly when you know that you’ll have to defend the same spot for another two hours and more. But, that’s the price you’ll have to pay to watch a unique spectacle: the beginning of the Basler Fasnacht, called ‘Morgestraich’.
Wrap up warmly and keep a little something for added inner warmth in your pocket, whilst more and more carnival enthusiast gather around you. Contrary to other carnivals in Europe, nobody wears a mask or has their face painted. Carnival in Switzerland is a serious affair, but that doesn’t mean there is no fun to be had. It’s only that things have to be’ just so’. The entire carnival lasts exactly 72 hours, not a minute more not a minute less.
Starting with the Morgestraich. At 4am on the dot, the inner city of Basle is plunged into absolute darkness. There is even a law which allows shopkeepers to be fined if they don’t switch off the illumination in their window displays.
Then out of the darkness comes the eerie sound of hundreds of piccolo pipes and drums accompanied by marching feet. Slowly, huge lanterns sway into view, decorated with bizarre figures including grinning sculls. They are carried by the members of the different carnival societies, called cliques.
The flickering lights inside the lanterns cast their glow on the even more bizarre costumes of the clique members. They are covered from head to toe with huge masks featuring massive noses, wide, grinning mouths and wigs in all colors. The whole impression is mesmerizing and a little bit frightening.
The crowds which line the designated route the Morgestraich is taking, watch in awe and silence. No cheering, no applause only the sound of pipes, drums and marching feet.
An estimated 100.000 visitors come to Basle each Fasnacht and none of them want to miss the Morgestraich which is the most characteristic feature. That’s why I had to be up and on the bridge so early because the Middle Bridge over the river Rhine is one of the best viewing points.
When the parade is finished, people disperse and so do the clique members. It isn’t quite daylight yet, but dawn is breaking, the city lights are being switched on and it’s time for breakfast. By that, I mean breakfast Fasnacht style.
Numerous cafes and restaurants are to be found around Barfuesserplatz, Basle’s central square. Despite it being winter, tables and long wooden benches are set up outside to accommodate the hungry and thirsty masses.
They all have Mehlsuppe, a dark brown, piping hot, thick flour soup in which huge chunks of cheese are melting. The waitresses ladle helpings out of big pots into the plates of the hungry guests. Followed by Kaesweihe, a sort of quiche, washed down with beer, tea or wine, I quickly forgot cold and tiredness and engaged in animated conversation with my bench fellows. You need hatry food, because the Basler Fasnacht requires stamina.
Cliques and loners
Basle’s Fasnacht is a strange combination of lone individuals and animated cliques.The clique members work all year and the theme for their floats which are paraded the next day.
They also perform short plays in the evening in various venues, called Schnitzelbaenk. Satire and persiflage rule, making fun of local and international politics and other subjects which have made headlines during the year.
You’ll understand what the colorful floats are about, but not the words of the plays and sketches unless you speak Baselduetsch. Even knowledge of German doesn’t help much but even so, it’s worth to take a look.
What is truly unique though, are the lone pipers and drummers. Dressed in their particular costume, they roam the streets of Basle for hours, on their own and playing the same tune on their pipe or drum over and over again.
Waeggis and Alte Tante
Here are several traditional disguises, the most popular being the Waeggis. People who are wearing these costumes, day and night, are allowed to tackle passers by, telling them off or making fun of them.
Make sure you are wearing a Fasnacht button, a plaque which is sold everywhere and comes in silver, gold and bronze. If you don’t, a naughty Waeggis might come up to you and whack you over the head with his paper club.
The traditional costumes are often worn by people who are the opposite to what they represent. Alte Tante (old aunt) is a favorite with young girls and Schickse (young girl) often conceals a respectable Basler matron. It’s essential that every part of the body, including the hands, are covered. The masks are only lifted a fraction to eat and drink.
Like the lone pipers and drummers, there apparitions roam the streets and are free to tell anybody they meet what they think. It’s called intriguieren and a great part of the Fasnachr fun for the locals.
Floats and parades
The second day of the 72 hours is dedicated to a long parade of the elaborate floats manned by the various cliques. Again, they follow a designated route along the streets of Basle and on this occasion the onlookers cheer and applaud. They are rewarded with sweets thrown from the floats into the crowd.
Getting drunk and misbehaving is seriously frowned upon. No arm linking and beer bottle raising like at the carnival in Germany. Eating and drinking is done in the baizes (restaurants) and plenty..don’t get me wrong.
There is more to seen and admire than just the floats. Horse drawn richly decorated carriages parade and an entire afternoon is dedicated to the entertainment of kids.
Again, 4am is the crucial hour to say Good Bye to the Fasnacht after exactly 72 hours. Less organized and impressive than at the Morgestraich, the cliques gather for the last time and for a last concert of pipes and drums around Barfuesser and Muensterplatz.
The three most beautiful days of the year, as the natives call their Fasnacht, are over until next year.
IF you go:
Hotel prices in Basle during Fasnacht are sky high. Germany and France are close by and you might find more affordable accommodation there. Some hotels in Loerrach even offer bus transport to the Morgestraich.
Shops and banks are closed during Fasnacht.
Buy a Fasnacht button and wear it in plain view.