Basel Fasnacht – Three Day Carnival!

The Basel Fasnacht, three crazy Carnival days in Basel, drew to its close at 4 am this morning, as I write!

Let the Basel Fasnacht begin!

Basel in Switzerland has a three day Mardi Gras known as the Basel Fasnacht! The idea of a three Carnival really fuelled my imagination!  So, I headed to Basel by train, travelling from the bottom to the top of Switzerland in a mere 3 hours. This meant that I arrived on Sunday afternoon with plenty of time to orient myself and to discover that my hotel, Hotel D, was on the Parade route. Then, despite the cold, I went for a walk to explore the Old Town.  The excitement was already in the air! There were lots of little groups, known as Cliques, roaming around playing their piccolos. And, plenty of eating and drinking was already happening! But I was very fascinated by the lanterns appearing in the square. However, this one caught my attention! And, I was keen to know the identity of this guy!

Fasnacht lantern in Münsterplatz

Monday – Morgenstreich

The  Fasnacht began at 4 am last Monday.  And, by 3 am the crowds were already streaming into the streets of the Old Town. So, I found a spot in a narrow cobble stone lane with views over the Rhine River. Given the freezing cold,  the majestic Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (The Three Kings) did look very inviting!

Basel Fasnacht
Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (The Three Kings) on the Rhine River

Suddenly, at 4 am, the city was plunged into darkness. Then, ever so slowly,  the distant echoes of drums and piccolos pierced the silence of the night. Next, eerie masked figures emerged from the darkness beating their drums and carrying brightly lit lanterns.

The Fasnacht is famous for its satirical and humorous themes focusing on social and political issues of the previous year. Consequently, lanterns painted by well-known and emerging artists, cleverly convey these messages. So, here are my first fascinating glimpses of these amazing art works.

I spent many amazing hours wandering around the medieval streets with the crowds enjoying the lanterns and music. Then, at day break, I went back to my Hotel for a nap.  But, the local people went off to restaurants for their traditional breakfast of flour soup and onion and cheese tarts.

Monday – Cortège, Street Parade

Despite the early start to the day, the celebrations were far from over. And, at 1:30 pm, the second highlight of the day began. This is a street parade in which 12 000 Fashächtler march or are carried on floats to the tune of the Guggemusik bands.

The crowds were enormous, despite the pouring rain.  But, I found a great spot to stand near the Mittlere Brücke Bridge where the Parades were going in both directions.  However, I have to admit, the most amazing spectacle was the woman next to me, who filled up a wheel barrow with handouts thrown from the floats! And, here is her wheelbarrow, mostly filled with sweets!

The music, floats, and festivities continued well into the night. Finally, late in the evening, when the ground was littered with inches of confetti, flowers, oranges, carrots, onions, potatoes, sweets and all kinds of rubbish, the locals drifted away. Mostly, they went to specially designated restaurants and cellars run by the Cliques to hear the Schnitzelbänggler perform. In other words, they indulged in the pleasure of ridiculing controversial social and political topics. Since this all happens in melody and verse spoken in the German dialect unique to Basel, I thought it best to return to my hotel!

Tuesday – Children’s Fasnacht and Gugge concert

During the night I was awakened by a noise so loud I thought it was a fireworks display.  And, I was feeling annoyed that no one had told me about it. However, when I ventured out the following morning, all the rubbish in the streets was gone! Clearly, there were no fireworks, but some very efficient street cleaners had been at work in the night!

Basil Fasnacht
Basil Fasnacht Lanterns

Next morning I ventured off to the Old Town. And, when I arrived at the Münsterplatz, I discovered that the square was lined with all the lanterns of the Cliques. Then, I recognized many of my favourites and their meanings. For instance, the guy with the big eyes turned out to be someone’s ‘personal Jesus’. And, here he is right in front of the Cathedral!

So, Tuesday is a day dedicated to having a close look at all the lanterns and thinking about their subtle meanings.

The whole experience transported me back to Duchamp and ‘dada’. In fact, there were several ‘dada’ floats. This helped me see the connection between the Basnacht and the ‘dada’ movement in art.

Here are some of my favourite messages!  It would seem that Venus is very unhappy about the rubbish accumulating in our oceans!


Wednesday – a rousing end

The Fasnacht continued for another day and a half!  And, there were more bands; more eating and drinking; and more parades! Also, there was another grand Parade at 1:30 pm on Wednesday! Then, there were more celebrations in bars and restaurants lasting well into the night. Eventually, at 4 am, this morning, the very exhausted, but very happy citizens of Basel bid a fond farewell to this year’s Fasnacht.

And so, the ‘three most beautiful days of the year’ have ended!  But,  I am quite sure, the people of Basel are already planning next year’s Fasnacht!

A Little Basel Fasnacht History

The Basel Fasnacht is Switzerland’s largest and the world’s most important Protestant Carnival. Its origins lie in the medieval tradition of fasting for Lent.  In the Catholic tradition, there were big celebrations on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, followed by heaps of penance in Lent. Hence the term ‘Mardi Gras’ meaning ‘rich food on Tuesday’!  But, in the Protestant tradition the Carnival begins on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday. So, this year it was last Monday.

The people of Basel can trace this celebration back 700 years. But, an earthquake almost completely destroyed the city in 1356, and most historical documents were lost. It seems the oldest surviving reference, from 1376, refers to the ‘Böse Fasnacht’ or ‘evil carnival’.  So, I guess this is why it is somewhat spooky!

Other distractions

Basel is a city of culture!

The City has nearly 40 museums! The Kuntsmuseum and the Fondation Beyeler were top of my list. The Kuntsmuseum has around 4000 paintings, sculptures, installations and videos; as well as 300 000 drawings. The sublime landscape and figurative paintings by the Swiss artist, Hoddler were my favourites. But, I have to give a word of warning not to take photographs in this Museum.  The guards get very nasty if you do!

It took about 20 minutes by tram to get to the Fondation Beyeler. But, it was well worth it!  To mark its 20th anniversary, there is a Monet exhibition of 62 works from many major art museums and private collectors. And, it is very impressive!

Basel is home to an enormous selection of bars, clubs and restaurants, many of which provide excellent entertainment. Bar Rouge is highly recommended!  But, what excites me the most is the 20 restaurants with Michelin stars. The Cheval Blanc, at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (the three kings) boasts three Michelin stars!

In addition, nearly every evening there are major dance, opera and drama productions.  And, the Basel Symphony Orchestra is world-class! Also, there are heaps of theatres, jazz bars, music clubs and music festivals.

And in case, all this is not enough to keep you entertained, France and Germany are just over the border. So, I would have to say, Basel is very much at the cultural heart of Europe!



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