Carnivals mean floats, parades, costumes, and parties. It’s a time to be a little wild and go a little crazy before lent starts. It’s a time when rules do not apply.
Unless you are in Basel. The carnival in Basel – the Basler Fasnacht – sure has all the floats, costumes and parties. It’s also wild and crazy. Just in a very orderly fashion.
Different - But in the Best Possible Way
The Fasnacht carnival in Basel is the only protestant carnival in the world and has been around since the 14th century. It starts at 4 AM on the Monday after Ash Wednesday – yes, rebellious Basel celebrates carnival during lent – and it lasts exactly 72 hours.
With colorful costumes, marching bands and the world famous fife and drum formations, reminiscent of military tattoos, the city becomes a magical place.
It’s difficult to describe magical places – so you should probably get up at an ungodly hour on Monday morning, put on some warm clothes, and experience it for yourself!
Highlights of Basler Fasnacht 2019
Monday (Mar 11, 2019)
Morgestraich: The Fasnacht starts at 4 AM sharp, when all the lights in the city will be turned off. The Morgestraich features a parade with the typical fifers and drums and beautiful hand-painted lanterns. It’s truly enchanting. And crowded.
Cortege: This is the big parade with all the floats and marching bands (Gugge). Make sure you wear your carnival badge (Blagette) and get ready to have confetti (Räppli), flowers (Mimösli), oranges, and candy thrown at you.
Gässle: Every night, the fife and drum formations wander through the inner city of Basel. I intentionally said wander because there is no specific route. The original formations often split up and play together in new combinations. Just stroll along with them and experience a new side of Basel by night.
Laternenausstellung: Starting on Monday night and ending on Wednesday morning, all the lanterns from the Morgestraich will be displayed at Münsterplatz. If you get a chance, check them out at night when they are lit up.
Tuesday (Mar 12, 2019)
Kinderfasnacht: On Tuesday, there’s a big parade especially for all the kids.
(Useful side note: Parents can pick up a kids' badge for free at the local police stations. It is a special badge with all the contact information in case the kid gets lost.)
Gugge Konzert: In the evening, all the marching bands play a big concert downtown. They cannot take part in the Morgestraich, so Tuesday night is their time to shine (loudly).
Wednesday (Mar 13, 2019)
It’s basically Monday, minus the Morgestraich.
Respect the Rules of Fasnacht
Remember the rules I mentioned earlier? Now that you know where to go, let’s look at what (not) to do there.
Above anything else, you need to be aware that you are a spectator and not a participant. In Basel, there is a strict separation between the two, and the spectators do not dress up, wear funny hats or paint their faces. They look like, well, like they always do. Normal.
But that’s only the beginning.
In Basel, carnival fun is serious business. I were you, I’d follow all the rules below because you do not want to be that person and end up with confetti everywhere. I literally mean everywhere.
- For the Morgestraich, show up on time – actually, be a little early. This should be pretty self-explanatory. We are in Switzerland, after all.
- During the Morgestraich, neither use a flash when taking pictures nor turn on a flashlight.
- Wear a carnival badge (Blagette). They make different versions at different prices and the Blagette is like the magical key to be part of the experience without ending up with confetti in all the wrong places (where it has the tendency to stay for weeks)...
- Do not walk through the formations.
- Do not dress up unless you are part of a carnival group.
- Do not pick up confetti from the ground. People will know when you did. (In Basel even the confetti follows rules: The groups buy giant bags of confetti – all the confetti in these bags will have the same color. If you throw confetti which is not single colored, everyone will know that you picked it up from the ground.)
- Do not throw confetti at active participants of the carnival. If they throw it at you, quietly count to ten and smile.
- Do not throw any of the candy or fruit back at the floats.
- Do not bring an umbrella to any of the parades.
- Make sure you eat as much Mehlsuppe (it's flour soup, but it's way more delicious than it sounds) and Zwiebelwähe oder Käsewähe (onion quiche or cheese quiche) as you can.
Got it? Good. I’ll see you in Basel, then!
You will probably find me enjoying the Gässle. It’s my favorite part of the Fasnacht, and it gives me goose bumps every time. It’s a beautiful mixture of melancholy and joie de vivre that you can only find in Basel.
Plus, there is usually less confetti, so that always helps.
(All photographs are copyright by Bill Harby)