Egonne Roth



Fasnacht in Basel

Posted by Egonne Roth on March 15, 2017 at 4:00 AM


It’s just after 3.30am when we leave the apartment to make our way to the old inner city of Basel. We’re not alone – many people are on the move, some in elaborate costumes, some with kids in carrier bags, all of us warmly dressed with scarves and hats and heavy jackets. It is cold – barely about 3* or 4*C. In the inner city up on the Münsterplatz, where it all began many centuries earlier there is a festive atmosphere in a manner peculiar to this Swiss city. Everyone is happy, though cold and quite serious: tonight, we as visitors will be allowed to observe a centuries old tradition that is enacted nowhere else in quite this manner. Visitors do not dress up nor may they wear masks, only those connected to one of the about 200 “cliques”.



The Basel festivities are not related to the Catholic traditions of Fasching that I described before and so it actually takes place during the first week of Lent: this part of Switzerland is Protestant. One of the earliest records date back to Ash Wednesday in 1376, when a jousting tournament on the Münsterplatz was the scene of a row between citizens and knights. The argument escalated into a blood bath and the local citizens chased off the noblemen, killing four of them in the process. This fateful day went down in the annals of Basel's history as the «Böse Fasnacht». By 1529, it was determined that Fasnacht should take place between the Monday and the Wednesday following Ash Wednesday and the oldest historical document describing the trading of masks and disguises ("Fasnachtsantlit") by painters and shopkeepers dates to the same year. The tradition of drumming began with 70 drummers nearly two centuries later; when the piccolos were introduced is unclear.


So, there we were in the early hours of Monday, 6 March, watching with groups of drummers and piccolo players, called cliques, dressed up in astounding costumes and large, beautifully painted masks milling around preparing to march. At exactly 4am the Cathedral bells rang and a voice announced the beginning of the Morgestraich. All the lights of the inner city went out and everything was in darkness. A cold breeze crept in under our jackets. Each clique presented a different message which determined their costumes barely visible in the light from the lanterns worn on the paraders’ heads and the light inside double-sided “floats” stating their theme.



The sound of drumming and piccolos filled the air: they marched and played, different groups interweaving with each other as they criss-crossed the inner city. At times it felt that the rhythm of the drummers caught between the walls of the old buildings was determining our heart beat.




We followed some of the cliques with their floats down towards the Marktplatz but eventually,


after about two hours we decided to go into one of the restaurants that were open and filled to the hilt to sample the traditional Fasnacht foods.  We were lucky and found two seats at a big table with several other people. The menu was simple: Mehlsuppe (a hearty broth made from flour and onion), and onion and cheese tarts served mostly with beer. Kids enjoyed thick rich hot chocolate.


We ordered a soup, which after the cold and wet outside warmed our very bones and the beer quenched our thirst. We sat watching the comings and goings of the throngs of hungry revellers


until the music outside drew us out in the streets where the soft drizzle did nothing to dampen the festive atmosphere. Next to the street masks and latnterns are left while their owners eat but noone would dare to touch or steel them!


Eventually our feet objected and we left the inner city to find our transport home.


Later in the day and the next we were back on the streets watching more cliques with the unique costumes and floats.


We were pelted with sweets, oranges, confetti, even vegetables.



The kids had an excellent technique: with one hand they held out a sweet and the minute you drew closer to take it, they threw confetti at you.


We had confetti in our hair and in our glasses, in our bras and down our backs and some were still falling out of our jackets when we walked out of Ben Gurion Airport. We photographed as many people as we could and enjoyed the fun – old people and young people, kids and their grandparents playing in the same bands,


little ones in push chairs and dogs calmly watching from the side lines: it was unlike anything we had experienced before. There’s a reason why it has changed its name from “Böse Fasnacht” (Evil Carnival) to “Die Drey Scheenschte Dääg ( meaning the three most beautiful days of the year).


And all the time the restaurants were open serving the same three dishes – Mehlsuppe and onion or cheese tart – and beer and in two full days of celebrations we saw two drunk men – only two! Imagine that...



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