Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fasnacht in Basel

When I meet other members of ZIWA (Zurich International Women's Association) for the first time, they usually ask what things I do with ZIWA. I always mention that I try to participate in any of the Swiss Festival trips planned. In January, I met a Swiss woman who followed this pattern and then proceeded to tell me what she thought the best Swiss festival is: the Morgenstreich in Basel. She told me it is a parade of lit lanterns that begins Basel's Fasnacht festivities at 4 am! I came home and researched what she'd told me and gradually our plans evolved. Tom was able to take a day off from work and go with me.

We arrived in Basel on Sunday afternoon with plenty of time to walk around exploring. We found the parade route for the next day and enjoyed being outside on a beautiful day (early arrival of Spring weather was perfect for Fasnacht). Basel is a pretty city, don't you think? 

main station as seen from our hotel room

top of Rathaus

Munster as seen from the tower in photo above

I think Basel is considered the Fasnacht capital of Switzerland and we saw plenty of evidence to support that claim as we wandered around the city. 

building painted with scenes of Fasnacht parade

drummers going to their meeting point

piccolos for sale
not for sale, but very cool

nice combo
not for sale, Jenny, sorry!

For Sale - only 845 CHF!!!
Information I read in advance told us the area around the cathedral would become a display of the lanterns after the parade. I believe those concrete blocks were used to stabilize the displays. We didn't stay long enough to know for sure. Old lanterns were hung as decorations in the area.

old lanterns are now decorations

lantern on wheels ready to go

this lantern is carried

youth piccolo band

Fasnacht is supported by the sale of "badges" or small pins of various sizes and prices. These costumed men were selling the badges in the train station. We had already bought ours from someone in regular street clothes. How boring! 

We learned from one of Tom's colleagues (originally from Basel) about another festive event that happens the evening before the Morgenstreich. This one was in another town, Liestal, a short train ride away. The Chienbäse is a procession of people carrying torches through the old city gate. There would also be bonfires on carts. Sounded so odd, we had to go see it. The purpose of this is unclear. It probably started as a pagan festival and now, it's tradition! They've been doing it for years.

We got there early enough to see remnants of other festivities that must have been going on that beautiful Sunday afternoon. We missed the confetti toss, but we saw the evidence.

lots of confetti everywhere

Even some of the folks out to watch the festivities come in costumes. 

minion family

getting ready for the parade

people waiting for procession to pass on the way to the old city gate

Wandering around Liestal, we saw lots of wood that would later be burning.


USA, confetti and "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil"

The procession started with people in costumes and bands. Once the sun set, the groups with lights came along the way. 

previews of the next day:  large lanterns and lanterns as head gear while playing piccolos


Eventually the fire came. It ended up being a bit scary. I had no idea there would be so many people with torches or that the bonfires would be so close to the bystanders. We were lined up along the street with buildings behind us. There was nowhere to go if the fire had gotten out of control. 
lots of spectators!

fireman preparing hose

I was glad to see there was a fire department presence  as well and they had hoses ready to use. They stomped out embers that fell to the ground (and started to burn the confetti laying there). They also had buckets and sponges. If anyone stopped and rested their torch, the fireman squeezed water onto his back and neck. Judging by the heat I could feel, those torch bearers certainly needed the relief. 

fireman applying water relief


TV interview

fallen embers

Bonfire cart coming through the gate. After every one, the gate was hosed down to prevent it from catching fire.

One time they stopped a bonfire cart right in front of where we were standing. It was probably only there 10-15 seconds, but in that time the heat was incredibly intense. We were all backing up into each other to get as far away as possible. I actually got a few tiny singe marks on my jacket! I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by that, but I was. The other unfortunate part of the experience was getting up close and personal with a drunken Swiss man. He was staggering into Tom who "helped" him get up the curb and away. He took offense to this and proceeded to yell right into Tom's face. I could see him gesturing that he wanted to pour beer on Tom's head or shake his cigarette ashes on him. It took his wife all her strength to control him. I was very relived when she eventually was able to lead him away.

We went back to Basel and our hotel for some sleep. Wake up time of 3:00 am was quickly approaching. After minimal sleep, we were up and dressed for the early morning festivities. We were forced to wear the same jackets that now reeked of smoke. Why did I not foresee that and bring another jacket? Oh well. Exiting our hotel near the main train station, we followed the others heading toward the parade route.  No problem figuring out which way to go! 

We certainly weren't alone at the early hour!
Promptly at 4:00 am all the street lights went out and a continuous stream of huge lanterns on carts and piccolo/percussion bands with lanterns on heads began. The people were also wearing costumes, but those were only visible when someone's flash went off. I think every child in the Basel area must learn to play either piccolo or drums. Plenty of the people playing were adults - probably doing this every year since childhood. 

Here's a sample of some of the large lanterns.

here you can see how the lantern is transported

Smaller lanterns were worn on the heads of the musicians. They were harder to photograph because there is less light. I don't know why, but google doesn't allow me to put up video anymore. If you want to see them in motion with sound, you have to look at facebook.

use of flash allows costumes to be visible

participants are mostly adults

On the way back to the hotel for some more sleep, we saw abandoned costumes and lanterns. It was nice to see them up close.

notice lanterns attached to tops of discarded heads

Urban Gardening - in English!

After our nap and acceptance that it was actually morning, we checked out of the hotel and wandered around while waiting for the last of our Fasnacht experiences of 2014 to begin. We were able to view some of the floats up close - lots of commentary on events of the past year: NSA eavesdropping, Snowden and Oprah's shopping problem in Switzerland. I didn't necessarily understand the others poking fun at the Swiss.

can you hear me now?

Oprah's purses

participants of all ages

confetti for sale!

lunch before the parade: sausages, what else?
cute spectator

Once the parade started, there was a steady stream of activity and just like a parade from last Spring, it went in both directions. Bands in costumes were primarily either all brass or all piccolos; both had percussion. We were in the front row of spectators which made it easy to determine which of the musicians could play well and which could not (or had too much beer already). Some floats were just for show and others had costumed people on them. In that case, they were usually throwing things: confetti, oranges, candy or small trinkets. Some people had come to the parade prepared with bags to carry home what they collected. Other marchers, mostly children, were handing out satirical poems. Tom took a few, but since they were written in Basler Deutsch, they were difficult to read.

no confetti in my bell!

hole in mask for mouthpiece


eye hole in neck
want a poem?

nice hairy arms!

Remember, this parade is in Basel and they are enjoying poking fun at Zurich. The Oprah "you can't afford that purse" embarrassment occurred in Zurich, not Basel. The store committing the offense was Trois Pommes (Three Apples). Purse on left has a price tag from the Three Prunes!

traveling in style
 There were celebrities present, which is no surprise. Maybe you recognize them?

such rowdy behavior for His Holiness

leading the band of pawns
walking chess pieces

can you tell we're Swiss?

I've given you a small sample of the kinds of costumes we saw. The heads to the right were the most common "look". Bright, monochromatic hair (like the old Koosh balls) on a head with a huge nose and grin. I think that must be the traditional Basler Fasnacht mask. 

Tom got some great pictures showing the action.

heads up! incoming orange
confetti canon


more fruit

The photo below gives you an idea of what it must be like inside the mask. This guy came up to me and told me I should send him a text message. His eye holes are under the huge nose! Notice how much confetti I collected in my scarf.

The parade started at 1:30 pm. By 5:00, we agreed that we had seen enough, but it was still going strong! I have no idea how long it continued. We headed back to Zurich shedding confetti along the way. The next day was an unplanned laundry day - the smoke smell had to go.

Three Fasnacht events together made for a very long post. The next one will be shorter, I promise.