Reunion in Basel
Basel is a popular Swiss city that is bordered by France and Germany. It is one of the bigger cities in Switzerland and is famous for housing big pharmaceutical brands, famous architecture and a lot of Swiss culture. Our trip to Basel happened almost immediately after we arrived in Switzerland. Prior to coming to Switzerland I had contacted my grandmother and her husband, who reside in the popular Swiss city. They were, to say the least, very excited to see me again. The last time I had seen my grandparents (though we had been in touch through social media) was my last visit to Switzerland in 1997, when I was only a child. One of my most distinct memories from this visit, other than visiting a glacier in the Alps, was watching a local festival which I now know was called the Basler Fasnacht.
The Basler Fasnacht
The Basler Fasnacht (Carnival of Basel) is the oldest Pentecostal festival held in the world. It takes place annually between February and March, or specifically, the Monday after Ash Wednesday. The festival opens at 4 am in a grand ceremony called Morgenstraich (meaning in English, Morning Prank) and continues for 3 days .
Basler Fasnacht creates comical yet ironic social commentary on politics, both international and local. Bands of parade participants (with the most notable set known as Cliques) create large lanterns highlighting and mocking current events. There are many different events that occur within the three days of the carnival such as a children’s carnival as well as a lantern exhibition. Needless to say it is a very big deal for the city of Basel.
Let the Festivities Begin!
On Monday morning the entire city is in complete darkness. Why is that? Well, Basel’s utility company removes electricity from the whole city. As a result of this, the onlooking crowd is greeted only by the lights of massive lanterns referred to as Zugslaterne (large wheel-mounted parade lanterns that are pulled by 2-4 persons). The members of each Clique also wear individual lanterns on their heads, known as Kopflaterne (head lanterns).
Once the clock strikes exactly 4 am the leaders of each Clique signify the beginning of the festival with a cry of “Morgestraich, vorwärts marsch!” (“Morgestraich, forward march!”). All the musical instruments simultaneously begin to play their own melodies. The Cliques march around the entire city of Basel non-stop and are all present until the end of the festival.
It seemed as if every single resident of Basel was out and about to experience this very culturally significant festival; even tourists were present. I could certainly see the pride that the residents of Basel felt for their carnival. From the thought and craftsmanship put into making the costumes and lanterns, right down to their dedication to come out at 4 am to see the festival’s start. It was truly a sight to see.
Irony at its Best!
Along the way, of course, we saw some very comical and bordering rude lanterns. Despite being drawn in a very childlike and comical manner, I questioned the appropriateness of some of these lanterns for children. Even though I could not understand the text written on the lanterns, some carried messages that were very clear. There were floats showing a comical drawing of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, America’s Uncle Sam, and even some speaking about gay rights.
The Day Parade
After 2 hours of watching the Cliques march throughout the city we headed back home. It was indeed necessary to get a few hours sleep before going back to the old town to enjoy more carnival festivities. The events of the afternoon were slightly different from the Morgenstraich commencement. Large trucks with different bands of persons dressed in comical costumes drove through the streets. These costumes had exaggeratedly large human features and are known as “Waggis”.
The Waggis could be spotted all throughout the city being comical or giving treats to carnival paraders. Children were, of course, excited by this custom as, like most children do, they loved candy! Children from all around would shout “Waggis, Waggis” to prompt these costumed characters to throw candy their way. Not to be left out, the Waggis also ensured that the adults got their own form of carnival gifts, often in the form of small bottles of liquor or small metal flasks.
Some Waggis were even on smaller more comical forms of transportation (decorated bicycles etc.). The Waggis, in true nature of the Fasnacht theme of comedy, often chased carnival goers in order to throw large amounts of confetti at them (I can’t say I was never a victim of this). They would also give more healthy treats such as fruits and vegetables to carnival goers, as well as flowers (though only to the ladies).
Wherever there’s a carnival there’s food right? Of Course! There was a non-stop availability of street eats, and even some that were only specific to Basel. There were traditional Swiss foods like “Chäschüechli” a pie made from cheese, roasted sugar coated almonds, Raclette (a melted cheese dish- Switzerland IS the world capital of cheese right? Yum!) and of course Bratwurst (sausages- Let’s call this one of the top 5 foods of Switzerland as well) of all different kinds! One particular food I had that was special to Basel was a soup they called Basler Mehlsuppe (Basel flour soup). Despite its peculiarity in being made from flour, it was actually quite tasty.
It was clear to me that visiting bars and restaurants (which joining in on the festivities left their doors open for these 72 hours) was a common tradition. I could certainly see the relevance of this tradition also as:
- The festival is held in the winter season so therefore one of the best ways to keep warm is to get cozy inside a warm restaurant/bar drinking hot chocolate (lets also mention that alcohol is a great way to keep the body warm!)
- It creates a nice social bonding between the people who are all enjoying the festivities as well
These bars and restaurants were also all decorated with carnival decor, thus making it a great place to celebrate.
Another interesting and fun custom I recognized was that special types of Cliques, specifically called Guggemusig, also entered bars to play live music for the patrons. The Guggemusig are special because rather than playing only drums or piccolos, they instead played brass instruments. It was certainly a fun and lively experience. One particular Guggemusig band took over the restaurant we had been sitting in and played music for almost 45 minutes! People sang, danced on stage and got on tables to belt out lyrics to the songs being played (I remember one of the songs they played was Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance). It was a great time! The good vibes, laughter and smiles from all around was certainly infectious.
Welcome to Switzerland
Although I was only able to experience one day of the three day festivities, it was certainly a great way to begin my stay in Switzerland. It was like a welcome, if you would call it that. My trip to the Basler Fasnacht was also a perfect bridge from my childhood to my adult years as I got to connect the two through a festival I had experienced with my grandparents so many years ago.