The Swiss Life: Basler Fasnacht 2019

Happy Friday, y’all. It’s certainly a good Friday that involved a dinner of Mexican food, a UCI win (this is the one year I’ll follow March Madness), a new album from Jenny Lewis, and I will finally be writing my blog post about Fasnacht.

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In the many months leading up to my move out here to Switzerland, there were many things that I was looking forward to. However, one of the things I was most excited for was Basel’s big Carnival celebration. The centuries old Basler Fasnacht is celebrated a week after most other places have their own carnival celebrations and takes place in the 72 hour period (starting 4 am Monday and ending at 4 am Thursday). The event is interesting in that it’s festive, beautiful, surreal and a little somber all at once. I also saw a different and oftentimes chaotic view of Basel, something you don’t get the other 362 days of the year. In short, it was quite an experience.

Morgenstreich

Fasnacht kicks off at 4 am on Carnival Monday in the center of the Old Town. At exactly 4 am, all of the lights of the city shut off and a parade of cliques with bright, often political lanterns commences with a chorus of drums and flutes throughout the city.

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The cliques are an important part of Fasnacht as they are one of the more formal types of formations that travel around the city. They are dressed in elaborate and often slightly eerie costumes and play the flute throughout the city. They’re a pretty core fixture you see around Basel during Carnival.

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To be out at the Altstadt in time for Morgenstreich, we had to be up around 3. We got to Marktplatz around 3:45 and found a good spot. Things never got too crowded where it was hard to see, but we did move at some point across the square to try to get different views of the lanterns. There was also a pretty good Trump lantern we wanted to get a better view of.

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After about an hour, the parade dispersed a little and the cliques dispersed into processions moving throughout the city. We fought the crowds a little to start making our way towards the bridge to cross back to Klein Basel, but didn’t leave without partaking in another Fasnacht tradition, the burnt flour soup.

Despite the fact that it is ridiculously early, many restaurants are open to sell the soup, some local onion and cheese breads and, of course, 5 am alcohol. We took part in all of those. I have to say that while the concept of burnt flour soup did not sound particularly appetizing, it was really good. It kind of tasted like a thicker French onion soup. Of course, since all of the lights of the Altstadt had to be shut off, we ate in pitch dark in the restaurant.

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Exhausted and full of food and alcohol, we all went back to sleep for a few hours to get back some of the sleep that we lost in the morning activities.

Cortège

Monday and Wednesday afternoons of Fasnacht have a giant parade that goes through the city. The Cliques march through the Cortège but are also joined by the Gugge bands (brass bands) and many, many floats. Based on a last-minute piece of advice, we situated ourselves right in front of the Kunstmuseum for the Monday afternoon Cortège. Not only was this area never particularly crowded of people, but it allowed us to follow two different parade routes.

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The people on the floats hand out (and throw) a number of things into the crowd. This includes fruit (mostly oranges), vegetables, candy, toys and assorted other items (including tissues for whatever reason). Children will follow the floats with bags to collect all the candy. Of course, they also will throw confetti at the spectators. There is confetti everywhere during Fasnacht and I mean everywhere. Now, you’re supposedly less likely to get confetti’ed if you’re wearing one of the Blaggede (Fasnacht pins sold in the months leading up to Fasnacht for fundraising). Mine did not help me. I got pelted with confetti on multiple occasions.

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The craziest thing about the parade on Monday was the weather. After weeks of what felt like an early spring, it suddenly got cold again. Between the time that we passed out from the Morgenstreich and when we woke up, it started pouring rain only for the weather to clear up to beautiful blue (albeit a little cloudy) skies in time for the parade. We stayed at the parade for about an hour and a half, during everything was bright and absolutely dry. It started pouring, hailing and even very briefly snowing almost immediately after we returned to the flat. It’s almost as if the weather was on our side.

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Unfortunately, while we stayed for quite some time at Monday’s parade, none of us went out for the parades on Wednesday. Chris took his mom and aunt to Freiburg on Wednesday. Actually, because the tram line to the Swiss train station was closed for the parades, the decision to go to Freiburg on Wednesday was intentional and a little strategic since they could just hop on the train from the German station. I was at work and while I am told that we get a pretty nice view of the parades from the office, I did not have time to watch them.

Lantern Exhibition 

Tuesday is full of many activities, including a children’s parade during the day. We missed the children’s parade, but did get to see two of the activities.

We started up in the Münsterplatz to see all of the lanterns from the previous morning on display. The area was crowded and there was an additional element of the processions of cliques and bands winding their way through the crowds that made it all the more chaotic. The lanterns were quite amazing, though, and it was nice to be able to look at them up close. Many were political, although many of them reflected very local politics and therefore went over my head.

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The Gugge Concerts

In addition to the lantern display, Tuesday evening is dedicated to the Gugge bands. These bands are not allowed to perform during the Morgenstreich, so the Tuesday allows these bands to showcase their performances. The Gugge bands are also a little more playful, often playing deliberately a little off-key.

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The big performances are in the main squares. We watched them for a while in a very packed Marktplatz, where they were playing playful covers of the Offspring and Lady Gaga. This was kind of a blast to watch while more cliques and Gugge bands wound their way in a very crowded Marktplatz.

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Everything Else

Basel is pretty chaotic during Fasnacht. While there is some amount of coordination during the parades, the formations will typically wind around their way around the city. The Swiss restaurants are absolutely packed with revelers and there are cellars with comedy shows during the events. Those are in Swiss German, so we did not attend them, but we did walk around at night a bit to take in the chaos of city.

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And with that, Fasnacht ends as does what ended up being my 2019 Carnival coverage. The Basler Fasnacht was unique and very special and I’m glad I was able to take it all in this year. It certainly lived up to the hype.

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