Mar 12, 2014

Sunday evening finally arrived. Fasnacht was here. I’ve heard a lot about this annual carnival ever since I had arrived in Basel: crazy costumes, pan-pipes and marching drums, street processions, hundreds of thousands of visitors. The only downside, I soon realised, was that processions started early. 4am early to be exact.

Only the Swiss could imagine a three-day festival with such an brutal start time. By the time Sunday evening came I was mulling over my options for survival: either take a brief power-nap or power-through the tiredness with a cocktail of espresso and beer. I wisely chose the former.

As soon as we left our apartment, the streets were alive with activity. It was still dark and people were busily making their way to the city centre. By the time you got there, you could barely move on the busiest streets. Among the crowd were carnival participants, dressed in macabre costume, holding trumpets and manning their floats.

Basel fasnacht streets at 4am

At exactly 4am every streetlight was turned off, and the Morgestraich started.

Fasnacht street floats

The only illumination were the candles of the parade. I was nursing a beer in a dazed state, unable to work out whether it constituted breakfast or dinner. My eyes were not properly operating at full capacity and coherent conversation was a distant prospect. But despite this, after half an hour, I started enjoying it.

The floats were engrossing and they were flanked by hordes of musicians on flutes and band-drums. The melody caught on very quickly. The city was in rapture under the black night sky. After several cans of bad Swiss beer and an onion flan, it was 6am and we decided to call it a morning.

The carnival is 72 hours long, though. And at 2pm the cortege begins, which is the main procession. There are offshoot processions in every side street - as we soon realised after leaving our brasserie.

A young brigade of white clowns
The Rathaus looked particularly beautiful in the sun
A carriage of monster bin men? Standard
A horde of zombie policemen playing brass instruments? Sure, why not.

It was a really bizarre experience. The city was turned upside down. I honestly don’t understand why Basel relishes the grotesque for these three days, but it seems to have widespread appeal. When I was speaking to a friend, who happens to be a native Basler, he proudly told me how he had booked off the whole week from work, months and months in advance. All I can surmise is that even the most reserved and phlegmatic societies need some form of chaos every so often, a controlled catharsis, if only for a few days.