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Basler Fasnacht

March 18, 2011

Fasnacht in Basel is the most famous “Carnival” celebration in Switzerland.  The event takes place the week following Ash Wednesday, after most other Swiss Fasnacht celebrations have ended.  The citizens of Basel celebrate Fasnacht for exactly three days, which are referred to as “dreei schenschte Dägg” or the most wonderful days of the year.  Fasnacht is a huge party for the people of Basel, and guests are welcome to attend with tourists streaming into the city, primarily from other towns and cities of Switzerland, Germany and France.

Basler Fasnacht is kicked off every year with Morgenstraich, a morning parade on Monday at 4am.  I attended a 5am Morgenstraich in our own Swiss village near Baden the week prior, so I felt properly prepared and especially curious about the Morgenstraich in Basel.  Although there is a special Fasnacht transportation schedule with trains that run through the nights to Basel, I decided to come in the day before and stayed at the Hotel Victoria, right across the street from the train station.  The hotel offered tourists coffee and croissants beginning at 2:30am on Monday morning.  After fueling up, I headed to the Barfusserplatz in Old Town. Judging by the large number of people heading from the train station at 3am, clearly many chose to take the early morning trains!

When I got to Barfüsserplatz at a little after 3am, it was clear that not everyone went to bed at 8:30pm the night before as I did.  The square was littered with beer cans and alcohol bottles, a sight I had not previously witnessed in Switzerland.  I found a key viewing spot on the elevated square, brushed aside a couple of half full beer cans and waited for the parade to begin.  The crowds weren’t too bad at first, but people quickly accumulated and as 4am approached, the square was filled with eager onlookers waiting for Morgenstraich to begin.

At exactly 4am, the lights went off and with the command “Achtig! Morgenstraich! Forward March!” the parade began.  The only light in the town shined from the Fasnacht “cliques” who carried large latterns or “Zugslaterne” and wore smaller latterns or “Kopflaterne” on their heads.  The “cliques” played their piccolos and drums, filling the Old Town with music.  The gigantic “Zuglaternes” were painted with themes or “Sujets” lampooning Swiss and world events of the last year.  For a taste of how the parade looked from Barfusserplatz, take a peak at my video:

The parades picked up again and I staked out a spot on Freie Strasse, a main shopping street in Old Town, for an up close view of the “cliques.”  These “cliques” seemed to follow no particular route at this point and wandered through the small streets of old town.  Each “clique” seemed to be led by a conductor and the members dressed in different costumes and masques, in accordance with the theme off their large lattern, and played piccolos or drums. For an up close view of the parade, take a peak at this video.  It’s a bit dark, but that’s exactly how it looked being there.

While the parade participants dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks, onlookers simply wore street clothes.  While viewers are not to wear costumes for the event, they are encouraged to wear a Carnival badge or “plakette” which are sold throughout Basel from street vendors, kiosks and Fasnacht participants.  Money collected from the “plakettes” goes to covering some of the many costs of the groups who participate in Fasnacht.  While Fasnacht is a considerable money maker for the city of Basel, generating approximate $28 million USD a year for food, hotel rooms and materials to make costumes and masks, the majority of work is done on a voluntary basis with an estimated 500,000 volunteer hours donated each year.

As the sun rose, the crowds dispersed and the majority of onlookers headed to buses, trains and trams to get started with their regular Monday routines.  But this was by no means the end of the Fasnacht celebrations, which continue for three days.

Morgenstraich in Basel goes down as one of the most interesting and unique experiences I have had in Switzerland.  It certainly challenged my view of the Swiss as quiet and conservative people.  Fasnacht is a time of letting go, dressing up, having fun and poking fun.  When asked if the Swiss people can laugh at themselves, Felix Rudolf von Rohr, the head of the Fasnacht Organizing Committee stated “I don’t know if the Swiss can laugh at themselves, but the people of Basel can.  We are first and foremost the people of Basel, and secondly we are Swiss.”  If you want to get a taste of how the people of Basel celebrate and enjoy themselves, attend Basler Fasnacht.  A must do for visitors traveling to Switzerland this time of year!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2011 10:48 am

    This sounds like a fantastic celebration. It is these types of events that make traveling in the off season so good!

    Thanks for the insight.

  2. March 20, 2011 2:10 pm

    Debbie,

    Yes, this can be a great time to visit Switzerland! Lots of Fasnacht celebrations, plus you still have skiing in the mountains. And, prices are better.

    -Jennifer

  3. March 21, 2011 11:29 am

    I love hearing how carnival is celebrated so differently all over Europe. A 4:00 am parade? It looks very interesting, but that’s so early. Do they normally have a good turn out? Also interesting that people are not supposed to dress up for the parade but can wear a sticker.

  4. March 22, 2011 4:07 am

    Laurel,

    Yes, the turn out for the 4am Morgenstraich is significant. May sound strange, but I found it fun to get up so early…felt like I had to work a little bit for something extra special. The plakette are actually pins, not stickers. You wear them to show your monetary support of Fasnacht. I was warned by a resident of Basel that I’d better buy one or I might find myself barraged with confetti! Not sure if that actually happens, but I got my pin, just in case. 🙂

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