Basel : festivals
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Basel is famous around Switzerland and Europe for its ancient masked carnival, or Fasnacht, a three-day affair starting on the Monday after Mardi Gras. The earliest documented record of carnival is from 1376, although celebrations undoubtedly date back to well before that (earlier city records were destroyed in a fire in 1356): it’s said that Fasnacht, originally spelled Fastnacht, is related to an old word faseln, meaning fruitfulness. In the fourteenth century, carnival took the form of knightly tournaments held on Münsterplatz, events which may have had an origin in pagan ancestor worship since noble families had been buried in and around the Cathedral for generations. Through the Middle Ages, theologians railed against both excessive drinking at carnival time and the use of devilish masks and disguises – it’s no coincidence that the iconoclasm which marked the beginning of Basel’s Reformation broke out on Mardi Gras, 1529. For some unexplained reason, over time celebrations were shifted one week later to after the beginning of Lent (Basel still celebrated carnival despite its embrace of Protestantism after the Reformation), and were transformed into a series of processions organized by the city’s guilds and associations. Drum-and-pipe bands accompanied the display of weaponry, dancing and fancy-dress revelry. Greater organization throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century resulted in the carnival of today, where some 12,000 people take part under the auspices of several hundred Cliques, groups or musical bands, all of which must apply in advance to the Fasnachts-Comité for permission to march. It’s a feature of Basel’s carnival that, unless you’re part of a performing Clique, you have to stay as an observer – unlike, for instance, in Luzern, where carnival is an all-in street-party welcoming participation from anyone and everyone.

On the Sunday night after Mardi Gras, Basel’s carnival-goers kick off their celebrations at the nearby town of Liestal’s spectacular bonfire parade, which lasts until after midnight (see here). Everyone decamps back to Basel in preparation for the Morgestraich, a magical and unmissable parade of huge illuminated lanterns through the city centre which begins in invariably freezing darkness at 4am on the Monday morning; the ornately decorated lanterns are left on display in Münsterplatz from Monday evening through to Wednesday morning. From lunch time, the various masked Cliques parade through the city in a Cortège, with much music, dancing and jollity, followed in the evening by masked bands and small groups with fifes and drums roving through the Old Town. Baslers take their costumes seriously (half-masks and face paint are taboo), and many people spend weeks in advance making huge, cartoonish papier-mâché heads and sewing lavish jester-like costumes. It’s a tradition for locals to recite Schnitzelbängg, satirical verses directed at local bigwigs, in the city’s taverns and restaurants during the Monday and Wednesday evenings. Tuesday night sees Guggemusige concerts of comical oompah, played on old and dented brass instruments by bands gathered in Barfüsser-, Clara- and Marktplatz, and musical groups and masked Cliques continue to prowl through the Old Town during Wednesday afternoon until nightfall – whereupon everybody turns in for some restorative sleep. Throughout the celebrations, you’ll come across places selling Fasnachtsküchli, a light, thin round cake covered in icing sugar, and Fastenwähe, a kind of caraway-seed pretzel.

Basel’s most famous festival, attracting attention from all over Switzerland and Europe, is carnival, held over three days from the Monday following Mardi Gras. Just as venerable, though, is January’s Vogel Gryff festival, centred specifically on Kleinbasel. In March, the Swiss Trade Fair, or MUBA, is held in Basel’s Messe conference centre – a giant event serving as a showcase for Swiss accomplishments in trade and industry which is of little general interest in itself but which books the city out. The annual World Watch, Clock and Jewellery Fair does the same thing in April, while in June Basel’s ART International Contemporary Art Fair (www.art.ch) is the largest event of its kind in the world, generally very interesting to attend and inspiring many associated arty happenings throughout the city. The night before the Swiss National Day – July 31 – sees a festival of folk music on the Rhine, with stalls, traditional foods and a huge fireworks display. TEFAF, or the International Art and Antiques Show, is a movable Messe feast in the early autumn. The last Saturday in October marks the start of Basel’s two-week Autumn Fair, Europe’s longest-running traditional fair, held without a break since 1471 and now metamorphosed into sub-carnival festivities centred on funfairs and street jollity.

Vogel Gryff
Dating back to the thirteenth century or so, Kleinbasel’s Vogel Gryff festival incorporates pagan rituals and customs in the guise of fêting the head of one of the three guild associations of Kleinbasel. It takes place on January 13, 20 or 27, depending on which association holds the baton that year. At 11am, a raft carries the Wild Maa (a hairy figure symbolizing fertility) down the Rhine to the Mittlere Brücke; he holds an uprooted pine sapling and dances – with his back always turned to Grossbasel – to an ancient drum march. The Leu (lion) and Vogel Gryff (griffon) meet him on the bank to the accompaniment of booming cannon, and at noon the three of them stand at the midpoint of the Mittlere Brücke and dance a traditional, highly ritualized dance to the sound of a drum, every precise step documented from the origins of the festival in the Middle Ages. This is as close as the party gets to Grossbasel, since everyone then proceeds back to Kleinbasel for the Gryffemähli, a luncheon for the members of the three guilds (where the symbolic dance is repeated), and a procession through the streets accompanied by four jingling jesters who collect money for Kleinbasel’s poor. During the evening, the party enters full swing, with much drinking and merrymaking, while the three figures continue to dance their odd and mysterious dance in the older Kleinbasel restaurants.

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