Fasnacht in Basel begins on Monday morning at 4 a.m. sharp. The municipal energy supplier has a special switch that is used only once a year. One single click turns off all street lamps in the whole city at once.
All of a sudden, the streets are dark except for the lanterns and headlights. Everywhere you hear the command, “Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!” Pipers and drummers begin to play and the cliques march off.
A goosebumping moment. THE one particular moment of Basler Fasnacht. (I am shivering while I’m writing this.)
The origins of Morgestraich have to do with military musterings, which used to take place at the crack of dawn. The only instruments permitted are piccolo flutes and drums. They play the traditional marches, also closely related to military music. All year round they have practiced in order to perform the rhythms perfectly.
The sound that echoes through the streets, the shrill piping and the drumming, is incredible, and hard to describe.
Morgestraich is no parade with a fixed route. Each group marches where they like. They are wandering all over the city. They will pass more or less everywhere, hence there is no “best” spot to stand and watch. The whole of Central Basel as well as Kleinbasel on the other side of the river are involved.
At Morgestraich they go “Charivari”, which means that the groups have no common costume. Everyone wears his or her individual “Goschdym” (outfit) and “Larve” (mask). The larger Cliquen present their big lanterns. Many participants carry their own small lantern on a long stick. Almost everyone has a little headlamp on top of the Larve. All these are painted in bright colours with pictures related to the group's sujet, or with figures or scenes related to Fasnacht in general.
My new friends from the previous evening had told me where they would set off in the morning, so I went to meet them in time before four o’clock.
Five minutes to go. Streetlights are still on. The formation is being set up.
We said good-bye already because it is close to impossible to find anyone in the dark crowded streets. But I marched with them for a while until I lost contact in the thickness of the crowds.
It is possible, and allowed, for visitors to march behind a Clique and follow them through the city. In perfect marching pace please, 90 steps per minute.
In fact, this is the only way to move safely through the dark streets. They have chosen their routes carefully. The first in the group, called “Vordraab”, are without instruments and have the task to make room and to lead the others along a route without stairs, elevated curbstones or other traps they might stumble over. They know their way. The others literally must be able to trust them blindly. And so can the follower.
All this motion is timeless, without direction or purpose, meditative despite the noise, like swirling clouds, or swarms of fish in the surf, or leaves in the wind. It’s best to go by yourself, so you don’t have to worry about losing your companions. It’s best not to plan anything but to float with the current, stop somewhere to watch, then find new guides to walk with. It’s all about the feeling. In these hours, the rest of the world and daily life are far, far away.
At dawn, things slow down but don't stop. Most will want a rest now. A must-have for breakfast is a plate of hot "Mehlsupp".
Practical Hints, Dos and Don’ts for Visitors
- Come in time. Decide in advance where you want to stand and watch. Go there well before 4 a.m. while the streetlights are still on.
- Expect crowds.
- Dress warm. You’ll be tired and thus feel the cold even more.
- If you have a place to stay, leave all your stuff there. Don’t take a bag if possible. Crowds in the darkness may include pickpockets. Keep your wallet, money, documents in an inner pocket of your jacket.
- Tie the camera strap round your wrist or wear it round your neck, so it can’t fall to the ground in case you are pushed by accident.
- No flash please. It ruins the atmosphere for everyone around and blinds the participants. And your photos won’t turn out too great either.
- Lanterns, masks, musical instruments and everything are precious property of the participants. When they are parked outside a pub while the Clique is taking a break, looking and taking still-life photos is fine, but don’t touch anything.
- Dress code: One either wears a full Goschdym and Larve from head to toe and participates, or normal streetwear if just watching. Fancy dress and painted faces among the spectators are frowned upon.
- The marching groups always have precedence. Don’t stand in their way.
- Forget your everyday world, and enjoy…
Lanterns parked outside a pub while their owners enjoy a refreshment
Taking photos in the darkness is a tricky matter. Closeup shots of the illuminated lanterns are easy to take, but catching the general atmosphere in focused photos is extremely difficult because it is dark and everything is in motion. A tripod cannot be used in the dense crowds, everyone would trip over it. Using flash is a no-no: it ruins the atmosphere and blinds people who have a limited eyesight through their masks anyway.
Unfortunately too many spectators are thoughtless in that respect…
Things become easier when dawn approaches and the sky turns blueish.
Finding one of those (inconsiderate and thus detested) shops that had not turned off the light in the shop window also helps the photographer.
My solution, however, is a different one: Forget about focus. Play with the motion and the blur. Create artistic images that almost look like paintings.
Here are my results. I am actually quite proud of some of these…
I am including some pictures I took on Monday and Tuesday night, when the streetlamps were on again, so there was more background light.
Can't we almost hear the noise of the drums?