My previous entries may have suggested that Fasnacht in Basel is all calm and meditative and beautiful.
Oh no, it is not.
A completely different, noisier and messier side shows up in the two big daytime parades, named “Cortège”. They take place on Monday and Wednesday afternoon, starting 13:30 and going on for at least three hours.
The route is fixed and minutely organized. A circular course through both Großbasel and Kleinbasel is marched in both directions. Since the clockwise and counter-clockwise routes differ in some parts, I recommend standing in places where they both run parallel in the same street.
The best spots are, to me, squares with a tramstop, for example Barfüßerplatz or Claraplatz, where there is room to stand in the middle and see both directons.
Unlike in other cities where the participants assemble in side streets and all start from the same spot so that spectators at the end have to wait for ages until they finally get something to see, in Basel they have a cleverer system. The groups are assigned their starting point all over the circular route, and the entire circle starts moving at the same time. Everywhere the activity sets in at half past two sharp. No long wait, no matter where you stand and watch.
The route plan is published in advance on the website of the committee: http://www.fasnachts-comite.ch/cortege_en
The groups and clubs in Basel's Fasnacht are called Clique. The committee probably has a number how many there are registered with them – to the visitor it looks and feels like several hundreds. Then there are also the smaller “Schyssdräggziigli” which don’t have the complete “staff” and programme that the big Cliquen present.
They say that there are about ten thousand participants in the Cortège – no idea if this number is true, it’s impossible to count them as a spectator. But there are many. Very many.
Guggemusik bands take part in the Cortège, too. Again, many of them, and all of them excellent.
Goodies are thrown to the visitors from the floats and carts: sweets, flowers, oranges, vegetables – but als loads of confetti, which is called “Räppli” just like the smallest Swiss coins.
The unsuspecting visitor is more likely to receive a load of Räppli than anything else…
Typical Cortège selfie...
Basel’s Fasnacht is not only fun, though, but also highly political. This is the ancient right of the jesters. Under their masks are allowed to speak the truth and say everything people would not dare to say aloud under normal circumstances.
Each Clique selects a “Sujet” for the year’s Fasnacht, a theme concerning politics, society, economy, culture, whatever. The topic can be local, national or international. This theme is then commented upon in a half humourous, half critical way. Costumes and lantern are designed according to the Sujet.
While at Morgestraich they went “Charivari”, i. e. everyone wore an individual costume to their liking, in the Cortège parade the Cliquen present their Sujets and dress up accordingly.
Lanterns pass quickly during the parades. They are artworks that deserve a closer look. More about them in a separate blog entry.
Examples for Sujets
100th anniversary of the women's bath in Eglisee, a lake on the outskirts of Basel
Shop advertising and discounts (2006)
The situation in Libya under Ghaddafi (2010)
"In the water up to our throats"
"Yes We Camp" (2010): A serious one, quite goosebumping among the colourful parade. It refers to the earthquake of L'Aquila in 2009, people still homeless and living in tents a year later, and a prime minister Berlusconi who did nothing except big-mouthed speeches.
"Hail Helvetia, you still have your bridges": marching in an impressive formation
"Aldi et Obi": fearing the German invasion, and referring to the German Empire under Emperor Wilhelm II.
Anti-German topics are frequent. They really must have ressentiments against us.
A Fasnacht Clique consists of...
In the Cortège the Cliquen march in a certain order. Each section has a particular task to do.
They are the ones who walk in front. A job for members who can’t play neither drums nor flutes. During Morgestraich it’s their task to lead the way and make room for the formation behind. In the Cortège parades they distribute the so-called “Zeedel” (papers) to the spectators. On these papers, the Sujet is explained and commented in verses, half humorously, half seriously. In Baseldytsch, of course. Understanding them requires profound language skills and, in case of us native speakers of (German) German, a solid amount of imagination,
The lantern is either carried by four strong pairs of shoulders or placed on a cart and pulled. During the Morgestraich on Monday morning the lanterns are illuminated from inside. In the daytime parades on Monday and Wednesday they are presented without illumination.
Almost every larger Clique also has a wagon. This can be a small cart, a horse-drawn carriage, or a huge float pulled by a tractor.
From the wagon all kinds of gifts are distributed: sweets, oranges, flowers, sometimes vegetables, beer cans, little toys, packs of paper handkerchiefs... and confetti. Big sacks of confetti in colours that match the Clique's costumes.
The conductor walks between the flute group and the drum group. The conductor is usually an oversized figure with a very large papermâché head, a hole in the throat allows the person underneath to see.
The Guggemusik bands also have these oversized conductor fugures.
Traditional Figures in the Fasnacht
Basel's best-known mask type is the Waggis with his big nose, big mouth and teeth and a mullet-like mane in bright colours.
The person inside sees through the open nostrils of the mask. This is perhaps the iconic image that crosses people’s minds first when thinking of Basel carnival.
The Waggis is originally meant to be the caricature of a dumb Alsatian peasant. It came into existence in the late 19th century after the German-French war of 1870/71. Imagination has created the weirdest changes and varieties.
Harlekin (Arlecchino) and Pierrot have their origins in the Italian Commedia dell'arte.
Glaun is simply a clown. Spelled according to Baseldytsch orthography.
Ueli wears the costume of a medieval court jester in mi-parti colours and a hood with long ears and little bells. He is a very old figure in Basel's Fasnacht.
The lantern of this Ueli Clique presents the world of the Ueli... the Ueliverse, the griffin with Ueli ears, the crest of Canton Ueli (the one of Canton Uri, ueli-fied), the Ueli newspaper and an Ueli flying saucer.
Not so traditional figures…
Nothing is holy. Really nothing.
The Miraculous Transformation of the Basel Citizen
Putting on the mask changes everything...