Those of you that follow me on any form of social media may know I’ve been on a trip.
I’m not a blogger that gets invited on huge numbers of press trips, but I was lucky enough to receive an invite from the Basel tourism to go and experience the Fasnacht, or carnival, in Basel.
Now, I’ll be honest. I hadn’t heard of Basel, and I didn’t know they had a carnival. I read up on it a bit and decided it looked AWESOME and said yes.
I spent a few weeks dissolving into a little puddle of anxiety because I am not a great traveller and I hate flying. Not the actual flying, just airports, they fill me with anxiety. Then I found myself on Sunday morning, 2 hours before the gate even opened, clutching my passport in Gatwick airport. I am terminally on time, especially where transport is involved. A past experience that lead to me sobbing in Liverpool Street Station and throwing my suitcase at a train guard means that I will now invariably arrive at least 30 minutes before a normal human being would arrive to catch a train, plane, or any other kind of transport that isn’t driven by someone who knows me personally.
I’ll skip over the flight. It was delayed by an hour. It was boring and I was tired and queasy. But by 5:30pm on Sunday I was stood in Basel airport, trying to decide if I wanted to go out of the door to France, or the door to Switzerland to catch a bus.
Basel, I discovered in my reading, is right on the border of France, Germany and Switzerland. By right on the border they mean RIGHT on the border. Although it is in Switzerland some of its suburbs are actually technically in France and Germany. The airport is also technically on French soil, and half of the tiny terminal is French and the other half Swiss. Prior to the Schengen agreement there was even a little passport control point in the middle of the airport that travellers had to go through to get from one side to the other.
Our itineraries, so carefully crafted and planned to the minute by the PR agency before we left, had us leaping on a bus and a tram, spending an hour unpacking and eating free cakes in our hotel room before heading off to a press conference that started at 6:30pm, followed by dinner.
See, free cakes.
Easy Jet was having none of it though, and our delayed flight meant that at 6:30pm we were stood at the check in desk at the hotel with no time to do anything but dump our bags, look at the cakes and plan to eat them later, and then race off to a restaurant. Arriving just in time to completely miss any interesting content that may or may not have been featured in the press conference. We also missed the free wine that all the other journalists were drinking as we filed in looking dishevelled and harassed.
We did arrive in time to receive our Plakette, though! The Plakette is a carnival badge, and each year there is a competition among local artists to design it. The 2017 badge was designed by Guido Happle and features carnival figures coming out of a frame to illustrate this years carnival motto “Going beyond the scope”. The badges are sold by the carnival committee and the money is shared among the many groups that participate in the carnival parades, to help them cover some of the costs.
I had been advised that not wearing a badge was a bad idea as it almost guaranteed that you would be confetti bombed frequently. It didn’t really help. As we will see later on.
We also arrived in time for dinner. Which was a relief as that ham and cheese sandwich from Pret a Manger I bought in the airport seemed almost a million years ago.
Dinner was at Schluesselzunft. A name that makes me glad that I write my blog and don’t, for instance, have a spoken word podcast that would make me attempt to say it out loud.
Dinner was smoked salmon, roast pork tenderloin and a chocolate and citrus thing for dessert that was all delicious. There was also free wine, which was lovely, but I was slightly envious of the locals with big steins of refreshing looking beer that I could see through the door from the dining room. I can’t really comment much further on the restaurant. It was dark and cosy, but I needed my bed as we had to meet at 3am for the trip to the opening of the carnival the following morning, and even a couple of hours sleep is better than none when you’ve been travelling since 8am that morning!
So, finally, I went back to the hotel. Wrapped myself up in a big fluffy bathrobe, ate the free cakes, and went to sleep.
At 1:30am I was awake again. I woke up naturally, and going back to sleep for 30 minutes before my alarm started bugging me to get up seemed pointless. I made myself an espresso on the super fancy Lavazza espresso machine in the room, listened to the wind howling outside, and REALLY hoped that that this carnival was going to be awesome.
We were under strict instructions that we must NOT be late, as the balcony we were to watch from wouldn’t let us in. Our guide from Basel tourist board walked us over to a tram that was predictably packed. With many years experience of tubes at rush hour we pushed our way in to the carriage, and then turned around to see the doors closing on the horrified face of our host still stood on the streets outside. Fortunately we knew what stop to get off at, but the whereabouts of the special balcony was still a mystery, so we spent a fraught 10 minutes standing on a busy street at 3:15am trying to call our hosts and getting only voicemail. Eventually we were rescued and escorted safely to a dark office building where we went and waited among wheely chairs and computer terminals for the start of the carnival.
The carnival in Basel runs for precisely 72 hours, starting at 4am exactly on the Monday morning. The Morgenstreich opens the carnival and sees thousands of people line the streets to watch a parade of painted lanterns through the streets.
The parade is made up of local groups. I don’t think we have anything directly comparable here in the UK. They are clubs, with their own club houses or cellars and throughout the year they meet regularly and practice playing the drums and piccolo that are an essential part of the music of the carnival. Each group picks their own theme or “sujet” for the carnival and designs costumes and masks to fit the theme. The masked groups parade through the streets, only removing their masks during breaks, and playing the drums and piccolo. During the Morgenstreich the groups wear painted lanterns on their heads, and large illuminated painted lanterns on trolleys are pushed along.
Along with 4 other British bloggers and a selection of journalists we stood shivering on a balcony above the main square, watching the streets below fill with people.
At 4 am precisely all the street lights shut off, the music began, and the lanterns began to slowly parade the streets.
It was absolutely astonishing. Absolutely worth every second of getting up early and standing in the cold. I took some absolutely terrible photographs. I cannot make my camera take photographs of lit things in the dark. Eventually I gave up and just stood in awe watching the lights and the people and taking in the atmosphere. I am a total mug for this kind of spectacle and I was slack-jawed and excited.
After about half an hour the parade started to thin out a little and people started to wander off, but it was obviously far from over. Our hosts ushered us out into the streets. The street lights were still off and it was pitch black outside, with only the lights from the lanterns in the parade to guide us. The old town in Basel is full of winding cobbled streets and steep stairs and we were escorted through crowds of people at great speed. I honestly had no idea where we were and I couldn’t have retraced my steps if I tried, but I loved the atmosphere on the streets as the lantern parade was still going on around us.
I noticed very little drunkenness. I can’t help but suspect that any parade that started at 4am in the UK would involve an awful lot more people who were only up that late due to the help of large quantities of lager.
Just before 5am we arrived at the restaurant Teufelhof (I feel like I could have a brave stab at pronouncing this one.). There we were to have a traditional Fasnacht breakfast. The Teufelhof felt very traditional. Again it was dark and cosy and we were led up a winding stair case to a small private dining room decorated with streamers and carnival masks.
At a traditional Fasnacht breakfast, I discovered, it was perfectly acceptable to order Weisser Glühwein, which is white mulled wine. It was warm and spicy and delicious. Breakfast foods were Mehlsuppe which is flour soup, made with flour, onions, stock and cheese. Kasewahe, a “cheesecake” which is a lot like a quiche and Zwiebel-Speckwahe which was the same cheesecake with onions and bacon. 3 of us ordered 1 of each to share. I’m pretty sure I ate most of all of them. I particularly like the cheesecake with bacon and onions (what’s not to like?) but flour soup was also a surprising hit.
While we were eating the skies opened and there was torrential rain outside, but the parades never faltered and we could still hear drums and piccolo playing. I peeked out the window and saw the streets still filled with people wearing plastic pac-a-macs.
And with that, our mornings adventures, and technically our first day in Basel, was over. With no trams running there was some discussion about how to get back to the hotel. I wanted to walk and see the streets some more as the sun came up, but some others wanted to get a cab in case it rained again. In the end google maps and a 20 minute walk won out, and I’m glad it did. We got to walk back across the bridge over the Rhine, just as the sun was starting to come up. I cannot explain how amazing it was to be on the streets at dawn with the drums and the piccolos playing, or to still be able to hear them when I finally crawled back into bed at 7am.
Never fear, I plan to bore you with day 2 later this week. It features a LOT of confetti, but in the mean time here are a few handy links if you fancy paying Basel a visit. You’re too late for the Fasnacht this year (obviously) but next year it runs from the 19-21 February.