Swiss Carnival Tinged With Bizarre Traditions

<i> Cowin is a free-lance writer living in Heidelberg, Germany. </i>

It’s nearly 4 o’clock in the morning and your mood is, to put it mildly, anything but festive. Overcome by a mixture of leaden numbness and nervous irritability, you heap bitter epithets on the absurd idea of beginning a carnival celebration at this wretched hour. To add to your sorrows, you note that the keen winter breeze, which is coursing over the chill, murky depths of the Rhine and weaving through the alleyways of Basel’s old quarter, has begun to insinuate itself aggressively up your trouser legs. A minor consolation is that the thousands of fellow “revelers” are presumably enduring comparable torments.

Your dimly flickering thought processtries to assure you that something interesting must be about to happen. A more cynical inner voice suggests that the Swiss simply have an odd notion of what constitutes fun or, more specifically, a carnival that begins during Lent rather than in the traditional manner--as a prelude to it.

But then several church clocks begin to chime the hour, and all of the city’s street lights are extinguished. The sudden darkness is startling, and in the ensuing few seconds of tingling silence, the crowd’s apparent torpor and apathy are transformed into a tense, almost feverish expectancy. This sudden surge of emotion brings the thrilling, if somewhat alarming, feeling of being on a volcano that’s about to blow.

What follows is not just the start of a magical spectacle, it’s the moment when the energies pent up over months of preparation and waiting can at last find explosive release. Thus, far from building to a climax, the annual Basler Fasnacht (Basel Carnival, this year set for March 9-12) opens with its high point: an emotional eruption of such intensity that it takes three days before the last tremors die away.

From all over the city, thousands of piccolos burst into an eerie, shrill chaos of intertwined melodies underpinned by the shifting staccato of countless drums. The sound is said to cause the most hardened Basel citizen to break out in goose bumps, but even more extraordinary is the sight of the spectral masked bands emerging from the dark recesses of narrow side streets and alleyways. Preceded by enormous painted lanterns, each ghostly clique--or organized group whose sole purpose is to participate in Fasnacht--sports a baffling collection of bizarre costumes and masks, ranging from the deadpan comic to the downright grotesque, the ghastly to the utterly silly.


The Morgenstraich (morning serenade in the Basel dialect) has no fixed route: The marchers just wander about as the fancy takes them, plunging through the spectators or abruptly darting off down side streets as they work themselves into a somber, self-absorbed trance.

A good place to watch the start of the proceedings is up by the medieval cathedral (Munster) on the west bank of the river. From there you have an enchanting view of the old bridge (Mittlere Rhein Brucke), where the myriad electrified torches resemble a swarming army of glowworms. Alas, it must be said that the charming effect is not enhanced by the constant barrage of camera flashes.

For the remaining four hours until dawn, it’s best to avoid the crowds that congest the bridge, main roads and squares. Rather, you should sneak into one of the narrow, almost deserted alleyways on the west side of the Rhine. Standing in the pitch darkness, you won’t have long to wait before a dimly lit detachment of ghouls heaves into sight. As the huge, monstrous heads with their frozen expressions approach, the confined space transforms the melancholy sounds of the piccolos--playing numbers ranging from “Scotland the Brave” to a sort of syncopated “Colonel Bogey"--to a strident, deafening squealing before they again trail away into the gloom. Similarly, the muffled tidal beating of the drums becomes an ear-splitting crackle of gunfire before receding into the background cacophony.

As you will have already noticed, this is all a far cry from the idea of carnival as a setting for innocent buffoonery. Indeed, although not without its comic or joyful elements, this is not fun in the conventional sense. And it’s not a show, either. Rather, you sense that the participants and many spectators are deep within themselves, drifting in a trance-like state. Also, perhaps owing to the unaccustomed hour, nerve ends that are normally shielded by a sheath of habit and routine are unusually exposed, alive and tingling. It’s an emotional high that will carry many through the next three days of celebrations with only a few brief snatches of sleep.

As the sky begins to lighten and the spell begins to weaken, it’s a good moment to battle your way into a cafe or bakery to grab a bite of traditional Fasnacht fare: a bowl of creamy flour soup ( mahlsuppe ; not as bad as it sounds) and a wedge of onion pie ( zwiebelwahe ) .

Although many tourists will now seek the solace of a hotel bed, the Morgenstraich is far from over. For even as the city stirs and stretches, and the rumble of streetcars announces the start of (believe it or not) a normal working day, scattered figures are still piping and drumming away. Outlandish and incongruous, like clockwork toys running down, they seem like fragments of an absurd dream spilling into the alien surroundings of the normal waking world.

If the proceedings, so far, are something of a private catharsis, the Monday afternoon procession (repeated on Wednesday) is an opportunity to air one’s private and public grievances. Each clique and guard now wears a particular uniform--the emphasis is on bright colors and amusing, cartoon-like outfits--linked with the satirical subject illustrated on the huge painted lanterns. Most deal with local instances of contemporary political bungling and chicanery, although international figures also receive some decidedly irreverent jabs. The marchers also hand out Zeedel , long strips of colored paper covered with scurrilous political rhymes in the puzzling local dialect.

Woe betide any local celebrity or, it seemed to me, innocent bystander who catches the eye of one of the masked monsters ( waags ) up on the passing floats. At best, the hapless victim endures a torrent of bellowed ridicule while being mercilessly pelted with fistfuls of confetti ( rappli ). After these indignities, a handful of oranges or candy is proffered in conciliation.

This sort of “letting off steam” was an important safety valve in so-called primitive societies, and it indicates that the origins of Basler Fasnacht go back well beyond its first recorded mention in 1376. Unlike other carnival events that are a pre-Lenten spree, Basel’s celebrations actually start on the sixth day of Lent and have more the spirit of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, when slaves dressed up as their masters.

In the past, victims of the biting political satire made many unavailing attempts to ban the celebration. The nearest it has ever come to being halted was last year during the Persian Gulf War. Although the OK was finally given, the city was so split over whether or not to go ahead that many pulled out. The prevailing atmosphere was rather muted in comparison to other years.

Monday afternoon sees the first appearance of the notorious Guggemuusiger, an atonal band whose blaring on shattered brass instruments is commendable only for its enthusiasm. In the evening, it’s traditional to attend either a masked ball or to be entertained by the antics of political satirists called the Schnitzelbanggler. These entertainers turn up in bars and restaurants to present an odd mixture of verse and songs.

For outsiders, this is all rather baffling. Even for those with a passable grasp of the German language, the local brogue sounds like an already strange tongue spoken by someone with a hot potato in his or her mouth. Each utterance is greeted with delirious mirth, but don’t imagine that you are missing much: The few jokes I have managed to decipher only revealed why Swiss humor has never become proverbial.

Tuesday is a time to recover from Monday and to steel yourself for Wednesday, which is not to say that it doesn’t have its attractions. To my mind, these don’t include the Guggis (slang for Guggemuusiger ), whose clamorous din echoes through the streets for most of the night. The children’s procession in the afternoon is charming, though, and it’s worth strolling up to the cathedral to see the painstakingly prepared lanterns on exhibit outside. As things quiet down, a late-night wander through the alleys usually turns up a few pipers and drummers doing their own thing.

The Wednesday afternoon procession is, if anything, even more colorful and spectacular than the Monday one, yet the atmosphere is subtly different. The gaiety seems a little forced and assertive, and there’s a feeling that the Fasnacht is losing steam. The evening starts rowdily enough, but a melancholy wistfulness soon permeates the proceedings, while limbs begin to ache with increasing insistence.

So, as you collapse into bed in the early hours, you might think that you are already dreaming when you hear an occasional mournful trill or a solitary drum beating. But there you’d be mistaken. For only at 4 o’clock in the morning is the spirit of Fasnacht finally extinguished as silence reconquers the streets.

Until next year, that is.


Carnival in Basel

Basler Fasnacht blagettes (badges indicating unofficial “entry fee” has been paid) come in three types: gold (about $18), silver ($5) and bronze ($3). Proceeds from sales help cover event’s considerable costs.

Getting there: Swissair flies to Basel with a change of planes in Geneva. British Air does likewise, with a transfer of planes in London. Other airlines--American, United, Lufthansa and TWA--connect to Basel through various European cities in tandem with other airlines.

Basel is also easily reached by InterCity express train. Those traveling by car should remember that vehicles are prohibited downtown during Fasnacht. Parking offenses are punished by hefty fines or towing. Park in the suburbs and take a streetcar, which start running at about 2 a.m. before the Morgenstraich .

Accommodations: Hotel Vettstein, Grenzacherstrasse 8, Basel 4058, telephone 011-41-61-6912800; doubles start at about $120. Hotel Alexander, Riehenring 85, Basel 4058, 011-61-6917000; doubles start at about $120. Hotel Hecht am Rhein, Rheingasse 8, Basel 4058, 011-61-6912220; doubles start at about $75. Hotel Klingental Garni, Klingental 20, Basel 4058, 011-61-6816248; doubles start at about $70. For up-to-date information on hotel availability (hotels are booking up quickly) while in Switzerland, call the Basel Tourist Information Office at 061-2615050.

Restaurants: During Carnival, local organizations book up many restaurants in advance. The following establishments are still available to tourists: Braunemutz, Barfuesserplatz, 061-2613369; simple. Hotel International Basel, Steinentorstrasse 25, Basel 4001, 061-2817585; several restaurants.

For more information: Contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 222 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 1570, El Segundo 90245, (310) 335-5980.