Called Fasnacht, not Mardi Gras, it is a pre-Lent carnival found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Alsace and western Austria. Our plan was to check out the difference between the festivals and lucky for us, the main ones nearby were on different weekends.
Fortunately, we were not at all invested in the Super Bowl this year, or the 5 am bus into Lucerne would have been brutal as the game ended at 4:30 am our time. We layered up and donned our only costumes, frog and toad. It’s a far cry from any Mardi Gras costumes from our past, as we downsized our costume box for a costume drawer, which currently only houses the eyes, hands and tongues to complete our reptilian costumes. We thought they were pretty decent, but we were way out staged just on the morning bus.
A little before 6 am, we were in the old part of Lucerne, looking for the Guggenmusige, or improvised masked bands. The bands walk around the area, on apparently no particular route throughout the morning, stopping to play at squares or larger parts of the street. Mostly brass, they play a variety of music, most we didn’t recognize, but they were catchy and fun. The members wear big masks and can sometimes play through them, but mostly have to remove them to play their instruments. We spent most of the morning wandering around, catching tidbits of different bands and admiring the many high quality and beautiful costumes. As far as we could tell, about 50% of people had gorgeous, intricate costumes and about 50% were in animal fur onesies. It’s extremely popular to dress up as a group and there were many families that had themes, which including mini versions for the kids. The costumes overall were better than New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where it is quite common to just wear something ridiculous and clashing, and not so much an actual costume.
Not only were we impressed with the costumes in Lucerne, but the music was more original than we’ve heard in Switzerland so far. We hung around most of the morning watching the bands, found a good spot for the small parade that afternoon and met up with some friends.
Lucerne was more crowded than anywhere we had been in Switzerland (besides one day in Zurich for a techno fest where we got tear gased – but that’s another story). It was great to smile, dance, laugh and join the general shenanigans, something we have missed since leaving New Orleans.
The following weekend we headed to Basel, where the Fasnacht scene is completely different. Not only do they speak a different dialect of Swiss German, but they have a very different celebration.
The Sunday after Fat Tuesday we had gracious hosts who took us to Listal, just outside of Basel. Here, the parade consisted of people in helmets carrying ignited wood down a narrow street and everyone getting slightly scorched as they walked by. At first, we were worried we couldn’t see, as we were at least six people back from the front of the bystanders and I was significantly shorter than most. But as the floats got larger and larger, the fires did too, curling at the tops to almost touch the buildings, the people in front of us were forced to turn away as the floats passed and we were grateful for the human shields. The fires even got large enough to singe the bottom of an arch as the floats went through. But firefighters were there to spray the buildings down as necessary. The pictures aren’t great as it was night and too hot to really expose the camera at times. Riki managed only to get one small hole in his brand new rain coat and my hair only caught on fire twice, though my neighbors were kind enough to slap me across the head before it started to smell too bad.
The next morning in Basel, we were once again in for an early start. 3 am this time. And by 4 am we were in the city when all the lights were turned off and the parades started. Bands of little flutes and drums, alit with glowing hats marched down the streets, pulling satirical painted floats. Though we couldn’t understand the politics behind the local floats, there were a few making fun of the good ole US of A, where we could surmise the meaning. As the sun rose, we returned to take a nap and await the start of the afternoon parades.
That afternoon, we found a good spot on a bridge, right in the middle where the two parade routes crossed. From here we were heavily doused with oranges and candy, and I had to be careful to keep my hair covered for fear of an onslaught of confetti, which doesn’t just wash out.
We stayed til the end of the parades and as it got dark, the floats were relit and the people went to warmer places to continue the celebrations.
Overall, we found Lucerne to be a more inclusive event, more welcoming to tourists and outsiders. Basel put on a bigger show though, with massive parades and goodies to throw. The last picture doesn’t convey this well, but we found the Basel shenanigans to be a bit more tame, though maybe they were just confined to the indoors, as the weather was pretty frigid.
A few things New Orleans could learn from Fasnacht: confetti may be a bit better for the environment, but plastic beads are probably easier to clean up, throws of oranges and candy can be just as fun as plush animals and plastic crap made in China, family costumes are cute and make it easy to spot your kids.