March 10th, 2003



Fasnacht starts at 4:00 in the morning. Unsurprisingly, P&D don't give us a call, so we roll over and go back to sleep. We've seen Morgenstreich before, and we're much too tired to get up this time to contend with the huge crowds.

Watching the cortege

The bellinghwoman and I finally crawl out of bed in time for breakfast - a hot and cold buffet setup with bacon and pickled fish, croissants and cold meats, various wursts and scrambled egg.

Then we crawl down town and meet P&D in their hotel. We then wander out onto the streets, where it is already quite crowded. We decide to move up to Barfüsserplatz and go into the Cafe Huegenin. The outside tables are full, but I suggest that we go upstairs and, wonder of wonders, there's an empty table by a window. Even more wonderful, the window can be slid back. We do so, and decide that we've got the best table in the place for this. We hang out of the window over the heads of the Laderne and Cliques passing below, taking pictures.

On Cliques, Laderne and so on

Fasnacht is an ... interesting ... event. In Basel, it happens during the week after Ash Wednesday, and has done for centuries. Apparently, it comes from an ancient tradition in which an attempt is made to drive the devil out of the city by marching with drums and other instruments. Naturally, when the devil is driven out of one city, he just moves to the next one, so there is a wave of Fasnacht celebration sweeping across Switzerland from East to West.

Each city works it differently, and, for example, Zurich (sober banking city that it is) has a relatively restrained one. Basel, however, really goes to town.

The organisation (and this is Switzerland, so it has to be organised) in Basel is based round the idea of the 'Clique'. A Clique is a club, usually associated with some workplace, or bar, or similar, whose sole purpose is to take part in the Fasnacht parades. Some Cliques are new, some go back over two hundred years, and there are probably a couple of hundred of them, ranging in size from less than a dozen up to several score. A Clique spends the year gathering money, because they need

a) costumes
b) masks (which cover the whole head)
c) a Laderna (Lantern) or float
b) instruments to play

The masks and costumes will be designed around a theme, or 'Sujet', which changes each year. As a for instance, a year or two back, when the Queen Mum was celebrating her centenary, there were several cliques who used her as a theme, including one where all the members were dressed as her, complete with hats that had gin bottles, corgis and the like on. Not all the costumes for a Clique are necessarily identical, but they are consistent - a Clique style, you might say.

Also, running along the same theme will be either the Laderne (usually a slab shaped, canvas-covered object, illuminated from inside so that the Hogarthian cartoons painted on the outside surface glow in the darkness) or the float. If it's a float, then it will usually be drawn by a tractor (suitably disguised and hidden) and manned by half a dozen or so maniacs who throw confetti (known locally as Rappli) and fruit and sweets into the crowds.

(We're not talking small ounce boxes of confetti, here. No, these guys buy it by the ten kilo bag, and frequently fire it using an air cannon. By the end of the day, the streets throughout the centre on the city look as though there's been a blizzard, and drifts of the stuff pile up.)

And they need instruments. Apart from the guys manning a float or pulling/carrying one of the Laderne, everyone plays an instrument. This is either a drum or piccolo (the traditional Swiss mercenary-style marching group) or it's a brass instrument (the Gugge bands). The treatment of the brass instruments in particular is far from reverent - they'll usually be painted in the Clique's colours and will often have extra decoration, and even LEDs stuffed down their throats. Yet these aren't battered second-hand items - they'll be the best they can buy.

An end to the evening

One place we did spot to eat at was an Indian restaurant just behind our hotel. We'd spotted it yesterday, but left it till tonight.

There aren't many Indian or Chinese restaurants in Basel - so this one might be worth trying.

The bellinghwoman and I go round to see if they are open. Or rather, if they are open and have places - most restaurants are packed to the beams during Fasnacht. P&D start walking up from their hotel, with the understanding that we'll give them a call either way. As it happens, they're almost empty - I guess, during Fasnacht, the locals want good Swiss food, not this foreign exotic stuff, and this restaurant is sufficiently hidden that you've really got to wander off the main streets to find it.

The bellinghwoman and I sit down, and I order a Dunkel. Now, 'dunkel' means 'dark beer'. That's certainly what I got, but it wasn't a dark 'lager' style beer. No, this was St James' Gate's best - a bottle of Guinness! Still, I wasn't objecting.

About five minutes later, P&D get there, and we settle into ordering a nice meal. For once, I order a Lamb Vindaloo - not because I want something really hot (too much chilli gives me hiccoughs) but because there's a reasonable chance it'll be relatively mild (Switzerland not going for the masochismo of over-hot curries), and I actually like the taste without too much heat. As it happens, I get lucky, and it's just what I like.

Peter of course, orders another hot dish, and the girlies go for milder dishes. Of course, plenty of wine is drunk, too. The meal isn't cheap - the bill comes to over 400 CHF - but that was with wine, and here in Basel, this is highly exotic. There seem to be more Japanese places to eat here than Indian, which is definitely not the way it is at home, where Indian outnumbers Japanese by a hundred to one.

On leaving, we have a certain discussion as to whether it's a Hindu or Muslim Indian restaurant - Peter notes that there is neither beef nor lamb on the menu, and (with logic that escapes the rest of us) decides that must mean that it's a Muslim one. The rest of us agree that the lack of pork is compatible with a Muslim place, but point out that the lack of beef is compatible with a Hindu place, and there doesn't appear to be any evidence either way.

Anyway, Peter is getting tired and wants to head back to their hotel - and althought we'd have liked to wander some more, in many ways, it's a relief to get to bed relatively early. Like before midnight.

About ten minutes later, I realise the clincher argument on the Hindu/Muslim question - the restaurant is named the Ganesh - and Ganesh is a Hindu God.