As the term “Carnival” stems from the Italian for “good-bye meat” (carne vale), it might seem reasonable to assume that the idea originated in Christian times as a last glorious blow-out before the impending rigors of Lent. However, most of the celebrations throughout Europe that reach their peak in the three days before Ash Wednesday (February) have retained features – the driving out of winter, raucous fertility symbols, and the Saturnalian freedom given by wearing strange masks – that surely go back to pagan times. Depending on the area involved, the mood of the festivities can be jovial, bizarre, surreal, absurd or very serious indeed. Many of those outlined below rank among the finest folk festivals to be found anywhere in the world.
Perhaps South Germany is the area with the greatest number of Carnival events, with virtually every town having its own traditions. The most famous processions are those of Düsseldorf, Cologne and Mainz which take place on the afternoons (start, 2 p.m.) of February (Rose Monday and Fasching or Shrove Tuesday). These lively events are characterized by enormous colorful floats, jaunty brass bands in Napoleonic costume and ranks of “fools” (Narren) with cap-and-bells yelling “Helau,” an old German greeting. For some, it might be somewhat bellicose and beery, but the Rhenish cheerfulness is infectious, and children have awhale of a time being pelted with candy and other goodies. Actually, these massive shows are the culmination of months of festivities, as Fasching or Fastnacht officially begins at 11.11 a.m. on 11th November (11 is a number traditionally associated with fools). Incidentally, owners of expensive silk ties should remember that, in Köln, Altweiber-Fastnacht on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (February) involves slightly inebriated women (Weiber) old and young dashing about with scissors and snipping off any tie in sight. It’s a cheerful enough business, but the Freudian symbolism is enough to send shudders up most male spines.
Farther south in Germany, the same day is called Schmutzige-Donnerstag (Dirty Thursday, but probably stems from “Schmalz,” the fat used to bake a traditional cake at this time) and is the day when Narren release the children from school, while a Narrenbaum (Fool’s Tree) is raised in many villages, the best show being in Stockach near Lake Constance. On Sunday (February), Elzach, deep in the Black Forest, kicks off the festivities at noon with a fanfare from the city walls. The marchers wear slightly unnerving devilish masks (some adorned with snails) and take great pleasure in hitting innocent bystanders over the head with what look like inflated pig’s bladders (appearances are not deceptive, in this case). A high point is the capering about a bonfire after dusk. More famous is the classic Narrensprung (Fools’ Jump) in Rottweil on Rose Monday (February) at 8 a.m., as well as on Tuesday (February) at 8 a.m. and (late risers rejoice) at 2 p.m. Here, over 3000 extraordinarily garbed, masked figures emerge from the so-called Black Gate and regale onlookers with wild antics and the occasional insult in an incomprehensible dialect. Costumes are either hand-painted with oils or decorated with chicken feathers, while the masks are either eerily pretty or pretty frightening, with some incorporating real fox tails. Almost the only sounds come from the rhythmic pulse of bells (a set weighs 80 pounds) worn by many of the marchers. While being poked with goose-feathers, watch out for the Rösslis (little horses) and their whip-wielding “masters” as well as the single Guller, an enormous rooster who tries to carry off attractive females in the crowd. If you do go on the Monday, go about 20 miles west to Schramberg for an excellent show at about 1 p.m.: the villagers dam up the river and float down in ornamental washtubs. Fortunately, most fail to negotiate a small waterfall close to the finishing line, but all are dry and spruced up for a pleasant street procession soon afterward. Other good shows in the region can be found on the Monday and Tuesday in Villingen-Schwenningen and Sigmaringen, the latter involving the “ducking” of newlyweds in a fountain.
Just over the border in Switzerland, the Fasnacht celebrations in Basel have the same magical seriousness. These begin at the unearthly time of 4 a.m. on the Monday after Ash Wednesday (March) with the enchanting Morning Serenade (Morgenstraich) involving 12,000 marchers playing fifes and drums. The chaotic mingling of the shrill music along with masks and costumes ranging from the grotesque to the ludicrous create a surreal dream-world that is hauntingly beautiful. Things begin to break up soon after dawn, but if you lurk in the city’s charming side-streets and alleys, you’ll see many individual musicians still wandering about and playing as if in a trance. At 1:30 p.m., there’s a much more lively procession, during which each clique or garde wears colorful uniforms, some of which illustrate and satirize some political scandal. The noisier, more strident mood is symbolized by the appearance of the Guggemuusiger, who enthusiastically blare away on shattered brass instruments, as well as by the cheerfully abusive, confetti-throwing Waggis who ride the floats. The latter can be very nice to kids (candy, flowers, fruit) but definitely vindictive to adults. Tuesday (March) is dominated by a children’s procession, while Wednesday (March) sees a repeat of the Monday afternoon procession. One thing: don’t forget to buy yourself a blagette, a badge that is seen as the unofficial entry fee to the Fasnacht. These come in bronze, silver or gold, the former being the cheapest at 7 Swiss francs (about $4).
Guggemuusiger are also noisily in evidence in Switzerland’s other great Carnival binge in Lucerne that takes place in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday (February). Masks are not worn, but the costumes and make-up are delightfully odd, the processions themselves being chaotic, cheerful and colorful. The same goes for the so-called Fécos in Limoux in France that takes place on Tuesday (February). In what seems once to have been a miller’s festival, harlequins and pierrots pelt the spectators with confetti (originally corn), while brass and percussion instruments accompany their remarkable gyrations.
Turning to Italy, we come to Europe’s best-known Carnival event in Venice, a tribute to the organizers who revived the tradition about 25 years ago. Here, against the perfect backdrop, gorgeously plumed and costumed figures parade Saturday (February) to Tuesday (February) like peacocks, occasionally deigning to pose for jostling swarms of photographers. The crowds make St. Mark’s Square a place to avoid after midday, so it’s best to wander around smaller side-streets at your leisure enjoying the occasional appearance of bizarre apparitions. Alas, the famed parties and social events of the Venice Carnival take place behind firmly locked palazzo doors.
For a more authentic celebration, try Saint-Oyen with its spectacular mountain setting on the French border. On the Saturday (February), the village is taken over by outlandish dancing figures with horse tails who symbolically drive out the old year (two old figures) and the winter (a chained bear), a tradition found throughout Europe and whose origins predate by centuries the arrival of the Christian idea of Lent.