Vive le carneval!

Carnival/Carneval is not a big thing in the UK like it is here on the continent. I don’t really understand the excitement around it, the mad cutting of ties that my German friends do, for example. Brussels is much quieter this week. Most people with kids have taken to the mountains to ski.

I wanted to take advantage of this not-quite-downtime. One of the things I loved best about living in Asia was the festivals – the noise and the colour and the stories behind it to learn and appreciate. Belgium also has plenty of festivals, none of them seem quite normal (but isn’t that the point of festivals?) and I’m determined to start travelling to see them as much as possible. This meant getting a very early train in the bitter cold to see the Shrove Tuesday Gille parade this morning. The creepy-looking masks are featured on every tourist guide to Belgium and I wanted to check it out for myself.

Binche itself is really nothing to write home about. A tiny Belgian town south-east of Brussels that enjoys a few days in the spotlight every year because they’ve kept their traditions alive since the 14th century at least. Many elements are popularly traced back to 1549 when Mary of Hungary welcomed her brother, Emperor Charles V, to what was then the Spanish-controlled Netherlands (including modern-day Belgium). Part of the festivities were given over to a celebration of the recent conquest of Peru. It’s unclear whether unfortunate Incas were actually ever paraded around the narrow streets but the colours, dancing with small steps to rhythmic drumming, feathers and bundles of sticks to ward off evil spirits apparently have some roots in native Peruvian costumes.

Mardi Gras is better known as “Gilles Day” in Binche. This is the day the ‘Gilles’ (men of the town who have been selected by their neighbourhood or church peers to enter different ‘societies’) put on their full regalia, including stuffing their fronts and backs with straw (bet it was handy this morning in the freezing weather), putting on wooden clogs, donning a belt of bells (‘apertintaille’) and, most distinctively covering their heads with white caps and cloths (‘barette’) and wearing frankly odd, nightmarish, identical wax masks. There are as many as 150 different patterns that can be used to decorate the Gille suits. I saw lots of lions and stars and massive care is taken of the wax masks – they are held reverently in white cloths by wives and female relatives until they are needed.

I was lucky enough to bump into a group of Gilles picking up their last member at his home (having had the obligatory Shrove Tuesday breakfast of oysters and champagne, I’m sure) and we then danced our way slowly through the streets to the Grand Place to the sound of drums. The Society was then received by the Mayor in the town hall before dancing their way home for lunch. Other societies such as the Pierrots and Arlequins) were also out but the Gilles are the most striking. Remedial Wife was frozen solid by this point and headed home. The afternoon parade sees the Gilles don ostrich feather hats and chuck oranges at the assembled crowds – this is allegedly to ensure a good harvest but is a handy excuse to cause mayhem too. I want to see this and the Sunday parade next year if we are still here.

If you fancy going next year, try to pass by Thirion who sell fantastic carnival cakes and tarts before going home!

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