Travel: Beware of low flying fruit

At Mardi Gras, the Belgian town of Binche is pelted with oranges by men in padded suits.
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The Independent Culture
Forget sweaty spectacles in Rio or pancake-tossing rituals in Pangbourne; to the citizens of Binche, Belgium's carnival capital, Mardi Gras is a chance to paint the town red. Blood-red.

And, if you visit the former mining town in the run-up to carnival, you'll see shopkeepers frantically masking their windows with chicken wire. On Mardi Gras afternoon, you'll understand why: hundreds of men in padded suits and fluffy feather headdresses pelt buildings and bystanders with blood oranges, gleefully smashing unprotected windows.

Around 300,000 fruit are lobbed during a two-hour riot that leaves the town centre moist with pulp and, although revellers may no longer hurl broomheads or flour at people who they think aren't joining in, that proves to be small comfort if you happen to have copped a fruit flush on the temple.

The fun-loving Binchois have performed similar rituals for the best part of a thousand years. In the 16th century, when the town was favoured by a Low Countries governor, Mary of Hungary, revellers across the Habsburg empire boasted that their wildest exploits were mas bravas que las fiestas de Bains [the old name for the town]. Despite spiralling unemployment, the carnival remains as intact as the 12th-century ramparts that ring its centre, making this Belgium's only walled city.

Festival songs say that, come Carnaval, young men spend their year's earnings in less than a week; in fact, the event requires year-long sacrifice. What with costume rental, society subscriptions, drink and insurance, the bill can come to over pounds 1,000 per participant.

At the Carnaval's heart are the Gilles, weirdly costumed figures who stomp the streets with hypnotic regularity throughout Mardi Gras, recalling ancient fertility rites to banish evil spirits from the winter soil. With be-clogged feet, straw-stuffed backs and bellies, bandaged heads and suits adorned with lions, crowns and stars, they look like escapees from a kind of Wonderland Accident & Emergency Department. Folklore has it that they were born 450 years ago, when Mary's courtesans dressed as Incas to celebrate the conquest of Peru, but scholars say that the Gille is an 18th-century street-theatre character, a cousin of Harlequin who possesses ancient magical powers.

For a Binchois, becoming a Gille is the highest honour imaginable. Veterans proudly boast that, while other festive traditions have been debased down the years, their carnival remains as authentic as ever. That's partly due to a sense of insularity, of being walled in against the world (locals say that there are only two places in the world - Binche and abroad). It's also down to the fanatical strictness with which customs are maintained.

To become a Gille, you must be male, of Belgian nationality and born in Binche - or have lived there for five years; once you've attained the hallowed status, you must never wear your costume outside the ramparts of Binche. Woe betide anyone who flouts the rules: if you're seen out of costume, or travelling in a car, you can be barred from Gillehood for life. Even the elderly or ill must slip into mufti before thumbing a lift. There are a few honourable exceptions: in 1943, a group of Gilles in a Nazi prison camp defied their oppressors by parading in Carnaval gear made from paper and tin cans.

Mardi Gras is the culmination of weeks of wild parties and a year of preparation. Madness mounts throughout the New Year, when the Gilles amass in front of the onion-domed town hall for a marathon of Sunday rehearsals, shaking the cobbles of the central square to the ceaseless beat of drums.

The locals shuffle behind the Gilles-in-waiting, inching towards the next tavern and another Binchoise beer (if you need to brush up on the shuffle dance, try to get through to the bar). The Binchois tease any visitors in the relevant dialect, explaining "we love a good laugh". As Carnaval draws near, it's time for gala balls and the anarchic Night of the Trouilles ("pigs") de Nouilles, when heavily disguised local wits enter bars, cafes and homes, poking fun at customers and demanding a free drink. But the weeks of ribaldry are only a prelude to the chaos that cuts loose over the three "fat days".

The riot begins on Dimanche Gras, when men dress as women, or Mam'zelles, and the Gilles-to-be sport luxurious costumes. Favourites include Madame de Pompadour, England's Elizabeth I and Tintin characters, but there's plenty of room for topical improvisation. Monday is a chance for diehard ravers to get their breath back, a family day when the youth groups of the town's political parties settle their scores in confetti battles.

But Mardi Gras is what they've all been waiting for. Men are reduced to tears when they talk about wearing the Gilles suit, while mothers admit to weeping with pride as their spotless sons leave the house before dawn, to return in a somewhat more spattered state the following morning. Gilles drink only champagne throughout the day, and the bubbly flows from 5am as the Gilles waddle from house to house, collecting their mates and downing a fluteful at every stop. As a symbol of equality, they wear wax masks painted with green spectacles and curling ginger whiskers.

Unless you have friends in Binche, you're unlikely to see this ritual, although in recent years tourists have turned up uninvited at private homes, with nary a bottle of Bolly for their hosts. Better to arrive around 8am as hundreds of Gilles converge on the station, a mock-Gothic vaulted marvel that recalls the town's industrial peak.

The Carnaval kings abandon their masks after lunch, donning the feathers as the orange-throwing begins. At night, the Pierrots, Harlequins and Oriental princes join the Gilles, juicing the ground for hours on end as fireworks detonate around them. Those with staying power stomp 'til dawn, sustained by drink and the never-ending drums.

There's only one hotel in town, so you're better off staying in Brussels or in nearby Mons. Stagger back to the station at dawn as the Gilles retreat in a hungover haze, and ponder next year's bash - and this year's damage.

Fact File

The Binche Carnaval begins on 14 February and grinds to a halt at dawn on 17 February. For details of accommodation in Binche or Mons, call Binche tourist office on 00 32 64 336727, or the Francophone part of the Belgian tourist office in London, on 0171-458 2888.

By rail, Eurostar (0990 186186) offers a pounds 89 return from London to Binche (or anywhere else in Belgium) via Brussels. Book a week in advance and stay away a Saturday night. For Brussels-Binche connections, call Belgian Railways (0171-593 2332).

By air, the main carrier to Belgium is Sabena (0181-780 1222), which flies to Brussels from Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle. From Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Virgin Express (0800 891199) offers one-way tickets from pounds 39. By train, Binche is around one hour from Brussels airport.

Binche is home to the Carnaval and Mask Museum (10 Rue Saint-Moustier, 0032 64 335741), which has the largest collection of masks in the world; until 18 April, it hosts a show devoted to Swiss revelry that makes the Binchois celebrations look rational.