Masked Basle

With the unerring accuracy of a Swiss watch, 'Fasnacht' festivities start at 4am on the first Monday of Lent.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Tuesday evening it was a relief to lean against the granite wall of the 90-year-old Mittlere Brucke and detach myself from the crowds. Hoards of people were still teeming the confetti-covered Greifeng strasse in Basle. Lights from the bland, flat Johanniterbrucke highlighted the ripples of the wide, inky-black Rhine. Spotlights illuminated the magnificent twin Gothic towers of the cathedral, nestled high on the southerly bank of the river. After the noise and bustle, there was a strangely calm interval. It was short lived.

A 50-piece band, dressed as elephants and kitted out with drums, trumpets, trombones, tubas and much more, marched past playing "Happy Days are Here Again". I took the plunge once more and joined the crowd following respectfully behind.

This was Basle's Fasnacht - a spectacular three-day extravaganza that starts on the first Monday of Lent. It takes months of hard work by more than 12,000 people for the proceedings to get underway. With the unerring accuracy of a Swiss clock, it kicks off at 4am with the Morgestraich (or "morning stroke") in Marktplatz. Hundreds of faces poke out from their padded jackets as the lights of the city are extinguished and the air becomes filled with the resonant sound of piccolos and drums. Then, in what seems like a bizarre hallucinatory experience, the pre-dawn gloom is illuminated by the glow from intricate, hand-painted lanterns while a sea of grotesque costumed and masked figures march along, all covered from head to foot so it is impossible to tell their gender.

More than 100 groups, or Cliquen - each containing between 25 and 200 members - make up the opening parade. By dawn this has amassed to a lot. An awful lot. And the music throughout the festival is in equal abundance because, in true Swiss style, it never seems to stop. From morning to night you come across unexpected costumed figures playing music on nearly every street corner.

After the opening parade, there is a morning break. Then the same Cliquen perform in the Strassenfasnacht, and a host of smaller processions wind their way along the official route in two directions - through the old and new town - by crossing the Rhine on the Mittlere Brucke and Wettsteinbrucke. Confetti, oranges, sweets and mimosa are thrown abundantly to the crowds.

Every float represents a theme from the year. These ideas originally had to be formerly approved by the ruling Komittee, the organisers who disallow anything lewd or sexual. Mad cows and big-eared royals were two of the more English themes, though there were scores more. And it seemed that wherever I went there were groups of costumed pipers and drummers and, of course, loud, foot-stompin' Guggemuusig bands.

The like of which I was now following into Grossbasle and the old part of town - an area home to Basle's healthy collection of historical and cultural monuments. These include the imposing 14th-century Spalentor (the former gate to the city), the Kunstmuseum with its wide selection of German paintings, the red-brick 16th-century town hall in Marktplatz, and the Historisches Museum (set in a 14th-century Franciscan church and outside of which the Guggemuusig bands would give concerts this very evening).

A layer of confetti covered the ground like a hefty fall of snow. Then, when the band started to play "When I'm 64" with a jaunty beat initiated by the trumpets, fired by the drums and beefed up by the tubas, I branched left up the narrow, cobbled Rheinsprung strasse, an ancient street lined with charming houses. However, I was slowed by a small group of people who followed a lone drummer dressed in the powdered wig and flared skirt of the mid-18th century. Gradually he led us into Munsterplatz.

Dominated by the red sandstone Gothic cathedral (its construction stretched over many centuries and records date back to 916 when it was initially a church), the square displayed more than 50 of the Cliquens' lanterns. Hand-painted by professional artists, they depicted the Cliquen's theme for the year. I browsed in the peaceful surrounds, dallying between having a bratwurst and Warteck beer from one of the stalls or a drink in the warmth of the coffee shop opposite. And then I heard the oom-pah beat of "I'm in the Money", which reminded me I was skint, so I wandered off to watch the Guggemuusig concert in Barfusserplatz instead.

British visitors this Lent may not realise their good fortune, but the pound is stronger against the Swiss franc than it has been for four years. But if you refuse to accept that 5 francs (pounds 2.15) for a coffee is a bargain, just make the most of these free and fantastical festivities.

BASLE BASICS

The Basle Fasnacht runs from 4am on 17 February to 19 February.

Getting there: Swissair (0171-434 7300) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly between Heathrow and Basle; Swissair has the lowest fare, pounds 161.50 return (but you must stay a Saturday night). Eurostar has rail services from London Waterloo via Lille or Paris, taking about 11 hours, for pounds 171. Bookings: British Rail International (0171-834 2345).

More information: Switzerland Tourism, Swiss Centre, New Coventry Street, London W1V 8EE (0171-734 1921), open 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

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