You begin to notice it in summer. The sweet trills of a piccolo float through steep cobbled streets, drifting from an upper storey window and settling on the warm breeze. From another open pane, a different dancing tune begins, winding its way in and out of the initial Narnian notes pervading the summer air.
As summer fades into autumn and winter, groups of people start to meet in mysterious cellars across the city. Up to their elbows in glue, newspaper, paint and plaster, they design and create their costumes. 100 masks left to make; 80; 30; five… A year of preparation and planning for three days in Spring.
Basel does Fasnacht like nowhere else in Switzerland.
The entire city shuts down for three days as groups in elaborate costumes and masks walk routes weaving through the streets and alleyways accompanied by drum and piccolo. It is a carnival and it is not a carnival. The original aim was apparently a satire, a mockery of authority, and this spirit lives on. Each group – clique – chooses a theme: the prevalence of the selfie in social media, changing gender roles, local controversy and scandal… Their costumes reflect this, as do the huge lanterns that accompany them. But despite the frivolity and fun behind the themes, there is also a sense of solemnity. While the audience cheer and giggle, the cliques walk at a measured pace, each member masked, never breaking their forward gaze. The music is deceptively simple, a rotating selection of piccolo and drum compositions that at times seem celebratory, and at times seem more funereal. As the evening draws in, the groups break up, with small assortments of costumed characters walking through the streets and alleyways playing their instruments. They never interact with the audience while walking and they never break their stride. It is both colourful and creepy.
Interspersing this melancholic march are the Waggis, who throw confetti and prizes out to a delighted audience. They will catch you, stuff your jacket with confetti, and reward your with a sweet, a bunch of mimosa, or, slightly oddly, an orange. Accompanying them in the main afternoon parades are huge brass bands, bringing a more traditional carnival atmosphere.
Nowhere is the juxtaposition of spectacle and tradition more evident than the Morgenstraich. At 4am on Monday morning, all of the lights in the city go out and Fasnacht begins. The cliques begin their march, accompanied by huge wheeled lanterns, playing their ever-present trilling tunes. It’s the symbol that normal life is suspend for the next three days. The roads are carpeted with confetti, the streets are filled with revellers and cliques in equal measure. While heading to buy bread you may come upon a group of giant fleas marching to the Fasnacht beat, or a Waggis ready to shower you with sweets as a carnival float goes past.
There are two parades, or Cortèges. Monday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon, with the evenings taken up with smaller costumed groups marching through streets and alleys. Bars and restaurants stay open all night, and street vendors sell cheese (Käase-) and onion (zwiebeln-) cakes (-kucheli) or slices (-waije).
Finally, at 4am on Thursday morning it finishes, as suddenly as it began. By the time the working day begins, the streets are cleared, the masks are in the cellars and the costumes are at the dry cleaner. But if you listen carefully, just at the edge of hearing, floating gently on an early spring wind, you might just hear the strains of a piccolo preparing for next year.