It is 4 am - the streets in the centre of Basel's Old Town are lined with people waiting for the "Morgestreich" that marks the official beginning of the carnival in Basel. With the chime of the cathedral clock, all lights, street lanterns as well as the lights in private houses and shops, go out. At the same time small and big lanterns go on and some groups of masked people start to play pipes and drums. The active participants are dressed in full costume including sculpted masks and smaller lanterns mounted on top of their head, larger ones with intricate painted images are fastened onto carriages. With these lanterns as the only source of light and the strange, mediaeval music, the slow procession of dressed up people through the streets is eerie. The carnival clubs (which are called cliques in the Basel carnival jargon) don't follow a fixed route, but roam the streets in small bands.
Everyone who is not a participating member of the Basel carnival cliques is not supposed to wear any costume or disguise – a condition we rather appreciate. We watch from the roadside and later walk up and down the streets between harlequin pipers and Grim Reapers, trying to get warmer, after all it is February and 4 am! Not even two hours later, before sunrise, we give up and go home to sleep.
Later that day the carnival cliques have rearranged to conduct a more orderly carnival procession. They have decorated floats relating to the group's or this year's motto, and all group members are wearing identical costumes and masks. Apart from the harlequin types, ogres, zombies and pirates with impressive skull masks are wide-spread costumes, but most popular is a figure with an enormous nose and a mop of hair – often hurling vegetables from the floats.
This mask is called a "Waggis", we learn in Basel's ethnology museum, and depicts migrant workers and farmers from neighbouring Alsace who used to come to the rich Swiss city to sell their produce. We also learn that the Basel carnival as we see it today is actually a product of the 19th and 20th century. Although its roots with disguises and some sort of hilarious parades apparently date back to mediaeval times, the rules and procedures, the permitted types of masks, the organisational structure of clubs and cliques, the events and their timings – all things that appear so mediaeval and time-honoured - were only set up relatively recently. And yet the Basel Fasnacht remains archaic in its unstructured roaming – in spite of all the rules, there is almost no choreography in the parades and events, and basically everything in the three days following the Morgestreich is a repetition of that night. Even the official programme lists Wednesday's events as a repetition of Monday.
We do visit the parades, the exhibition of floats, we see the children's parade and the Guggemusik brass band performances. We try Fasnachtswähe (a dry yeast pastry with caraway), Zwiebelwähe (onion pie), Käsewähe (cheese pie) and Fasnachtskiechli (a pan-fried sugary pastry). But on Wednesday, we take a break from Fasnacht and go hiking.
On Thursday, when we walk the streets at 5 am to get to our early-morning flight back to Berlin, we pass a tired woman carrying a huge "Waggis" mask, then a group of cyclists with over-emphasized shoulders in their colourful costumes and backgammon-patterned drums strapped to their backs. Finally, bus No 36 to Kleinhüningen is full of happy but exhausted Kleinhüningers in harlequin costumes.
Basler Fasnacht starts on 4 am Monday morning after Ash Wednesday and ends on the following Thursday at 4 am. These are the "three best days of the year" – Basel residents who disagree leave town during Fasnacht.