And today it’s the last installment of my trip to Switzerland.
We’ve had Day 1, where I got up at 2am to watch a lantern parade and drank Gluhwein for breakfast, and day 2 in which a mean old lady shouted at me while eating chocolate. It seemed to make sense to finish off the story of my adventures so that when I’m old I can read back over and remember the day in which I got confetti in places where confetti shouldn’t be, and bravely ordered a beer in a foreign country.
Our carefully planned day 3 itinerary started with a 9am breakfast in the hotel with Melanie, the sales and marketing director. I ate cold meat and cheese for breakfast, as I always do when I am in Europe because I like it and I don’t understand why more places don’t let me have it here instead of powdered scrambled egg and sausages which are 90% bread.
It was delicious, and it was also an opportunity to be schooled in the fine art of taking photos of your breakfast by the food bloggers with me on the trip.
After breakfast Melanie showed us round the hotel (The four star Swissotel le Plaza) so we could see the gym I’d been too busy to even think about using, and the super fancy suite that is for people far better than me to stay in. It had a huge lush marble bathroom that I may dream about for some time.
We did have upgraded rooms, which meant lots of floor space, but even the regular rooms are fairly spacious and come with a fancy coffee machine. They also come with an amenity that I I DID take advantage of, and that’s a pillow menu.
I have a bit of a thing with pillows. I despise the pillows that all fancy hotels provide you with by default, which are those luxury feather things that completely disappear as soon as you lay your head on them (#firstworldproblems, I know, right?). Fortunately I only had to put up with them for a couple of hours as the pillow menu meant I just popped to reception and asked for a decent pillow, k’thnx, and one arrived at my door.
I opted for the supportive head/neck pillow, but had I been so inclined I could have chosen a pillow filled with organic spelt husks, or one filled with fragrant pine chips to ease me off to sleep as if I was in a forest.
Post breakfast we packed our bags, I said farewell to the orange that it didn’t really seem worth taking with me, and then we checked our bags with the concierge for the bit of the day I was really looking forward to.
On Tuesday morning, before the craziness of the parades proper started, we had a guided tour of the city with a lovely lady called Elsa. Guided city tours make me happy, I love to hear about the city from a local, and you find out things you otherwise wouldn’t have known.
Elsa talked us through the history of the carnival. It is said to be the only Protestant carnival in the world. It is similar to Mardi Gras, but takes place about a week later. The exact reasons for this are lost in the mists of time, but one theory is that in 1091 the Catholic carnival date was rescheduled 6 days earlier, when the Sundays were excluded from the 40 day fasting period of lent (Sundays don’t count, I like your style). Until the 16th Century there were 2 carnival dates, one for posh folk, and another a week later known as the farmer’s carnival, the one that is now still celebrated in Basel.
Early in the morning on the Tuesday was a great day to walk around the city. The streets were full of costumed cliques getting ready for the parades to start with a vengeance in a few hours (though there were still people marching. THEY JUST DON’T STOP!). Many were drinking beer or wine and Elsa explained that while the parade was definitely not a sober experience, extreme drunkenness wasn’t really acceptable. I think the words she used were “as long as they can still walk”. Some groups were eating fondue out of large cast iron pots over a flame on the streets, and there were bottles lined up on window sills as evidence that the Fasnacht really wasn’t a teetotal activity!
The lanterns that we had seen paraded during the Morgenstreich a few days earlier were now on display outside the Cathedral, so now was our chance to get a closer look at the artworks. The lanterns are often satirical, and while world events (like frequent appearances by Donald Trump and Brexit) were easy to spot, some were a little more tricky if you weren’t a local.
Having Elsa with us was a treat as she explained some of the slightly less salubrious looking floats were a reference to the local councils attempt to clean up prostitution in the city by designating certain areas that they could stand in. She also explained that this lantern referred to an attempt to return traditional Swiss wrestling to fields around Basel. Local farmers had complained that their fields would be ruined by the crowds, and the attempt was finally blocked by environmental campaigners as there were Hares in the fields.
Another noteworthy stop on our tour was this fountain. It occupies the area of the stage of the original theatre. In the 1970s the theatre was torn down, and a new one rebuilt further from the road to reduce traffic noise. It features cast iron characters made from material salvaged from the original theatre and apparently represent the futility of life as the creatures in the fountain paddle endlessly. Cheerful.
It was a shame that this tour happened on our last day, as one of the other noteworthy things we discovered was that the cliques meeting houses are only open to the public on the 3 days of carnival. Throughout the year they serve as club rooms, they are small rooms off the streets of the old town with a bar in them. I would have loved to have gone in for a drink, but they weren’t open till the evening, so I’d missed my chance. We did get to pop into one and take a few photos though.
The clubhouses display lanterns outside. When they are lit they are open and you should feel free to pop in for a drink.
With our guided tour of the city finished (and only 1000 words into day 3!), we were delivered to cafe 1777 in a small quiet courtyard for lunch. It was here that I found the first hints that carnival wasn’t the favourite thing of EVERYONE in Basel. Our slightly frazzled waiter explained that he had been on duty from 3am till 7am, popped home for a few hours sleep, and was now back to work a 12pm-1am shift. He looked exhausted, and managed to spill a tray of drinks which made me feel hugely sorry for him (and slightly grateful that I wasn’t the one covered in sticky drinks (sorry Amar!).
I had a delicious local beer and a plate of pasta which was apparently a carnival special, that tasted a lot like bolognaise. We also ordered cheesecakes which we then ended up having packed up to go as we were too stuffed.
Before we left the waiter told me I should come back to Basel in the Summer when they go swimming the Rhine, apparently it’s way more fun than carnival. Personally I think I fancy both!
After lunch I was very aware that these were now our last few hours in Basel. My fellow travellers (Giulia, Milly, Amar and Eulanda) planned to go and visit a nice coffee shop they had heard about. I wanted to stand on the streets and stare at the parades again, so that’s what I did.
I walked for a few hours, bought Basler Läckerli (a kind of hard gingerbread that is a local speciality) to take home to Mr Chick and watched the parade. On Tuesday it is what they call the childrens parade. The route is shorter than on other days, and local children take part. From what I could make out, mostly what the local children do is get over excited about the opportunity to really aggressively stick confetti down people’s necks, which is what happened, despite the protection allegedly afforded by my Plakette.
I could feel confetti slowly trickling down my back. There was confetti in my bra, in my pants, and in my shoes. Confetti was in places were Confetti has no right being. So, impulsively, I decided to head through a doorway that looked like it had a little courtyard at the back. The courtyard was a small beer garden, so I sat down at a small table and ordered myself a beer.
This was immensely brave for me.
I find it difficult in the UK to walk into bars I don’t know and just sit on my own and have a drink, so doing it in Basel made me feel like a superhero.
Emboldened by my beer drinking experiences I paid a solo visit to a tea room above a swiss chocolate shop called Confisserie Schiesser. I decided my budget did not run to artisan swiss chocolate, but it did run to a nice cup of coffee. I secretly wanted Gluhwein, but in my heart of hearts I knew that dealing with trams, airport security and an Easy Jet flight due to arrive back in the UK at 9:30pm was probably best done under the influence of caffeine, rather than alcohol.
As the sun sank lower I wandered back to the hotel to meet my companions and eat my cheesecake, and there, mostly, ends the story of my trip to Basel.
We’ll skip over the trams, and having to tip the confetti out of my shoes at airport security. I will pause for brief praise for the Easy Jet flight that got us back the UK EARLY, and I’m not even going to mention the row we had with the bus driver at Gatwick who shut the doors of the bus on us (yes I am, I didn’t like him at all).
Would I go back to the Basel Fasnacht? Yes, I would, without hesitation.
All I could think while I was there was how much fun it would be to wander the streets with Mr Chick drinking gluhwein and eating bratwurst. I’d love to head into the old town at night and try and find a spot in one of the little clubhouses for a beer and eat fondue in local bars and I’d love to get covered in confetti all over again.
Basel Fasnacht Top Tips
The Fasnacht in 2018 runs from 19th-21st February.
Make sure you buy a Fasnacht badge or “plakette”. Not only are they a great souvenir, they also help fund the carnival.
Don’t dress up. At Fasnacht the spectators don’t wear facepaint or wigs. If you’re a child you might get away with it.
Do wear shoes you don’t mind getting covered in confetti. That stuff gets everywhere and is a bitch to get off!
You can buy big bags of confetti, but they’re not for you.
Be prepared to walk. The trams are easy to navigate, but during carnival they won’t be running. Take in the atmosphere and stay on the streets instead.