When you hear carnival celebrations, do you only think about the ones in Rio de Janeiro?
Many people believe that Brazil is the only place where fun and crazy street parties happen in February for carnivals.
They couldn’t be more wrong …
Yes, Rio has the biggest carnival in the world, but across the Atlantic Ocean the festivities are going strong too!
With ancient history and deeply-imprinted cultural traditions, this is the place to be if you are interested in experiencing the European way of celebrating Shrove Tuesday (also called Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras). This year Shrove Tuesday takes place the 28 of February, 40 days before easter.
I have selected for you one of the most famous carnival celebrations in Europe: Binche Carnival.
If this year you want more than pancakes on pancake day, plan a trip to a carnival and have fun during the 3 most festive days of the year! And while you’re at it, why not rent a design apartment in Brussels? It’s only an hour away by train! If you are not familiar with the Belgian capital, check out this great video on the best things to do in Brussels!
Binche Carnival Celebrations – Belgium
All year round, Binche town gets ready for the main event of the year. Preparations starts 49 days before Fat Tuesday with parade rehearsals and more. This year, the carnival celebrations will take place on Sunday the 26th, Monday the 27th and Tuesday the 28th of February 2017.
Probably the most traditional and oldest carnival in Europe, the Binche carnival is very unique in many ways. So much that it has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of Humanity! It is unknown to many people compared to other carnivals such as the one in Venice. However, it is still an incredible event to attend as it is only in Binche that you can experience the traditional costumes and music that compose the charms of these celebrations. There is even a saying “a Gille never leaves,” named after the main characters: The Gilles. They are forbidden to leave the city with their costume on.
Out of the 11,000 inhabitants of Binche, about 1,000 are involved in the carnival celebrations. There are 4 different roles: firstly, Pierrots and Arlequins, which are roles executed by male and female children. Peasants are roles taken by older boys, supposedly to train them before being able to act as a Gille a following year. Finally, the Gilles, which are the most important characters, can only be played by men who have been living in the village for at least 5 years. Being a Gille is great honour!
There is a long history behind these characters and the carnival, you can find more detailed information here.
The tradition behind the Gille character is so precious to the locals that they have protected it by forbidding anyone to ever buy the costume, it can only be rented to the chosen Gilles. The famous wax mask they wear is only worn while entering the city hall. If you want to see the costume worn, there is only one day per year and that is Shrove Tuesday!
How to get there ?
If you are planning on going to Binche carnival, why not spend some time in Brussels too? It is only 1 hour away by train. That way you can explore the Belgian capital whenever you want and take a relaxing break from busy, exciting Binche. Also, if you have never been in the Belgian capital, you can find here 5 things to do when in brussels!
You can also read this four-day guide in Ghent, Bruges and Brussels, if you are planning to stay longer in Belgium!
For train information, look here. It is not advised to travel to Binche by car as the town shuts some roads and car parks are extremely busy as there are many tourists coming to experience the highly anticipated carnival celebrations.
Shrove Sunday –
The official participants in the 4 roles dress up in homemade costumes, only on Sunday, which they have been secretly imagining and creating over the past months. The whole day is kept to a rhythm by the sound of musicians playing the drums and the violes (a portable organ). You can admire the colourful “Sunday costumes” parading and dancing in the street all day until late in the night.
“Mam’zelles” are also an important part of the folklore on Sunday. Men dress up as extravagant women, often inspired by current news events or celebrities. Have fun admiring the fun and creative costumes, dance your heart out and simply enjoy!
Shrove Monday –
Monday is dedicated to the youth and it is usually children’s favourite day. It is also the most intimate day for the inhabitants of Binche. Family and friends get together for a day filled with fun activities, starting at 10am with everyone dancing and playing drums accompanied with violes in the street. Adults invite each other for a dance, and you too can join the movement!
When 11am arrives, get ready for the best confetti street party! Buy a bag of confetti and mix with everyone in a joyful “battle”, throwing confetti at each other as the town goes into a paper frenzy! Happy memories you will not forget… as some say they still find confetti in their belongings months after the carnival celebrations end!
At 3pm, children meet up to throw oranges at people, dance like the adults and perform a “friendship rondeau”. The oranges cannot be refused as it is a lucky sign to receive one. Finally, everyone goes to the main city square to watch a firework show at 7pm. Then comes the time to go to sleep early in the evening, especially as some families will have to wake up at 4am the next morning…
Shrove Tuesday –
Tuesday hosts the main and final event of this carnival. Tourist and locals joining together for the biggest carnival celebrations of the year!
At 4am the town slowly awakens. It is still dark outside but the soon-to-be Gilles have to start getting ready with the help of their family, a moment filled with emotions for the family members. A Gille wears a red, yellow and black medieval costume which is filled with straw.
When he is ready, he has to wait for a drummer to come and get him as Gilles cannot move around without a drummer accompanying his every movement. After having been picked up, Gilles and musicians walk to every house in their neighbourhood, to get every Gille. They are finally all reunited by 7am. Then, families can enjoy oysters and champagne to start the day.
After the typical breakfast and for the rest of the morning, the Gilles and the other characters get together on the main square of Binche. A jubilee medal will then be given to the Gilles and Peasants.
After having some lunch, the Gilles and the other characters join for a rondeau, then start the procession in the streets. With their wooden brooms, they sweep away the evil spirits. Still escorted by the drummers and other musicians, they dance, hand out oranges and the Gilles wear their hats made of ostrich feathers, which symbolise that spring is coming.
Try to grab an orange for good luck and above all, do not throw it back! It is considered to be an insult.
After the firework show at 9pm, the party will go on till the end of the night, be careful to be back home before dawn as the tradition wants it!
The 3 days of carnival celebrations just ended but next year’s carnival is already in everyone’s mind…
Europe is bursting with traditions and culture. With a heavy christian history background, it is therefore normal that many cities in February have carnival celebrations established in their folklore.
The reason why you should have Binche on your bucket list is because the carnival is one of the oldest one in europe. It really is a wonderful thing to experience it with the locals. They take great pride in their culture, which is why the carnival traditions are strictly regulated and respected.
Pick out your best costume and come enjoy the European way of celebrating the Shrove weekend!
Photo credit: jimich and saigneurdeguerre via Visualhunt.com