CHIÈVRES, Belgium -- You have probably already heard about the Carnival of Binche, one of the most famous Belgian celebrations. Each year, it draws thousands of tourists from all over the world to the Walloon city of Binche. The festival happens three days before Ash Wednesday. This year, it will occur from Feb. 11 to 13.
This unique carnival, which includes stunning costumes and folkloric traditions such as the throwing of oranges, is more than a festival and party to the people of Binche. It was recognized by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
Even though Carnival of Binche's exact origins are uncertain, the first written record of the celebration dates back to the 14th century. Things changed very little since that time, proving that one of the main aspects of this Carnival is the tradition.
More than a thousand inhabitants of Binche dress up as one of the four characters involved in the festival: The Peasants, the Harlequins, the Pierrots and the Gilles. The central figures are the Gilles, who wear a spectacular costume decorated with red, black and yellow symbols of lions, crowns and stars. They also don a white-filly collar, a white head covering, and have yellow bells attached to their costumes. They wear wooden clogs and will, during different stages of the street party, wear a mask and a magnificent feathered hat. Every male from Binche can become a Gille regardless of his age but needs to keep in mind that it is a lifelong commitment. As for females, they can become one of the three other characters involved in the process, and the Gilles' wives also play a major role in the Carnival.
On Sunday, the 13 societies take part in the Carnival parade in the streets of Binche at 3 p.m. They are accompanied by drums and brass instruments as they show off their impressive costumes that they have secretly been working on for months, if not years. This explosion of colors and sounds will amaze you, and it is just the beginning.
On Monday, a confetti battle between local children in the town square starts at 10 a.m. After that battle, the colorfully costumed children perform a dance at 4 p.m. and fireworks close out the joyful day at 7 p.m.
The three-day festival reaches its climax on Shrove Tuesday. The day starts at dawn, with one of the most important parts of the festival: the dressing of the Gilles, during which each Gille puts on his straw-stuffed costume with the help of family members. In the meantime, the leader of each "society" goes from one house to another to collect members of his groups. According to the tradition, Gilles have to drink a glass of champagne at each stop. A drummer accompanies each society during the whole process, and all the characters shuffle-dance through the streets to the drumbeat.
Once every society finishes, the Gilles parade on the streets with a bunch of willow twigs that they shake to ward off evil spirits. During this process, they wear sinister-looking porcelain masks with a Napoleon III-like moustache and green glasses. Then, each society enters the town hall and is honored as the mayor gives them medals. At 3 p.m., the famous procession of the oranges starts, during which the Gilles remove their masks and put on their ostrich-feathered hats that can be up to 35.4 inches (90 centimeters) and 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms).
During the procession of the oranges, all four characters parade one more time on the street, but this time they are throwing or passing oranges. Stay alert if you do not want to be hit by one. Nevertheless, it is important to know that catching or being hit by an orange brings good luck, and that refusing one, or sending it back, is considered as a grave insult. At 8 p.m., the last "rondeau," in which the Gilles dance in a huge circle, is performed on the Grand Place. The day and the festival officially end with fireworks starting around 9 p.m., but not entirely, as they are followed by a huge party in the town square late into the night.
It is better to arrive early to find a place to park your car, but extra trains will run to and from Binche during the Carnival. It is also important to know that hotels in and around Binche are usually full during the festivities, so it is better to book far in advance. Finally, keep in mind that there could be some changes to the schedule due to weather conditions, because the Gilles feathered hats are too precious to be ruined by Belgian weather!
The Carnival of Binche is a must-see for anyone who loves colorful and culturally rich events. It is an explosion of colors and sounds that adults and children will enjoy. For more information about the event, visit www.carnavaldebinche.be/accueil.html.