‘Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch’-Crunch Time At The Carnival
Image Credit: (Featured image via Flickr/Emilio Sigrist)

At precisely 4 AM on the first Monday following Ash Wednesday, as the reverberations of the last of the chimes from the imposing Martinskirche (St. Martin’s Church) are still felt in the air, all the lights in the city centre of Basel go off. In the complete darkness, a voice is heard calling out: “Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!” Immediately, the hushed silence is replaced with the sound of hundreds of pipes and drums, all playing an old-fashioned marching tune known as the “Morgestraich”. This is the start of what locals call “the three loveliest days of the year” — the Basel Fasnacht, or Carnival of Basel.

The Fasnacht is a celebration whose exact origins have been lost to time — the devastating earthquake of 1356 that decimated Basel and its environs also destroyed any existing historical documentation about the earliest iterations of the festival. But even if this knowledge has gone missing the associated customs have not, and Basel and its people have kept up an unbroken tradition of Fasnacht as far as possible. 

The schedule of festivities is planned out for the exact 72 hours the Fasnacht is observed. (In 2023, the Carnival began on Monday, 27 February, and will end on Wednesday, 1 March; the closing ceremony wraps up at 4 am on Thursday.) On Monday and Wednesday, there are the grand signature parades of the festival; known as the cortèges, these feature floats, brass bands, costumed participants and more. Each participating group in the cortège, no matter its size, has a sujet or theme, made evident not only in their costumes but also the large lantern that precedes each float. The lanterns themselves are exhibited in the city centre once the Monday parade concludes. 

Kinderfasnacht, on Tuesday afternoon, is when the children have their carnival. They dress up in costumes, play music, and parade with a parent as a chaperone, distributing zeedel (leaflets with witty captions), dääfeli (sweets) and räppli — the confetti that features so prominently in the Fasnacht celebrations. The evening is given over to the guggenkonzert — music by the varied brass bands. On Wednesday, the second parade blends into the frenetic whirl of the Endstreich or ending event, and the carnival concludes on a high. Through all of these events, a steady shower of confetti is cast upon spectators who gather to watch the proceedings, the colourful bits piling up ankle-deep on the streets of Basel.

Since Fasnacht occurs at the start of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter, when Christians practice fasting and other forms of religious penance), there is a spirit of almost rebellious revelry to the carnival. And food is very much part of these revelries. While Basel has a plethora of delicacies that are common across Switzerland — like fondue, gipfel (breakfast croissants), hefezopf (plaited bread, usually had on weekends), chocolates, rösti (potato cakes) and cordon bleu (a ham and cheese schnitzel) — it has a delectable repertoire of local goodies too. Some of these are only available at specific times of the year, like Carnival. 

                         Image: rösti 

A case in point are the fastenwähe, found at most Basel bakeries from January onwards, until Easter in April. These are very similar to pretzels in appearance, and have a generous smattering of caraway seeds on top. Vendors at the Munsterplatz (the city centre) have stands piled high with these pretzels, including some that are loaded with cheese. Locals and tourists throng these stands, picking up fastenwähe to snack on as they move on to the next event.

Those who prefer something heartier will go for the “Basler Mehlsuppe” — a soup described as “warm and bready”, made with roasted flour, stock, red wine and butter. The origin story for this dish ascribes its invention to a cook who burnt some flour while engaged in chit-chat, and rather than throwing it away, decided to use it in her soup. And in the evenings, as you stop off at the well-lit white dining tents that dot the Munsterplatz, you can also pick up “Wäie” — cheese and onion tarts that are considered an absolute carnival staple.

Other pan-Swiss carnival treats that Basel also offers are fasnachtschüechli (deep-fried crispy wafer-like carnival cakes, dusted with icing sugar), schenkeli (deep-fried dough treat) and zigerkrapfen (which is similar to a schenkeli but has a filling made of cheese, almonds, sugar, cinnamon, sultanas and lemon juice).