Carnival of Binche & its mystery men

The coming holiday week has many names: From the accurate but somewhat boring winter holiday or sports holiday to the uplifting crocus holiday and the positively joyful carnival holiday. In need of last minute ideas? Why not stick to the latter name and visit a famous carnival

There’s hardly time to get to Rio, and Nice might be short notice as well, but why not pop down the street, as in the Belgian motorway, to Binche? Googlemaps will tell you it takes 2 ½ hours to go from Luxembourg to the town of Binche, which means it might take a bit less. It’s pretty close to Charleroi Airport in the Hainaut province south of Brussels, so a daytrip is doable.

The Carnival of Binche attracts a lot of visitors, and in 2008, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Carnival of Binche is one of Europe’s oldest street carnivals. It kicks off on Shrove Sunday, when the streets of the historic centre are taken over by cheerful masqueraded crowds, particularly the Mam’selles, men dressed in extravagant and very female costumes.

gilles

Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, marks the end of the festivities. That’s when the legendary yet mysterious Gille shows up, or hundreds of Gilles rather, in elaborate red, yellow and black costumes, ostrich-feather hats and bespectacled wax masks. The Gilles are followed by the Pierrots, the Harlequins and the peasants, and dancers dance the pas de Gille to the rhythms of violas and drums. Only a true Binchois or someone who has lived in the town for a minimum of 5 years can be a Gille, the costume can only be worn on Shrove Tuesday and cannot be taken out of town, so “a Gille never leaves”.

The people of Binche take great pride in their carnival, and each participating group has their own society; the Gilles, the Pierrots, the Harlequins and the peasants. Preparations start in January, indeed festivities start six weeks before Shrove Sunday with drum rehearsals in cafés, balls, masquerades and spontaneous parties. Meanwhile, fantasy costumes are being made in secrecy. This year, they can be seen from February 10th to 12th.

Click here to see the programme and information on trains and shuttle buses.

Click here to find hotel rooms near Binche.

By Unni Holtedahl, carnival time 2013. Photo courtesy of Carnaval de Binche.

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