Wake up too early, bundle up, and head into town while the streets are empty, quiet, and dark. As we walk closer to the city center we see gathering crowds, and then we come to streets lined with spectators. Marching band troops in outrageous costumes and masks are waiting to start the march. Each individual has a small lantern on their head. As a group they carry or roll a large lantern describing timely commentary on society or politics.
In the above images, notice that there are street lights on and things are pretty well lit. The gathering is just getting set up. This party goes on for miles. The streets, at least the main streets, are full of people. It is just before 4am and town is packed.
Erwin, again our trusty host, takes us to the street in the photos above. He disappears around a corner to check out the center of the center of town, Marktplatz, where a large street goes through a large plaza below a church. He comes back and tells us that there is a better view over there, because we would be higher up. Not as much detail, but a great overview of that particular pathway through the crowds.
The parade is much less organized than you might think, this being Switzerland. Really, this is the moment when hundreds of marching bands, with only tom-toms and flutes, sometimes only flutes, start marching through the streets in any direction they please. Tonight they wear any costume they want, perhaps from past years or even the first year they participated. Over the following three days, they will wear this year's costume and all members of a single group will be identical. But tonight each costume is unique. Some of the small, hat-style lanterns are from the 1980s, 1970s, and I even saw one from 1929.
Actually, this is the moment: the city turns off every light and a cheer goes up from all around. The only things we can see are lanterns. And from every direction we hear the start of tom-toms pattering and flutes whistling. I assume this is akin to a pre-dawn call to war, one, two, four hundred years ago.
Our new vantage point allows us to see some of the larger lanterns up close - Erwin did his best to explain the significance, but there were so many. Some are about big news stories, like old women conceiving babies. Others are focused on politicians who are in the pocket of some corporation, or newspapers that are secretly owned by politicians, or politicians as puppets - that is a somewhat common theme.
This marching goes on for three days.
Below is a lantern full of trash. Environmental commentary, no doubt.
We walk down to the river to see what we can see. Black Rhine. On the way we walk past a place where you can get a snack and some gluh wine, or mulled wine kind of. It is probably 5:30am and definitely time for a hot drink. The Rhine is black and there are barely any lights on in the rest of the city. The sky is still completely dark. The marching bands are piping and tom-toming from different directions, but it's a little quieter at the river.
We decide to head towards the Münster and walk up a steep, tiny alley that is completely dark. Along the way we have to stop a couple of times to let marching bands pass. They probably can't see much because of their masks, so everyone lets them through. In a pitch black street a group of just two flutists passes and they are one of the nicest bands by far.
The tradition is to enjoy some flour soup for 7am breakfast - 3 hours after things start. We head towards a restaurant where Erwin has eaten before, but he assures us that flour soup is as good as it sounds no matter where we go. Not really a delicacy, more a sign of things to come (lent, perhaps, or whatever Christiany things people do leading up to Passover).
We feel lucky to find a table in a warm restaurant. The building used to be the guild meeting house of key makers and locksmiths. The hot flour broth tastes... salty. It is delicious. We have coffees, enjoying more heat after our three hours wandering the cold, dark, busy streets of Basel. Plenty of marchers are also taking a break. Many of them are wearing ridiculous, baggy clown onesies, but they leave their masks in the hall.
Just enough morning light to realize it's going to be day soon.
We stay so long that when we emerge from the restaurant, things are different. But similar.
Evidence of soup eating - lollipop lanterns resting:
and for posterity - a bicycle: