Today is mardi gras and one of my favorite times of the year in Belgium. The folks in Binche put on an incredible carnaval every year and it is like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined before. Since 2003, the Binche Carnaval has been recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is attracting more and more visitors each year. Besides typical festival sights like parades of boisterous, costumed locals, marching bands, croustillons and of course, plenty of beer, the main symbol of the Binche carnaval is the Gille.
There are several different carnaval characters like the Pierrot, the Arlequin, and the Paysan, but the most impressive and coveted role is that of the Gille. Since the carnaval traditions of Binche date back to the 14th century, it’s not hard to imagine that the rules are quite well established. This is especially true for the Gille. Gilles must be male, though there seems to be no age limit, and also a longtime resident of Binche.
On mardi gras, the Gilles wake at dawn for a breakfast of oysters and Champagne with family and close friends. At some point during the morning, drummers go from house to house to lead the Gilles to the center of town where they dance a rondeau and are received by the bourgmestre (mayor). Towards the end of the morning, the Gilles, accompanied by a drummer, as always, return home for lunch and a rest. Later in the afternoon, they make their way to the center again, this time wearing elaborate ostrich feather hats. They toss blood oranges to the crowds, including those hanging from windows and balconies. Locals are prepared for this and board up their windows with chicken wire to prevent breakage. The marching and dancing goes on well into the evening, with costumed revelers partying into the night.
While Tuesday is the only day one can see the Gilles, the other days of the carnaval are great fun as well. The people of Binche seem to anticipate this week all year long, and their enthusiasm is really something to see and experience. Out of all the numerous festivals in Belgium (and there are so many), the one in Binche is definitely in my top 5. For more information about the Binche carnaval, check out their website, which seems to be recently redone. http://www.carnavaldebinche.be/index.html