Two of the most memorable events in Switzerland.
This is my experience from the 2018 Chienbäse and Morgestreich. I had planned to go back for Chienbäse in 2019, but high winds meant that it was either cancelled or there would only be tiny fires so I didn’t bother, then since 2020 there has been an obvious problem. Having done Morgenstreich two years in a row I am not too fussed to do it again any time soon.
Not many people are going to be hanging around that region in February/March as tourists. But if you are around at that time then these are well worth the visit:
- The events take place one after the other on the same night and are 10 minutes apart by train, so if you are going to do one then it makes sense to do both.
- Both events are free (though you can buy badges to support them) and easy to reach from the main station in each city. Extra trains are put on for both (including especially early trains for Morgenstreich).
- With COVID the events were cancelled or performed at a much reduced level for 2020-2022, hopefully they will return to normal in 2023.
Chienbäse is a parade through the old-town in Liestal that takes place every year on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday marking the end of the Liestal Fasnacht (carnival basically). The idea of fire to chase away winter has old pagan roots, but the current “wander through the old town with an inferno” idea only properly dates to 1924 so it is a fairly modern tradition.
At 19:15 the lights go out and the parade starts with Basler Fasnacht style pipe bands with lanterns. Then comes the fire. The fire section consists of a mixture of people carrying 20-100 kg bundles of burning sticks, and what can only be called ‘bloody great big wagons of fire’. The whole things takes about an hour. Very thoughtfully the Basel TV films the whole thing to give you a better idea.
Just to really make the point: these are busy and narrow old-town streets and big towers of fire. When the wind picked up the crowd was sent diving for cover a few times (not my picture but this gives the right idea). The Swiss are stereotyped as being sensible, but give them fire and/or fireworks (sometimes both in one!) and they are utter maniacs. I learned this quite early on when the 2016 Böögg in Solothurn shoot a sideways firework a few feet above my head (though that actually did cause the Swiss some concern).
Interestingly there were no crowd barriers (a wagon of fire charging forward generally tends to discourage people from getting in the way) and the floor is thick with potentially flammable confetti from the last few days of festivities. This was quite a surprise coming from the UK where a static bonfire on Guy Fawkes night is often surrounded by metal fencing and at such a distance that you can’t feel any heat. There are fire safety teams, though what good they might do after the fact is another matter.
Generally the crowd during the parade wasn’t too bad, I was expecting to be squished but had plenty of room (even more surprising given the good weather). Getting back to the station through narrow streets was another matter, the SBB did put extra trains on to help quickly move the crowds which was good.
- Try to be within sight of the gate at the Eastern end. As the wagons of fire approach your view through the gate is a gateway-to-hell style wall of flame, then (and especially for the larger ones) as it passes through the gate the flames suddenly tower up 4 stories. It has been awhile since something made me swear out loud in astonishment so much.
- Do not wear anything nice. You will stink of smoke by the end and embers are raining down the whole time. If you are in the front row you may also have waves of fire sweeping over you – so be prepared for a few holes in your coat. A scarf to breathe through and something to drink are also a good idea.
- Maximum Swiss points to the people in front of me who thought to bring Cervelat (or ‘Glpefer’ if you want to be local about it)) on sticks to roast on the passing fires. Apparently it is becoming a popular thing.
After squeezing onto a train for the short ride to Basel we went to catch a few hours of sleep at a friend’s place before the Morgenstreich (also sometimes written in the more local Morgestraich). The more hardcore option is of course to stay up all night. Though Morgenstreich is not a drunk party type thing.
We then got up and out at 03:30 for Morgenstreich: the parade that marks the start of the Basler Fasnacht.
That year we went to the Münsterplatz to start with which was nice and roomy and gave a good show for the first 20 minutes. The previous year we started on Freie Strasse which gave a better view for longer, but was more crowded. You can easily move later so where you start isn’t too important.
At 04:00 the streetlights go out in Basel old-town and the noise begins. Morgenstreich basically consists of cliques of people dressed in costumes and carrying lamps wandering around the darkened old-town playing music. Basel TV also very thoughtfully film and document this too.
Seeing an old-town street filled with colourful lanterns gently swaying and moving along is quite an amazing and slightly eerie sight.
The larger lanterns on wagons tend to be political satire – though mostly rather more subtle than the more famous ones at Köln, here it somewhat depends on your Baseldütsch and local political knowledge. Of course there are normally a few very obvious ones aimed at the then US president.
There is no single fixed parade route beyond simple staying in the old-town. Larger cliques with wagons stick to the main roads, but small cliques wander the alleyways at random. After the first 15 minutes or so it all becomes more mobile and the crowd can move about in the gaps between cliques (thought by some to be bad etiquette). This often leads to jams as oncoming cliques get in each other’s way. You would be surprised how many people turn up at 4am on a dark cold monday morning.
The first hour is the main part to see, especially 04:00 when the lights go off. Then it starts to slowly dissolve until only a few hardcore groups are still going at 06:00. Basel Fasnacht then goes on for all of Monday-Wednesday with various other activities.
Quite how much you can stand is another matter. The pipe/drum combo doesn’t include many different songs and I actually find it to be more annoying than Guggenmusik. Fasnacht is very much love/hate in Switzerland – whilst for some people look forward to it all year, others avoid town the whole time it is on.
As a visitor to Morgenstreich there are a few simple rules: don’t wear a costume, don’t throw confetti, don’t get in the way of the cliques. You can slip in the space between the groups to move around once things are underway.
There are some bakeries open selling Fasnacht specialties: Mehlsuppe (literally flour-soup, which is unlikely to win many people over on the first try) and Zwiebelwähe or Käsewähe (savoury onion or cheese cake).
Fasnacht isn’t an official holiday so shops are still open, but for many workplaces productivity will be rather low.