There are tons of great festivals and events that take place throughout the year in Belgium, but few can rival the tradition and exuberance of the Carnival of Binche. Every February on the three days leading up to Lent, the town of Binche puts on its world-famous carnival, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Binche, like the Belgian cities of Liege and Dinant, is found in the Walloon region of the country, which is predominantly French-speaking. It is a small Medieval town with just over 30,000 residents, but this small town knows how to throw a good carnival. Should you plan to include a stop in Binche during your Belgium vacation, but are unable make it here for the February Carnival, you can always drop by the Museum of Carnival and Mask. Not only will you find exhibits in relation to the Binche Carnival in Belgium, but also ones that relate to other carnivals from around the world.
The Carnival of Binche is without question the most famous carnival in all of Belgium, and while folks from around the world come to experience it, it is exceedingly popular with citizens of nearby France. A Catholic carnival, the Carnival of Binche has its roots in the Christian faith, and it is more or less the last hurrah before the praying and fasting of Lent begin. There is no question that this top carnival in Belgium has quite a history to it, but there are different opinions as to just how far back it goes. While the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are when some historians believe that it began, others say that it must be earlier. This is due to its attachment to Christianity, which had already extended itself throughout most of Europe long before the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Regardless of the year that it was first celebrated, the Catholic Carnival of Binche is old, though the version that is celebrated today has its roots in the nineteenth century. It was in the nineteenth century that the Carnival of Binche really started to become recognized internationally, and it was also when the festive costumes and accessories implemented in today’s carnival were established.
While the Binche Belgium Carnival is at its best on the three days leading up to Lent, it actually starts 49 days before Lent begins. For seven weeks, Sundays include some form of ritualistic dance or ceremony, and these small acts are more for preparation’s sake than anything. It is neat to catch some of the townspeople practicing for their beloved Belgium carnival on the Sundays leading up to the main affair. The three main days of this traditional carnival in Belgium are known as the “fatty days,” and they start on the last Sunday before Lent. At 10 a.m. on this Fat Sunday, the “Mam’selles” parade commences, and it includes a procession of folks dressed in all kinds of outfits. Performers are decked out in traditional costumes, and these costumes can be quite diverse, some pertaining to animals, others depicting a certain character or person. The most important characters of the Binche Catholic Carnival are the Gilles, who are all men and boys. They number somewhere around 1,000, and they all wear a traditional outfit that involves red and black body garments, ostrich-feather hats, and wax masks. Each Gille’s mask has a curled moustache and a signature pair of spectacles.
On Fat Monday, the Gilles dance in the streets of Binche to music that is supplied by barrel organ players. There is a confetti battle on Fat Monday as well, and the highlights also feature the circle of friendship that is formed by members from various youth groups. Monday ends in fireworks, which helps to continue the fanfare, but no day is bigger than Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday is the only day in which the famed Gilles wear their costumes all day long, from sunup to sundown. Many Binche locals begin their Fat Tuesday at 4 a.m., getting up to take part in the early morning collections. The Gilles typically enjoy a traditional oysters and champagne breakfast before hitting the streets to perform for the masses. In addition to the Gilles, harlequins, Pierrots, and peasant characters help to make Fat Tuesday even more special, and you’ll want to pay attention to the fancy footwork that some of the dancers put on. The last procession on Mardi Gras takes place at around 3 p.m., and it is when the Gilles are known to toss oranges to and at crowd members, so keep your eyes peeled. After the last procession, folks generally mill about the town center, enjoying further celebrations. The evening is capped off with the week’s best fireworks show.
It’s hard to sum up the experience of the Binche Carnival in Belgium. Should you be traveling to Belgium during the festival, you will want to really consider adding it to your itinerary. The town of Binche is just 34 miles south of Belgium’s capital city of Brussels, so you can hop on a train or bus and be here in no time. Rent a car and you’ll get here even faster, though you might have a problem finding parking. Make sure you secure a hotel room in advance in Binche if you plan to attend the carnival and stay overnight. It’s only getting more popular with tourists, and you can expect a crowd.