Belgian Escapade: Carnaval de Binche

The town of Binche once again prepares for the greatly anticipated Carnaval de Binche. Dubbed a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003, The spectacle takes places each year in the small Wallonian town during the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday – known as the shrove days.

The carnival’s roots within the town date back to the 14th century, but despite this being an age-old tradition, no one can pinpoint the history of the specific practices. Some local legends claim that 16th-century ruler of the town, Queen Mary of Hungary, had Incas perform at the festival in colourful costumes. This set a precedent for the event ever since, as flamboyant costumes now characterise the festival.

The carnival has male performers known as “Gills”, march through the centre of town wearing feathered headpieces, vibrant clothing, wooden masks, and ringing bells and beating drums to ward off evil spirits; with the Gills even throwing oranges at spectators!

Throwing oranges at the spectators? Rest assured, this is all in good faith and is one of the many traditions observed in the carnival. Being given an orange by a Gills is seen as good luck, and it is an insult to throw it back. So if you happen to get hit by one, just smile and wave.

Although there are events each week for seven weeks leading up to the carnival, the main performances take place on the three shrove days. Bonfires, fireworks, marches and music, the events increase from the first to last day, with the final day’s processions going from dawn till dusk.

So if you are looking to experience something outlandishly authentic this year, then why not visit the small town of Binche and see the big suprise they have to offer.