February 24th, 2009 – by: Adrian_Liston
Binche is not the type of town that would normally attract many visitors. An ordinary looking town of 30,000 in French Belgium, once a year it explodes into life for Carnival. The Carnival festivities in Binche
are so historic and particular that they are listed by World Heritage as one of the few "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
". For at least 500 years, and probably longer, the people of Binche have had an elaborate lead up during the 49 days of Lent preceding Shrove Tuesday, with different rituals dictated for each week.
Shrove Tuesday is the main event. Lydia, Shen, Nadia and I got off the train at the imposing station and followed the flood of people to the town centre.
As we walked the Gilles started to enter the streets. The Gilles are local men who dress up in a costume similar to an orange and black jester's outfit, with an enormous ostrich feather head-dress. Ahead of each Gilles was a drum beater, who announced his approach to allow the crowd to follow him, as he threw out small blood oranges. Unlike Cwarme
, this was not a jesting event, the Gilles was solemn, never smiling and never taking his eyes off the route to the centre. The Gilles would come out of houses or shops and join the march, and the crowd floated to the parade.
Along the main route thousands upon thousands of people had gathered. We got good positions, about five rows back but standing on the rise of the gutter, so that we had a good view. Lead by police on horses, the first group of Gilles approached, just little boys who could barely throw their oranges over the fences.
They all wore the same costume and all shuffled the same odd, slow and serious dance as they very slowly progressed through the streets. Between batches of parade, the non-Gilles townfolk walked in procession, not dressed up, just filling the gaps, supplying music and refilling baskets of oranges. There were then three non-Gilles groups, the Harlequin, the Peasants and the Pierrots, each throwing oranges. After that were more and more Gilles, over a thousand of them, separated by age group and each throwing oranges. The teenage Gilles of course tried to look nonchalant and disinterested, but could not hide their glee at pitching oranges as hard as they could at the crowd. You had to watch in all directions as an orange could hurtle from anywhere, I even got a sharp thud in the back of my head as an orange bounced off a building and hit me on the recoil. One guy getting a shoulder ride from his friends was targeted with a hundred oranges until he finally fell off under the pressure, we realised pretty soon why all the buildings on the main streets had window shutters stronger than we have seen anywhere else in Belgium.
The older Gilles did not try to punish with their gifts, but you still had to watch out as blood oranges flew towards you.
It was strange, a slow repetitive shuffle, only one costume and just the throwing of oranges, yet it became exhilarating, the thrill of trying to catch as many oranges as you could (together we caught 30), being part of the crowd surge and trying to avoid being hit.
Binche Sights & Attractions review
A solemn procession with free oranges
The finale of the carnival at Binche is on Shrove Tuesday, starting at around 4pm and lasting for nearly two hours. It is a simple train ride to and f… read entire review