When I was a wee lass of 19, I studied abroad in France. I dutifully noshed on croissants, wore striped boat-neck Ts, and gazed existentially into the Seine River. For an angsty soul like myself it was heaven. But one of my favorite moments happened not in France at all, but in a quaint Belgian town called Binche. For centuries the town has held a pre-Lenten carnival that involves much merrymaking, drinking, and confetti throwing.
Its piece de resistance is the Parade of the Gilles, traditional clowns that wear wax masks with green sunglasses, colorful jumpers stuffed with hay, and shake sticks to ward off evil. Because we kicked off the week with Fat Tuesday gluttony, AKA Paczki Day, I thought I would end with another Mardi Gras revel: Carnaval de Binche, a tamer relation to Brazil's infamous Carnivale. In fact, it is at this very festival that a drunk Belgian clasped his hands together and repeatedly bowed to me saying, in an awed voice, "Chinoise! Chinoise!" [Chinese Lady! Chinese Lady!]. I drowned my sorrows in no less than a dozen Belgian waffles and several cones of delicious frites. People, legit Belgian waffles are no joke. Same goes for their fries.
It is considered an honor to become a gille in Binche. Only men and boys who have grown up in Binche may put on the elaborate ostrich feather hats and fancy jumpers. Because gilles may only don their outfits for this single festival once a year, it is said that "a gille never leaves." This festival is one of the oldest in Europe and holds the great distinction of being a UNESCO "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Totally fancy pants.
Did I mention that you get to throw blood oranges? Lots of them? So many that the streets run red with juice and pulp? It is, in every sense of the word, awesome. Technically, the gilles give blood oranges as a gift to the citizens and it is considered poor form to throw the gift back. But let's face it: when there are blood red oranges to be had, throwing ensues. Shopkeepers have learned to barricade their windows.
Another thing you should know about Belgium is that it has a festival dedicated solely to cats. It is called, Kattenstoet. It commemorates a time in the good ol' days when cats were thrown from the church belfry and mock witches were burned. I dream of one day adding Kattenstoet to my list of Friday Festivals. Wouldn't you? On an unrelated note, it's kind of sad how little I have changed over the past decade, see proof below:
Other festivals I would love to attend: that tomato throwing festival in Spain (but not the running of the bulls) and Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. What's on your travel bucket list?
*Once a month or so, on a Friday, I will write about an awesome festival. Get psyched for notes on wonders like Hobo Fest, Tug Fest, Trek Fest, and more!