You would have had to be living under a rock to not have heard of Carnival before. Around the world, people celebrate this religious observation in all manners. The best known festivals arguably are in Rio de Janeiro, Venice and New Orleans’ iconic Mardi Gras. However, there are also plenty of lesser known celebrations globally, including one in the Flemish city of Aalst in Belgium. Sitting roughly halfway between Brussels and Ghent, Aalst is not really known internationally, but in Belgium it is definitely known for its Carnaval.
My Carnaval experience was thanks to some serendipitous timing. The same day I was talking to friends who live in Ghent about when we could next catch up, I came across a blog article from an Aalst local about the festival. Upon finding cheap flights, it was decided. That one of the friends was from Aalst and the other had never been to Carnaval meant it was the perfect time to go. I had visited the city once before and knew that it was a nice, small city. I was thrilled to see it in festival mode.
When deciding how to share Carnaval, there really was only one option, so enjoy these photos from my phenomenal day at the Aalst Carnaval, or Carnaval Oilsjt in the local dialect. Trust me, it sure was hard pruning down the number of photos to an appropriate amount.
The 2017 Aalst Carnaval festival was the 89th edition of the beloved celebration. In fact Aalst’s Carnaval is a UNESCO recognised cultural Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The city has been celebrating the religious Carnival period since the mid-15th century. Aalst’s Carnaval is now one of two major Carnival celebrations in Belgium, the other being in the Wallonian city of Binche. Despite being known throughout Belgium, Aalst Carnaval is very much a local affair. People were generally amazed that my friend and I were not from Aalst, let alone the other side of the world.
Aalst Carnaval is a three day affair, beginning on the Sunday of Shrovetide and running until the night of Shrove Tuesday. Each day has its own programme, centred around a parade that makes a 7km route through the city on Sunday and repeated Monday. The parade consists of 80 official and 208 smaller unofficial groups that are split into Small, Medium and Big categories. Generally about 2/3 of groups are local to Aalst which further speaks to the local nature of the festival. Groups are judged and scored in the main square of Aalst, with the winner of each category announced on the Monday evening. We were only visiting for the Sunday, however.
Perhaps the highest honour aside from winning one of the prizes, is to be crowned the Prince of Carnaval. This year, I believe, the Carnaval had its first ever foreign prince in Mr. Raf Sidorski of Poland. The competition for Prince of Carnaval is fierce and requires almost year round campaigning and attending many a fundraiser held by the participating groups. I never quite found out the benefits of the title, aside from a balcony position in the main square, but people desperately want it.
The Carnaval parade begins in the early afternoon as the groups begin their procession through the streets of Aalst. Each group is dressed up in their own vibrant, cartoonish and often outrageous costumes. Many owe their style to the nation’s love of cartoons and comics, but there’s also often a Willy Wonka / Alice in Wonderland vibe. It certainly has a wildly different style than the elegance of Venice or flamboyance of Rio.
While the small groups are generally just people in costume, the medium and large groups step it up with elaborate motorised floats. The floats even sometimes have moving parts, like the oversized champagne glasses below that rocked from side to side. You have to take pity on the poor people sitting on these moving floats for hours on end without break. These groups also each have their own choreographed dance routine performed to custom music, often popular songs reworked with amusing (supposedly) lyrics. Did I mention there’s also a Carnaval radio station that plays the songs on a loop?
Aalst, City of Onions
You may have seen in many of the photos above and below the recurring image or outline of onions. If not, take another look through the photos and you’ll see them. Strange, right? Well as it happens, the onion is the symbol of Aalst due to
their extensive farms of it a mocking nickname based on the local accent that they’ve since embraced (Thank you Erwin!). Interestingly, the people of Aalst fully embrace their mascot and you can find it everywhere. They even throw small onions from the floats and from the town hall which is both bizarre and perfectly fitting at the same time.
Family and Celebrations
It was really nice to see that the Aalst Carnaval is very much a family affair. There’s plenty for kids to enjoy, including free sweets and plenty of confetti. For the adults, it’s a chance to catch up with friends, drink beer and laugh at the amusing floats and music. Then there’s just the sheer spectacle of it all that appeals to everyone, even a foreigner like me.
On the Sunday of the festival, it’s quite typical for people to get together at the house of someone who lives along the parade route. Even in February, people open wide their windows to watch the parade from the comfort of their homes. This way you can watch the large floats pass by your living room and look out along the cavalcade from above. My friends had been invited along to someones apartment and we found ourselves alternating quite a lot between the upstairs windows and stepping down to the street to get up close.
Costumes in Drag
One thing that became quickly apparent was the large number of men dressed in drag throughout the parade. It was a common theme across various groups and had males of all ages – yes even young teenagers – dressing up in drag. Actually, the costumes are done so uniformly that you often can’t tell if the people dressed up are male or female.
This theme culminates in the Parade of the Voil Jeanetten on the final day, Voil Jeanetten translating from the Aalst dialect as “Dirty Sissies”, with wave after wave of men dressed as women in over-the-costumes you’ll see later on. A warning: the phrase Jeanetten on its own is quite offensive, so keep that in mind.
While Aalst Carnaval is a bit of an Alice in Wonderland acid trip, it’s often sprinkled with biting political commentary and ridicule. Surrealism is king, but so is skewering politicians. Nothing is sacred, not religion, not race, and especially not Trump. As an outsider to the festival, I only really got the floats that touched on world politics, dead celebrities or had blatant social themes.
There were plenty of groups that focused on issues that only a Belgian or even Aalst native would likely understand. Apparently there had been a recent news story on mistreatment at aged-care facilities as there were quite a few groups with people dressed up as the elderly in cages. Local religious figures also featured prominently.
Stretching on into the Night
The sun going down didn’t slow the tide of groups and floats continuing on through the streets. What did slow the tide was the occasional mechanical breakdowns that became more and more frequent as the day grew on. As they had saved the best for last, the crowds had no problem standing about for 10 – 20 minutes with nothing passing. The break meant people were able to run back up to apartments and resupply, or head down to the various food trucks parked about.
The real benefit of night fall was that the larger floats were now able to make the most of their dazzling, illuminating lighting. This ranged from the bright neon glowing of the floats to the cleverly lit up costumes. With the lights, the parade felt like it had hit another level. Even if we hadn’t been having a ball, we had another reason for watching until the end. We had been waiting all night for the group with the horses theme, as my friend’s cousin was participating in the parade and we wanted to make sure we saw them. It turned out they were one of the last floats but it was worth the wait.
Once the last group of the parade had finally gone past, we went off to get ready. It was as if the entire day up until this point had been the prologue and now the true party began. It was now our turn to dress up and boy did we! My friends had managed to procure two spare Voil Jeanetten outfits from previous years and even we got assistance with exaggerated makeup to properly complete the ensemble. Hell of a first time for me to dress up in drag!
From there it was back to meet up with our group of people from earlier who had quite impressively put together matching costumes of stereotypical Mexicans behind a wall that would appear when they lined up. Drinks in hand, it was time to follow the portable DJ station that had appeared out of a garage and slowly make our way through the streets to the main square. Obviously, excessive noise in the middle of the night is a given during Carnaval.
With Aalst’s main square cleared of the last remaining floats, it was time for the real party and debauchery to begin. Various groups were allowed to bring their trucks in, parking in a ring right in front of the town hall. Each of the trucks had their own sound systems, elaborate designs and even platforms. This was where the raucous fun, drinking and dancing of thousands of people would carry on into the early morning. At this point, there are understandably fewer photos and the quality goes down hill quite a bit.
The Next Day
As you can imagine, for us it was a very late start the next day, having headed home around 4 or 5am. Not so lucky however were the parade participants, who would maybe catch an hour or two sleep, then be up before 8am to start their preparations for the next day. They would then do the whole day again, including the parade, the drinking and the late night partying. And then there’s the third day!
It really takes true dedication to be a part of this three day celebration, when you get next-to-no sleep and spend your waking hours drinking heavily. Of course this pales in comparison to the year-round efforts that go into organising groups, creating costumes, songs and dance routines, not to mention funding and building their floats. You really have to love Carnaval to go back year after year. The city takes it pretty seriously too. For example, they actually provide free spaces year round for the groups to work on and build their floats, which must be a hefty investment.
All this is to say that the Aalst Carnaval means everything to many of the city’s people. No surprise then that when they ritually set a giant Carnaval effigy alight in a big bonfire on the final night, you’re bound to see a lot of men bursting into tears. Drunk, sleep deprived and watching a years worth of work and build up gone. In that context, crying definitely makes sense. I may have only caught a glimpse in comparison to all this, but it’s something I’ll definitely remember for years to come.
Which is your favourite photo or float from the above? Had you heard of the Aalst Carnaval before? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
A massive thanks to my friends Duncan and Sarah for arranging everything during my visit, plus lending some of the above photos, and Sarah’s family for putting me up and loaning me a costume.
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