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Luzern’s infamously raucous six-day all-in carnival, ending on Mardi Gras night, is the biggest and best in Switzerland, a genuinely participatory event which knocks Basel’s stand-and-watch parades into a cocked hat. It’s worth going a long way out of your way to visit, even though the streets of the Old Town get more and more crammed with revellers year-on-year.
Celebrations are focused around three “official” carnival days. The Thursday before Mardi Gras is dubbed Schmotzig Donnschtig, or Dirty Thursday; the following Monday is Güdis Määntig, or Fat Monday; while Mardi Gras itself (Fat Tuesday) is Güdis Tseeschtig. Güdis comes from the dialect word Güdel, meaning belly, while Schmotzig, or dirty, has its roots in the word for grease or fat: carnival was traditionally a time for excess, to lay in some high-calorie Fasnachtsküechli, fried sweet layered pastry, before Lenten fasting.
Luzern’s carnival is centred on the figure of Fritschi, mentioned as early as 1443 and later subsumed into the legends surrounding a victory at the Battle of Ragaz on March 6, 1446. (March 6 was the day of Fridolin, patron saint of Glarus, and Fritschi is a diminutive of Fridolin.) Originally Fritschi was a lifesize straw doll carried through Luzern accompanied by Fritschene, his “wife”; these days a costumed couple take their place. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, the two were joined on parade by a nanny, a jester named Bajazzo and some musicians.
To this day, Fritschi begins Luzern’s carnival, at 5am on the morning of Dirty Thursday, when he and his entourage lean out of an upper window of the Rathaus on Kornmarkt as a cannon signals the start of festivities. From breakfast time onwards, bands of masked and costumed musicians, dancers and acrobats roam the Old Town streets, some performing Guggenmusig – comical oompah played on a handful of dented trombones and percussion – while others set up stages to give impromptu gigs to the promenading costumed crowds. The highlight of the day is the evening Fritschi parade, where Fritschi, Fritschene and the rest are paraded through the Old Town and around Löwenplatz, all the while flinging oranges out to carousing onlookers.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday aren’t official carnival days, but nonetheless see plenty of activity: there are parties around the town on Friday and Saturday nights, with bars open late and lots of live music in the streets and clubs. Fat Monday is when carnival really takes off, with strolling musicians and commedia dell’arte pantomime players roaming the cafés and restaurants, and all the Old Town squares taken over by exuberant mass dancing. Monday night’s raucously chaotic parade is broadcast live on Swiss TV, and Old Town bars are given special all-night licences in preparation for Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras itself. The climax of carnival is a Monsterkonzert, the grand finale of all the bands performing together throughout the Old Town on the Tuesday night, accompanied by plenty of eating, drinking and merrymaking, a mighty blowout which lasts until 4am. Two hours later, street cleaners arrive to restore order, and respectably groomed and suited business people return to Luzern’s breakfast-time cafés to begin real life again, amidst the exhausted revellers of the night before, most of them nursing breakfast beers while still in their fancy dress and face paint.
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