I've always wanted to see the famous Gilles of the Binche Carnival, but in the past, something always came up. And when I finally found the time to visit, it was on a Sunday, just to be disappointed when I learned they only wear the Gilles costume on Tuesday. This year, though, I took the afternoon off to go see them on the right day... and I almost succeeded.
The Carnival de Binche, recognised as immaterial cultural heritage by UNESCO, is a big, folkloric event and the highlight of the year for the inhabitants of Binche. For several months, the villagers are up and about preparing the carnival. The actual carnival takes place from Sunday to Tuesday, with the march of over a 1000 gilles as a grand finale.
The Binche Carnival is all about traditions, and strict rules are set into place to respect them. One is that the costume can only be worn on Mardi Gras by men originating from Binche. The costume itself consists of a blouse and jute trousers decorated with black, yellow and red felt figures such as stars, lions and crowns. The Gilles' blouse is filled with straw to make him look hunchbacked. He wears a belt with small bells, a white, lace collar around his neck and wooden clogs.
The most impressive part of the outfit, though, is the headwear. A Gille wears a white cotton beret, and some kind of white kerchief is knot around his head to keep the beret in place. On Mardi Gras some of the Gilles will wear an impressive hat with ostrich plumes.
The costumes don't belong to the men who wear them. Instead, they have to rent them from a local factory specialised in these clothes. The rental of the costume, together with all activities related to the carnival, comes at a high cost. Apparently, these three days of carnival cost as much as a full week of Winter holidays.
We had arrived in Binche around 2 pm as I had read the procession would start at 3pm. While walking to the center, we ran into an acquaintance from Binche, who invited us over for a glass of champagne with his friends. We followed him into a big house where a group of people were seated around a huge, nicely decorated table. Although all seats were taken, they made some extra space for us and not much later we were each being served a plate with coq-au-vin and while our glasses magically refilled. To our own surprise, we were having lunch with some Gilles and their family before they would head out for the afternoon procession.
Although exhausted from the intense carnival celebrations, they continued cheering and toasting. It was hard to believe that were already up from 6am. In the morning, they had marched to the townhall and apparently, that was the only moment they wear their wax masks with green glasses, a moustache and whiskers. So it turned out my timing had improved this year, but even better would be to arrive on an early Tuesday morning to see the Gilles in their full attire.
As it was almost 3PM, the Gilles were urged to empty their glasses and get ready for the procession. The women helped them get their outfit on and not much later we heard the drum of the tambourines. Those were the Gilles gathering, walking from house to house picking everyone up. Every Gille has to be accompanied by a tambourine player at all times. Every time the group stopped at a house to call the Gille out, everybody was offered a glass of champagne. Witnessing how generous the locals were while offering food and drinks, I began to understand why the Binche Carnival was such an expensive event.
Another rule is that a man who wears the Gilles costume cannot be drunk - or at least, not visibly drunk. It's still a mystery to me how those men can keep a sober appearance up with all the alcohol they are being offered.
Then, the group departed and started marching through the streets. As they moved towards the center, they gathered with other groups of Gilles and together they trod on the rhythym of the tambourines. They were holding a basket with oranges and gave them to (or more often: 'threw them at') the people watching the procession.
The procession headed to the marketplace where all participating groups gathered. Other groups I hadn't seen before had arrived here too, such as the Peasants, the Arlequins, the Pierrots, the Wifes of the Gilles, and other musicians.
While following the Gilles de Binche around with my camera, I had lost my boyfriend somewhere in the masses. I found him, with a cold beer in hand, in a bar where the deejay had started playing his set and many people had gathered. It was obvious this was just the beginning of a long evening. We drank a few more and ate some fries before heading back to the train station.
Although we had not experienced the entire carnival, we felt we had taken in the real, local vibe of the Binche Carnival. We had really enjoyed the celebrations and look forward to see more next year.