I have experienced many wonderful sights in Switzerland and have come across many cultural differences and unique characteristics which have made me come to love my life here over the past decade. Now and then, I manage to experience exceptional situations during my travels, and a spontaneous excursion on Sunday night led me to just such an experience.
The Fire Parade, or, in local dialect, Chienbäse, is a procession in the small town of Liestal on the night before the opening of the annual three day Fasnacht carnival in nearby Basel city. Online references indicate that the procession is a pagan ritual to accelerate the end of winter; with the aim (to cite records going back to the turn of the last century) to “break winter and with bright and burning Chienbäsen torches, bring the power of the sun from the hill to the dark valley“. The procession in its current form dates back to 1902, when a local baker had the idea to integrate the tradition of burning local pine wood into a procession through the town.
What made the experience truly unforgettable for me was the most striking aspect, alongside the fire itself, of thousands of people packing themselves into the narrows streets to watch the procession whilst being so close to the fire. The massive fire brigade presence was a must, as lumps of wood fell from the giant wooden brooms regularly, leaving a trail of burning embers down the road for those following behind. (Including myself, as I kept to the sides of the road in front of the standing spectators, with a few other photographers.) Sparks filled the air, so it was a good idea that I’d followed the advice I’d read online before leaving home and worn woollen and heavy cotton outer clothing. Once down near the old town, where the road narrows, spectators (and photographers!) are within feet of the large rolling bonfires and so anyone wearing acrylic jackets quickly found that they had to retreat sharply, as the wagons came to an occasional standstill to let the way ahead clear.
The procession was very Swiss, in a way: despite the strong presence of the fire brigade, the crowd were, in the main, left to use their own common sense to stay out of the way. The big steel barriers which seem to be a standard feature of processions and displays in other countries were nowhere to be seen, and it was down to each person to take care of themselves and those around them when the fire came close. The heat was pretty intense on some occasions, when the larger fires halted next to the crowds, and I wasn’t the only one to be left with a gently smoking coat once they’d moved on. The omnipresent fire brigade officers kept an eye on everyone and were quick with wet cloths and fire hoses, should the heat became over-bearing.
The most striking part of the whole procession was the part as the procession passed through the upper town gate into the old city. The archway in the old town wall, forming the support for a couple of floors of accommodation and a significant tower, is made of wood and the largest of the flaming wagons passed beneath with barely a couple of feet to spare; hence the necessity for the passage to be taken at a run and for the inside of the archway to be doused heavily with water from fire hoses after each group had passed.
Add to this impressive display of tradition over health and safety the path of cinders left behind after the procession, smoking furiously as they mixed with the ubiquitous paper confetti from the earlier fire-free procession, and it’s amazing that no-one is injured or that no serious damage is caused during this annual event.