Brazil has the Carnival in Rio, Italy the Venetian, United States has its Mardi Grass and Switzerland has Fasnacht. All of these carnivals typically take place during the month of February and occur immediately before the Christian liturgical season of Lent. The word “carnival” derives from the Latin carnem levare, because originally the expression indicated the banquet that was held the day before the start of the meat fasting, or Lent. But the origins of these carnivals are probably ancient, dating back to the Roman Saturnalia, which were celebrated in honor of the new year, in addition to the Lupercalia and the Dionysian celebrations.
In Switzerland, the cities celebrating the occasion fill up with masks and confetti, lights and colors that create a unique and festive atmosphere. Several cities celebrate Fasnacht (the word means carnival) at different times which gives us the opportunity to experience several or all of them.
The biggest carnival in Switzerland is the Carnival of Basel, however that one begins at 4am on Monday and last through 4am on Tuesday. Because the time was inconvenient for us and we didn’t plan ahead for it, we decided to skip Basel this year and instead we went to the carnival of Bellinzona, in the Italian canton of Ticino, called “RABADAN”, and of course, the one in Zürich.
Bellinzona’s RABADAN is the second biggest festival in Switzerland after the one in Basel, or at least that’s what they told us over there. We rented a car and stayed overnight from Saturday to Sunday.
On Saturday we visited 2 of the Three Castles of Bellinzona (Castelgrande, Castle Montebello and Castle Sasso Corbaro) which have been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It was raining, but as soon as we arrived at Castelgrande it started snowing which added a special charm to our visit. You can see all 3 castles on the same day, however only Castelgrande is open during winter. You can still visit the courtyard of the other two, but can’t step inside. Castelgrande has a tiny museum and offered a movie (in English) explaining the history of Bellinzona and the castle. It also has a restaurant with an outdoor terrace with wonderful views to the other castles and the old town, which I imagine must be wonderful dinning al fresco there during the summer months.
After visiting the castles, we decided to walk around a little bit in the old town. We arrived just in time for the parade. It started to rain again, but that was not an impediment to enjoy and have fun. The participants of the parade didn’t seem to be bothered by the rain and they continued to play their instruments with energy and smiles in there faces.
Since it was St. Valentine’s day, we made reservations at Osteria Sasso Corbaro, a restaurant inside the medieval castle of the same name, Sasso Corbaro. This restaurant has excellent reviews and we read that reservations in advance are highly recommended. We took the chances and called on the same day and we were lucky because they did have a table available. Eating there was a very romantic experience. The food and service was very good. Prices can be on the pricey side, but for a special occasion it might be worth it.
The big parade took place on Sunday at 1:30pm. There’s an entrance fee of 10chf to just stand and watch the parade. We arrived very early and didn’t have to pay, but since it was cold and it started snowing, we decided to take the dogs back and when we returned all entrances to the old town were blocked and we were asked to buy a ticket. But there you go, if you are traveling cheaply maybe you can consider getting there early (before 11am) in order to save 10chf per person.
The parade started a few minutes late, not typical Swiss, but since we were in the Italian part of Switzerland I guess they had a good excuse. Many people were wearing masks and costumes. For us, it was the perfect excuse to use the Venetian masks we bought in Venice last December.
The kids were happy playing with the snow and the cold didn’t seem to bother some, who where happily drinking a cold beer. We really enjoyed this carnival and also the food in this part of Switzerland. It’s like going to a totally different country. Everyone speaks Italian, the food has a strong Italian influence, people are more laid back and it’s OK to be a bit late.
The carnival in Zürich was during the weekend of February 21st. A parade for kids took place on Saturday the 21st and the big parade on Sunday the 22nd, at exactly 2:31pm. Again we wore our masks. There weren’t as many people dressed up as in Bellinzona, but there were a few. It was fun to walk along in the parade while listening to the special ‘Guggenmusik’ and drinking Glühwein to keep ourselves warm. The parade started right on time, at 2:31pm, just as stated in the program. I found the masks to be a bit creepy and scary, but that’s just my opinion. They did interact more with the spectators than in Bellinzona. In Zürich the masked people threw candy and confetti at the public. Some even “kidnapped” people and threw them inside their trucks. It was fun to watch.
The streets were filled with food stands selling hot dogs, crepes, sausages and Glühwein. To me, the biggest surprise was to find a Peruvian food stand selling Peruvian sandwiches and tamales. I love Peruvian food and it’s really not common to find it here in Switzerland, so I was really happy.
If you are new in Switzerland or find yourself visiting the country during the month of February, then I highly recommend you to tag along one of the fun Fasnacht celebrations and feel like a local for a day.