Aalst: the carnival capital of Flanders

Carnival, the last party before Lent, is celebrated in many countries across the globe. The carnival in the Brazilian metropolis Rio is known the world over as are the “Mardi Gras” celebrations in the US city of New Orleans. Closer to home, much of Cologne’s carnival is even broadcast live on German television. Here in Belgium, while carnivals are held in many parts of country in the days preceding Lent, there are two, one in Flanders and one in Wallonia that are by far the largest and best-known. The carnival in the Walloon town of Binche (Hainaut) and that in the East Flemish of Aalst that is the subject of this article. 

Anyone that has ever lived in or has friends, family or colleagues from the East Flemish city of Aalst will know that a large proportion of the around 85,000 residents live for the carnival. Many are members of the carnival groups that spend much of the year preparing for the carnival procession. Many more take part in the 3 days of revelry that are Aalst Carnival. 

Niko Caignie

Roots in the Middle Ages

The Aalst carnival has its origin in the Middle Ages.  The tradition was revived in the 19th centuary and from 1851 cavalcades, processions on horseback, were held.

However, these were private initiatives and were not organised by the city council. The first official carnival event in Aalst took place in 1923. Aalst Council has been in charge of organizing the carnival ever since. In 2010 Aalst Carnival was granted UNESCO Intangible World Heritage status.

Each year since 1953 Aalst has elected a Carnival Prince. The Carnival Prince reigns over Aalst during the three days of festivities. 

AP2014

Start as you intend to go on

The carnival in Aalst gets under way on the Sunday before the start of Lent and finishes on Shrove Tuesday.

On the Saturday evening before the carnival gets under way a council meeting is held in during which the person that has been elected Carnival Prince is given the keys to the city and in true carnival spirit local politicians are mocked.

The politicians stay on the side-line during the meeting that is held using Aalst’s unique local dialect. Not they, but long-serving members of the city’s various carnival groups take part. 

More than 100 floats

On Sunday the carnival parade makes its way through the city’s street. The parade attracts tens of thousands of spectators every year. They come not only from Aalst and the surrounding area, but also from the rest of the country and even from abroad.

More than 100 floats take part. Each of them are the result of months of planning and work on the part of the various carnival associations. All of the groups are from Aalst. 

Belga

Onion throwing and broom dancing

The Monday carnival parade is less rigidly structured than Sunday’s parade. On Monday evening prizes are awarded to the various floats. This is done on the basis of points that had been awarded during Sunday’s parade.

As well as getting a second chance to see the carnival floats, Monday’s visitors also get to see the Aalst Gilles perform the Broom Dance. Latter the Carnival Prince, assisted by a number of committee members though onion-sized sweets from the balcony of the City Hall. In true Willy Wonka style some of the sweets contain prizes, including the Golden Onion.

As on Sunday, the drinking, dancing and laughter continues in the city streets for much of the night. 

Nicolas Maeterlinck

Men in dresses and a doll burning

On the final day of the carnival the “Dirty Sissies” take to the streets of Aalst. These are men dressed in women’s clothing often sporting accessories such as fake breasts, bird cages or a worn umbrella.

The parade harks back to a time when many working class people were too poor to buy or even make a carnival costume so they simply put on some of their wife’s old garments and went to the carnival dressed like that.

The evening brings with it the traditional bonfire on which a giant puppet is burned while the participants whistle and shout. Then follows a third evening of revelry that carries on well into the early hours. 

More information about Aalst Carnival (In Dutch) can be found by clicking here. 

There are regularly train services to Aalst from cities including Ghent and Brussels.

Train times can be found on the Belgian rail company NMBS’ website.