Carnival of Aalst
Being born and raised in Aalst (Belgium), I really have to promote its ´world-famous’ carnival. Although not as famous as the carnival in Rio or Venice it still attracts around 90000 people to the parade on Sunday each year. If you are in Belgium around that time, you must come and celebrate carnival in Aalst. It is a special and fantastic experience.
Carnival is a Christian festival celebrated in the last 3 days before Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the festival starts on Sunday and ends on Shrove Tuesday. At midnight, the Lent start for 40 days until Easter. So carnival is really the last chance to eat and drink what you want before Lent starts. Because the celebration of Easter occurs on a different date each year (depending on the first full moon in Spring), the celebration of carnival also occurs on different dates each year. In 2023, Aalst carnival is on Sunday, February 19th.
It is a street carnival where on Sunday around 70 local carnival groups participate in a parade where they address local, national, and international topics.
The Sunday parade
On Sunday, the parade starts at 1pm and lasts for about 5 hours. The groups make the floats themselves with a cartoon style is something typical of Aalst. Furthermore, Almost all of the pieces of the floats like the heads are carved in 1 piece out of Styrofoam. Smaller ‘loose groups’ can also participate while addressing more recent themes with more satire. Of course, all the texts are in the local dialect.
The costumes and makeup are always on point every year.
Children grow up with carnival and often also participate in the parade.
Aalst carnival is a street carnival
When the last float has left the Great Market, the city center is the place to be for 3 days of celebrating, drinking, and eating. Aalst is really a street carnival, so at the Grand Market, there are old firetrucks with speakers that play (carnival) music all night. Of course, you can enjoy the celebrations in one of the many pubs. But forget to find a nice place to sit quietly during those 3 days :).
Photo by Andrea Kirkby
Photo by bram_souffreau
Typical folklore during Aalst carnival
On Monday, the Gilles of Aalst come out to control the winter spirits with their typical Broom Dance while throwing oranges. Their hats are made with ostrich feathers.
On Tuesday, the ‘Voil-Jeanetten’ or Dirty Sissies parade through the streets of the city center. Men are dressed up as women with fake breasts, a fur coat, stroller, broken umbrella, and a herring in a birdcage. The tradition of this lies in the history of Aalst. Since the lower class didn’t have the money to buy or make a carnival costume, they took the old clothes of their wives.
Photo by Andrea Kirkby
In the evening, the burning of the puppet marks the end of the carnival. However, this doesn’t mean that the party stops.
The best way to come to the carnival in Aalst is by train. The train station is located in the middle of the festivities. At the website of the Belgian railways, you can buy your ticket from all over Europe.
You want to experience Aalst carnival all night and don’t want to worry how to get home? Book a hotel in the city. There are several hotels in or near the city centre.
Tower hotel is located right in the buzzing centre of Aalst carnival and offers private parking space.
Bestwestern Keizershof hotel is also perfectly located in the centre of Aalst and also has a private parking space.
Not far from Bestwestern Keizershof you will also find Hotel Royal Astrid.
Ibis Aalst is not in the city centre but offers a shuttle service as part of a special carnival package.
More pictures of Aalst carnival
Here are some pictures of the previous years. But it is highly recommended to see it all in person.
Did you go to Aalst carnival yet?
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