There’s not much to bring you to BINCHE, a sleepy little town halfway between Mons and Charleroi, at the southern end of Hainaut’s most decayed industrial region. However, it comes to life every year when it hosts one of the best and most renowned of the country’s carnivals, and it’s this that provides the main reason for a visit, not only when the carnival’s on, but also to take in the town’s Musée International du Carnaval et du Masque (wwww.museedumasque.be), which claims to have the largest assortment of carnival artefacts in the world. Whether or not this is an exaggeration, its collection of masks and fancy dress from carnivals throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America is certainly impressive, and it’s complemented by an audiovisual presentation on the Binche carnival and temporary exhibitions on the same theme. Outside the museum, a statue of a Gille – one of the figures that dance through the city streets during carnival – is sandwiched between the big but undistinguished Collégiale St-Ursmer and the Grand-Place, a spacious square edged by the onion-domed Hôtel de Ville, built in 1555 by Jacques du Broeucq to replace a version destroyed by the French the previous year. A small park near the museum marks the site of the town’s medieval citadel and contains what little remains of the former palace of Mary of Hungary. It’s buttressed by the original ramparts, which date from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries and curve impressively around most of the town centre, complete with 27 towers.
More about Belgium
Find out more
Carnival in Binche
Carnival in Binche
Carnival has been celebrated in Binche since the fourteenth century. The festivities last for several weeks, getting started in earnest on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday, when thousands turn out in costume. During the main events on Shrove Tuesday itself, the traditional Gilles – males born and raised in Binche – appear in clogs and embroidered costumes from dawn onwards, banging drums and stamping on the ground. In the morning they wear “green-eyed” masks, dancing in the Grand-Place carrying bunches of sticks to ward off bad spirits. In the afternoon they don their plumes – a mammoth piece of headgear made of ostrich feathers – and throw oranges to the crowd as they pass through town in procession. The rituals of the carnival date back to pagan times, but the Gilles were probably inspired by the fancy dress worn by Mary of Hungary’s court at a banquet held in honour of Charles V in 1549; Peru had recently been added to the Habsburg Empire, and the courtiers celebrated the conquest by dressing up in (their version of) Inca gear.