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BINCHE, Belgium — To an implacable, hypnotic rhythm, the phalanx of masked men shuffled down the street.

There were hundreds of them, torsos deformed into barrel chests and humped backs. Each sported mystic symbols of scarlet and gold, heads bound with white ribbons, feet clad in wooden clogs pounding the cobblestones in tune with the relentless drumbeat.

Advancing through the narrow space between rows of red-brick houses, came hundreds of identical waxen faces, all with the same upturned moustache, the same round spectacles, the same blank stare.

Welcome to Binche, home to one of the world’s weirdest carnivals.

This gritty, working class town of 30,000 is surrounded by the detritus of a once-mighty coal mining industry and suffers from almost 20 percent unemployment. It is a long way from the glamour of Rio de Janeiro, the mystique of Venice or razzmatazz of New Orleans. But the people of Binche are fiercely proud of their Mardi Gras.

Unlike those of its illustrious rivals, the United Nations recognizes the Binche carnival as one of the great treasures of international cultural heritage, alongside the Argentine tango, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes and the Kabuki Theatre of Japan.

What makes Binche unique are its gilles: hundreds of local men who, for the culmination of three wild days of celebration, squeeze themselves into garish multi-colored costumes complete with jingling bells and lace collars. On the afternoon of Mardi Gras, they strip off their strange wax masks and don crowns of towering ostrich plumes to dance through the streets hurling oranges at the packed crowds of revelers.

The origins of the gilles are lost in time. Historians these days discount the local legend that says the outlandish feathered headdresses were inspired by Inca chiefs said to have accompanied Emperor Charles V when he visited the town in the 1549. It’s now believed that the costumes evolved into their present form during the early 19th century, but their roots go much deeper.

“It stretches back to pagan times,” said Michel Abaert, a gille since 1957.

“The gille is an imposing character, by his size, his colors,” he explained over a glass of champagne outside the gille-filled Philippe II tavern. “His role is to chase away the winter. We dance, we beat our clogs on the cobbles to chase away the winter and welcome the spring. The mask is to show that we are all equal.”

A visit to the towns’ International Carnival and Mask Museum offers an explanation of such traditions local and worldwide, with exhibits ranging from the sequined g-strings of a Rio samba school to head-to-toe sheepskin costumes and wooden monster masks from the Balkans.

The festivities in Binche start on the Sunday before Mardi Gas, when the various gille societies seek to outdo each other with elaborate fancy dress costumes. They continue on Monday with fireworks, “confetti battles” and considerable drinking in the town’s many cafes. It’s said that the English word “binge” can be traced to Binche.

The traditional gille costumes only make their apparition on Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras itself. Only male Binche natives can become gilles. If one should appear in his costume outside the city limits he faces a banning and disgrace — meaning potentially lucrative offers to make commercial appearances are rejected.

“Anyone claiming to be a gille who you see outside Binche is not a real Binche gille. We never leave our cobblestones,” insisted Andre Fleurus, another gille of more than 40 years standing.
“I had to take a break from it after I was married, you know what women are like,” Fleurus joked. “But when my son was 7 years old, he came to me and said ‘Dad, I want to be a gille.’ That made me so happy. We’ve been gilles together for 30 years now and his son’s a gille too. It’s something in the blood here.”

On Mardi Gras, the gilles awake before dawn and breakfast on oysters and champagne while they are ritually dressed and their costumes stuffed with straw to produce their striking, beefed-up form.

After the drums call them into the streets, the about 1,000 gilles spend the next few hours beating a path though the streets to the square in front of the 16th-century town hall ahead of the afternoon’s grand plumed parade.

Although the gilles costumes are only worn for one day, craftsmen and women work year round to maintain, repair and refresh the uniforms. It takes 80 hours and up to 350 ostrich feathers to make the headdresses, at a cost of up to 3,000 euros.

This year’s celebrations were dampened by the commuter train crash which killed at least 18 people on Monday just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. A minute of silence was held for the victims, but there was never any question that the carnival would go on.

Local officials said Binche isolates itself behind its medieval ramparts during the carnival and that many people refuse to turn on the radio or buy a newspaper during the three-day party, such is the importance of focusing on the festivities.

“In Binche, Carnival is so much more than a religion,” said a weather-beaten placard above one bar on the main street.

Photos of the 2010 Mardi Gras celebration in Binche, Belgium (Paul Ames/GlobalPost)

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