Part ritual, part mystery, part madness, Carnaval in southern Netherlands what I imagine being dropped in Wonderland would be like. For three days everything shuts down for people to dress up in elaborate (and often homemade) costumes, pull out their floats and music carts, load up on beer and snacks to sell, and do absolutely anything they want.
This event could have a place on the UNESCO cultural heritage list, and yet the people of the Netherlands are reluctant. It's not easy to find out about it, it's not easy to learn more about it, and it's almost impossible to know what to expect when you visit Carnaval for the first time. The people in central and northern Netherlands don't celebrate it, and perhaps they think those that do are a little...uncivilized. They might have King's Day, but I think they're missing the best Dutch celebration of all.
The first thing you need to know is that Carnaval's special number is 11, the number of fools and madmen. Preparations for the next Carnaval begin on November 11th at exactly 11:11 a.m., and 11 continues to be a significant number throughout the festival season.
Carnaval is your chance to be anything. It's Halloween for adults (and everyone, actually) without the "sexy," without the "what are you," and without rules of any kind except can you stay warm in it. We did lots of research, but still felt we wanted to be something recognizable. We chose to be sloths, inspired by this makeup tutorial by Glam&Gore, and literally couldn't stop laughing at ourselves once our makeup was on. As it turned out, sloths aren't very recognizable by the Dutch, and our pronunciation of "luiaard" was poor enough that most people thought we were leopards, or "luipaard." Oh well, the people who got it really got it, and we got a kick out of being really sloth-y for the day.
Carnaval takes place Sunday through Tuesday leading up to lent, meaning three solid days of partying. Each city has its own traditions and ways of celebrating, and each day within presents different activities. Maastricht has the biggest party, so we decided to go there for the first day. At Sunday's kickoff, 11 cannon shots are fired and the "Mooswief" is hoisted up over Vrijthof Square. The day prior, there was a ceremonial handoff of the key to the city to the Carnaval Prince, Monday had more of a family theme, and on Tuesday the Carnaval came to a close with a sort of battle-of-the-bands and the ceremonial taking down of the Mooswief at midnight.
And what on earth is the Mooswief? She is a large figure that watches over Carnaval to ensure it's a good party! The whole ceremony around this was a bit confusing to us, but a cannon was fired 11 times while an ominous male figure holding an axe was moved around the square, and at 12:11 a.m., the Mooswief was hoisted up to her rightful place.
After the opening ceremonies, people meandered in the square and slowly shifted toward the parade route for its start at 1:33 p.m.. This was one epic parade which lasted more than two hours!
All of the party boxes found somewhere to set up shop afterwards in a cocophany of music styles from dubstep to Dutch folk songs.
It's not easy to tell you about Carnaval in a way that makes it come alive for you, and the photos don't do it justice either, especially because our camara batteries died. It was weird and foreign and wonderful, and everyone there just belonged, even a couple of awkward Canadians like us. It didn't matter if we could dance, it didn't matter how crazy we were dressed, it didn't matter what we were drinking, all that mattered was that we were there, doing what the spirit moved us to.
We found a little alcove across from the McDonalds where DJs were playing to a small crowd of young people, and we felt we had found the most perfect spot in the world.
Of course there was much more to see and experience. We weren't able to get close enough to the Café in den Ouden Vogelstruys, the oldest café in Maastricht dating to 1474, to get a "Limburg coffee" to warm our hands. But we did get close enough for the fresh, cold beer they were selling outside. Then, we were stuck for a while until we worked our way through the solid crowd.
A woman dressed as Twister tried to convince us to play twister, but we couldn't because we had too many beers in hand to drink. We learned that she was part of a group that did this every single year for Carnaval. They brought the game and wandered Maastricht for three days straight challenging people to play. They don't do this because they have to, they don't get paid, they don't get tips, they do it because they want to and because it's their special Carnaval tradition. It's these small groups of entertainers found at every turn that make Carnaval work year after year after year. The people entertain themselves and they do it creatively, ingeniously and passionately.
Het Onze Lieve Vrouweplein Square was another party central we walked through by night on our way to Wolfstraat, a narrow street packed with partiers whose shifting to and fro eased us onward like gentle rollers. A fire breather perched above at the corner of two streets and the flames flared out to the beat of a dozen songs at once. The heat, the drums, the pressure of a thousand bodies, changed us.
We met a Dutchman who upon hearing we thought Carnaval was amazing, warned us that Carnaval isn't to be taken lightly. "You've not even made it through one day," he said, "now make it through two more. Then tell me it's easy." He wasn't joking.
We lost our friends several times but we never worried. Broken glass was everywhere, children were tripping on garbage, party boxes were falling apart, but everyone was flush with excitement and drink and good company.
Our last perfect moment of the night came when we stumbled upon a drumming group led by a yipping girl of about nine years old. They owned the street, convincing the crowd to crouch down on hands and knees and rise with the beat of the music over and over until I felt like I could do it no more, and then did it once more.
We finally made it back to our hotel room, our feet curled up in pain at having danced all day and night on cobblestones, but we were smiling. We wanted to do it again the next day, but we both knew our bodies weren't up to the challenge. Carnaval isn't for the faint of heart.
I can understand why southerners would want to keep Dutch Carnaval under wraps. It's madness, but it works because its people have a deep respect for themselves, other revellers, and the sanctity of the event. It wouldn't be the same with an influx of tourists, and I felt honoured to have been a part of something I shouldn't have seen at all.
There was so much we didn't understand about the festival, and so much we still have to learn. Carnaval comes with its own lingo, musical troops, costume traditions and secret party areas. There is much that only locals know, and outsiders can only stumble upon. Unravelling all of its secrets will take a lot of stumbling, but it's worth it for a party like no other.