[Beer tasting, the Tour of Flanders bike race, and general busyness with life in Antwerp distracted me from posting this promptly. The Carnaval de La Louvière was the weekend before last, March 26-28 9 (Sun. – Tues.)]
One of the first things I do after basic travel plans (dates, transport, lodging) are set is check the holiday and festival/event schedule for a destination. Bank holidays are especially worth knowing since they can change opening dates and hours for things you really want and/or need to do. Festivals and events can effect practical things, too (like anticipated crowds, parking, elevated prices, etc.), but they can also be tons of fun and unique experiences not to be missed.
Although we’re currently on our fourth extended stay in Antwerp, Belgium, it’s the first time we’ve been here at this particular time of year: Voila! Potential for new things to see and do! I’ve got several things in my sights for the coming weeks, but we felt like we hit the jackpot this past weekend when we hopped a train down to La Louvière in the south of Belgium for the annual Carnaval de La Louvière “Laetare” festival. I learned about La Louvière’s Carnaval while doing a little research pre-trip. La Louvière is in an industrial area of Belgium and it along with several surrounding towns have been hosting these mid-Lent carnivals featuring local characters called “Gilles” since the 1800’s.
Somewhat like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras “crewes,” various societies form groups of Gilles who participate in various festivities and parades, finishing off several days of festivities with bonfires. The Gilles wear very distinctive traditional costumes in the Belgian national colors of red, yellow and black. The most spectacular feature of the Gille costume is an enormous headdress of ostrich plumes, in gleaming white or tipped with color at the wearer’s discretion.
Otherwise, the costumes are nearly identical: barrel-shaped jackets stuffed with oat straw and matching pants, both covered with felt appliques of crowns and lions; white “caps” worn with or without the ostrich-plume headdresses; wooden clogs; belled belts; lace flourishes.
Each Gille carries a basket of oranges to hand or toss to spectators. The Gilles march along in a step intended to maximize the clacking of their clogs and the jangling of their bells.
A musical band including drums, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, souzaphones and sometimes euphonia and tubas. Periodically, the band would really fire up; then the Gilles would stop, face the band and begin a sort of semi-organized group dance consisting of more stomping and sharp quarter turns. After a bit of this, the whole group would move further along the parade route before the routine would be repeated. [Video of the Gilles’ dance is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]
The parade–short in length and long in time–ended up on the main square where the various groups of Gilles and other variously-costumed participants converged via two streets. The growing mass group began the final “rondeau” a large circle dance filling the entire square.
Afterwards, spectators and participants poured out of the square, scattering to restaurants, food stalls, beer pubs and carnival rides until things geared up again later in the evening for more dancing and drinking.
The Carnaval de la Louvière goes on for three days with the final festivities topped off by bonfires. You can learn more at the web site of Amicale des Sociétes du Carnaval Louvièrois. Nearby sister towns host similar Laetare festivals.
The direct train from Antwerp took about 1.5 hours and dropped us off just blocks from the main action. The Carnaval is free, so we just wandered our way over and arrived just as the parade was really kicking off. We joined the crowd marching along with a group of Gilles, then moved along to other groups at whim. It was easy to get right along-side the Gilles and join in the action. Everyone was friendly and in high spirits…and the oranges were particularly good!
(Although there’s almost no difference between 1st and 2nd class on local Belgian trains, I opted for 1st class out of an abundance of caution, afraid that the train might be full when we were ready to leave. This turned out not to be the case at all, so the extra <$20 was wasted…save for when the conductor made a very loud and food-smelly group move to another car. That was actually pretty welcome as we’d been dozing until that mob plopped into the seats next to us. Anyway, if you decide to go to La Louviere by train, there’s no point in springing for 1st class. If you go by car, be warned that parking looked to be hard to find and several roads are closed off for Carnaval. Book tickets on the Belgian Rail site.)