It's Carnival time, so party like a local

Summary

From colourful parades to medieval rituals, Flemish cities sure know how to throw a good celebration

Before the fast

People in Flanders may no longer fast during Lent – the period of atonement preceding Easter – but they still like to throw a good party to mark Shrove Tuesday, historically the last day when Catholics were allowed wine, meat and cheese before the liturgical fast began.

Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the centrepiece of Flemish Carnival is a colourful parade characterised by the wearing of fantastical costumes, upsetting social norms and flaunting the status quo. Many cities in Flanders will host Carnival parades on the last Sunday before Lent, which falls on 26 February this year.

The most famous Carnival celebration in Flanders is in Aalst. The three-day event was recognized as a Masterpiece of the Intangible and Oral Heritage of Humanity by Unesco in 2010, but the tradition goes back to the middle ages.

The main parade on Sunday features, in addition to floats and beautiful costumes, satirical depictions of politicians and other public figures and a great deal of lewd and raunchy humour.

The fun continues on Monday with an abbreviated version of Sunday’s parade and the appearance of the Gilles of Aalst – men in distinctive historical costumes who perform age-old rituals to ward off evil and welcome spring. On Tuesday, the voil jeanetten, or dirty Jeannettes – men in weirdly accessorised women’s dress – take to the streets.

In Limburg province, meanwhile, Genk celebrates with a children’s parade on Friday, an international carnival parade on Saturday, and a giant pub crawl on Monday. Blankenberge has its main parade on Sunday, a children’s parade on Monday and its own dirty Jeannettes on Tuesday, as well as a week-long fun fair.

FEN Vlaanderen, the umbrella organisation for carnivals in Flanders, maintain a list of all the celebrations on its website.

26-28 February, across Flanders