Brazil’s Carnival has become such a globally renowned event that it’s easy to think of this immense spectacle as quintessentially Latin American. The wonderful Musée du Carnaval et du Masque in the small Belgian town of Binche – as far from the streets of Rio or Recife as it’s possible to get – is an enlightening stroll through the history of Carnival. This is no coincidence, Binche hosts one of the weirdest and most famous of all Belgian Carnivals.
Carnival has deep European roots, and its merging of pagan, folk and Catholic traditions are celebrated in truly weird and wonderful ways across the continent. The museum tells the story of this history, including how it was exported with colonialism and merged with pre-existing traditions around the world. It also has a diverse and fantastic collection of costumes and video footage. It actually made sense of fiestas we witnessed in Bolivia.
Carnival has been cancelled for the last two years, but hopefully we’ll be able to see it in person next February. Binche though, is worth a visit any time of the year. The museum may be the star attraction, but it also boasts an UNESCO listed belfry attached the gothic former town hall that dominates one side of the Grand Place. Across the square are cafes and restaurants where you can grab a coffee and admire the scene.
I arrived early on a Sunday morning at the deserted railway station, intent on seeing the town and doing some hiking along the many walking and cycling routes that zigzag across this corner of Wallonia. The streets were calm and quiet as I walked into the centre. A few minutes later, I was looking up at imposing medieval defensive walls that date back to the founding of the town in the 12th century.
As impressive as these walls are, part of them was destroyed in 1544 to make way for the palace of Mary of Hungary, sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Mary was the Governor of the Netherlands in her brother’s sted, and one of the most powerful people in Europe. Her decision to spend part of her time in Binche, and the fact that Charles V visited the town, was the beginning of its golden age.
Connecting the history of Carnival to the maneuverings of European royalty, in 1549, Mary held an immense fete to celebrate the Spanish conquest of Peru. Spain’s golden age would last longer than Binche’s though. The growing importance of the town made it a target for Henry II of France, and the relentless rivalry between the French monarchs and the Habsburgs, of which Mary was a prominent member.
In 1522, during one of the near-endless bouts of conflict between two of Europe’s great dynasties, Mary ordered the destruction of Folembray Castle, one of Henry II’s favourite residences. In retaliation, he ordered a French army to destroy the town of Binche and burn Mary’s palace to the ground. The very definition of the ‘you reap what you sow’ diplomacy of medieval Europe.
The site of the palace is now little more than overgrown foundations atop the medieval walls, but next to it is a lovely park and the Saint-Ursmer Collegiate Church. There are also great views over the town and countryside from here. The park extends around the top of the walls and makes for a pleasant early morning stroll. From here I set off to explore the town.
There’s no doubt it’s an attractive place, but it doesn’t take long to see most of Binche’s best bits. I was planning a longer walk through the Wallonian countryside south of town so, after an hour wandering through the cobbled streets, I grabbed a coffee on the Grand Place and set off into the countryside.