Skiers at the Belalp Witches’ Race

Travel Guide: Switzerland’s Top Cultural Festivals

No matter where you live, festivals are always a great way to get together to celebrate events, culture, heritage and traditions. They play a vital role in building and binding the nation and people from all religions and backgrounds. In Switzerland, there are festivals unique to the land and born out of the country’s culture, history and tradition. Others may be a result of cultural migration. Here are a few of Switzerland’s top festivals.

Carnival of Basel

Parade during the Carnival of Basel
Parade during the Carnival of Basel. credit@ Mondomulia

The Carnival of Basel is Switzerland’s biggest carnival. It takes place every year between February and March, in Basel. The carnival starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, exactly at 4 am and lasts for 72 hours.

The beginning of the carnival is marked by Morgestraich. This means all the lights in the town of Basel are turned off at 4 am. Street lights are shut down. The only light in the town comes from the lanterns of the Cliques. During the carnival, there are two kinds of lanterns. Zugslaterne are large parade lanterns that are either mounted on wheels or carried by a few people during the parade. Kopflaterne are the head lanterns worn by those participating in the parade. From the beginning till the end of the festival, a majority of the bars and restaurants in the town remain open. People can gorge on traditional carnival specialities like flour soup and Käsewähe (a baked dish).

Concerts are a huge part of the carnival. Built-in stages are monopolized by musicians and bands who play for the crowds. Spectators dressed in traditional attire and masks are a common sight. Another important part of the Carnival of Basel is the lantern exhibition which starts on Monday and lasts till Wednesday morning. The lantern exhibition is the largest open-air exhibition in the world. During the parade, those who participate must remain incognito for the entire duration. Removing the mask and identifying oneself if against the rules. The costumes, masks and parade follow specific themes each year.

Paléo Festival

The Paléo Festival
The Paléo Festival. credit@ Switzerland Tourism

The Paléo Festival de Nyon is a rock festival held in Nyon, Switzerland every year. The first festival, known as the Nyon Folk Festival, was held in 1976 at the village hall. From 1977 to 1989, Colovray, Nyon by Lake Geneva was the venue with only two stages. Today, the festival has grown to be one of the major open-air music festivals of Europe. It is also the biggest music festival in Switzerland. The current venue of the festival is at the Plaine de l’Asse. International artists grace the stages and thousands throng to see them. The meadow is set up with stalls, bars and colourful tents.

The Paléo Festival is held at the end of July and lasts for six days, from Tuesday to Sunday. More than 250 shows and concerts are performed. Other fun-filled factors include ferry-wheels and art installations. The final stage performance is marked with a great firework display along with the music. There are a total of six stages at the Paléo Festival: La Grande Scène (the main stage), Les Arches, Le Club Tent (the club tent), Le Dôme (the dome), La Ruche (the hive) and Le Détour. 2003 also saw the introduction of the Le Village du Monde (The World Village) section. This space is reserved for an invited region from the world where they showcase their music, food and culture.

Geneva Motor Show

The Geneva Motor Show of 2019.
The Geneva Motor Show of 2019. credit@ Bloomberg.com

Every year in March, the Swiss city of Geneva hosts the Geneva Motor Show, an important exposition of the automobile industry’s most important and relevant brands. The show is held at the Palexpo, which is a convention centre situated next to the Geneva Cointrin International Airport. The event is organised by the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles.

The Geneva Motor Show lasts for more than a week. The first motor show was held in 1905, and since then, it has showcased major automobile models, from benzene and steam-powered cars to exotic supercars. The exhibition has held debuts for new equipment, prototypes, international partnerships and technical breakthroughs. The world’s automakers consider the show to be a level playing field to show off their innovations to the market. Car brands like Lamborghini, Ferrari and McLaren have introduced more advanced and luxurious versions of cars at the show. Besides the automobile display, debates on autonomous driving, electric technology and horsepower are held.

Montreux Jazz Festival

Montreux Jazz Festival, 2018
Montreux Jazz Festival, 2018. credit@ Meyer Sound

The Montreux Jazz Festival is held in July on the shoreline of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It is the world’s second-largest annual jazz festival, the first being the Montreal International Jazz Festival in Canada.

The first Montreux Jazz Festival took place in 1967 at Montreux Casino. It was founded by Claude Nobs, Géo Voumard and René Langel, helped by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records. The main aim of the festival was to boost tourism and it featured almost exclusively jazz artists. During the 1970s, the festival was opened up to all music genres. While jazz remains the central part of the festival, it now features artists of every style. Over time, the festival broadened even more and music from all over the world finds a stage here. The festival lasts for around three weeks and more than 200,000 people attend it. Some of the most prominent artists who have performed at the festival are Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa, among many others.

The original venue, Montreux Casino, burned down in 1971 during Frank Zappa’s performance. Until the new Casino was rebuilt in 1975, the event was held in other auditoriums in Montreux. Other than the stages and auditoriums, additional shows are held on cruising boats on the lake and train cars throughout the region. Competitions and workshops are also held.

Fête De L’Escalade

The chocolate cauldron made for Fête De L’Escalade.
The chocolate cauldron made for Fête De L’Escalade. credit@ House of Switzerland

The annual festival of Fête de l’Escalade is held in December in Geneva. It is to honour the defeat of the Catholic Duchy of Savoy who attempted to conquer the Protestant city in 1602. The Duke of Savoy, Charles Immanuel I, sent in troops to take over the city but were defeated by the citizens. According to legend, a cook named Catherine Cheynel, whose home was just above the town gate, dumped a large cauldron of boiling vegetable soup on the attackers before raising the alarm. While the people of the city lost 18 men in the attack, the invaders lost 54 men and the troops had to retreat. Thirteen attackers were taken prisoner and hung the next day. 

While the conflict took place during the early morning of December 12th, the Fête De L’Escalade is celebrated on December 11th or the closest weekend. Among the celebrations include making a large cauldron out of chocolate and filling it with marzipan vegetables and candies. The candies are wrapped in the Geneva colours of gold and red. According to custom, the eldest and the youngest person in the room has to smash the cauldron. This act is accompanied by reciting, ‘Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!’ which means, ‘Thus perished the enemies of the Republic.’ It refers to how Catherine Cheynel poured the boiling soup on the invaders. To honour the 18 individuals who lost their lives in the attack, a parade is held on Friday. The names of the dead are called out one after another.

On Sunday, there is a historical procession where people are clad in historical costumes. Other traditions include serving large amounts of soup and mulled wine. Children dressed up in various costumes go around knocking on doors and singing Escalade songs for candies. Children also prepare vegetable soup at school which they serve to their families that night. Teenagers include a bit of mischievous fun in the celebrations by pelting each other with eggs, shaving cream and flour. Parades are held by high school students who ‘conquer’ each other. The parades end at the central square of the town.

Festichoc

A chocolate fountain at the 2019 Festichoc
A chocolate fountain at the 2019 Festichoc. credit@ Twitter

If there’s a festival exclusively for chocolate lovers, then Switzerland’s Festichoc is it. Versoix, a town near Geneva, is the home of Cartier and Favarger, the two chocolate brands to pioneer chocolate-making in the 19th century. The Festichoc is held in Versoix and consists of tented salons where more than 40 local chocolatiers display their chocolate making skills and sell their products. There are chocolate-making demonstrations and chocolate sculpting competitions for the chocolatiers, special workshops led by Cartier where kids can make their chocolate creations and chocolate egg hunts.

The ChocoVillage gives visitors ample chances to gorge on chocolates, while a ChocoTrain transports them from the venue to the train station and the Favarger factory. While the price of the chocolate sold is high, it’s definitely worth it, given the quality of the chocolate sold. Guided chocolate tours are also available.

Fête Nationale Suisse

The Swiss National Day of 2019. credit@ HelloTravel
The Swiss National Day of 2019. Credit@ HelloTravel

Fête Nationale Suisse or the Swiss National Day is celebrated on August 1st. Although the day has been celebrated since 1891, it has only been declared an official holiday since 1994. In early August 1291, the three cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, signed a treaty of an alliance known as the Federal Charter or Letter of Alliance. It is one of the alliances from which the Old Swiss Confederacy was formed. The day is now honoured as the Swiss National Day.

Each year on August 1st, celebrations include bonfires, paper lantern parades, hanging strings of Swiss flags and fireworks. Different towns have their own special celebrations. In Basel, splendid fireworks are lit towards the evening on 31st July. A representational celebration is held at Rütli Meadow, a historic location, where the pledge of alliance, the Rütlischwur, is believed to have taken place. The town of Schaffhausen lights up the Rhine Falls exclusively for the holiday.

Harder-Potschete

Masked figurines during the Harder-Potschete.
Masked figurines during the Harder-Potschete. credit@ Berner Oberlander

On January 2nd of every year, the Swiss town of Interlaken is taken over by masked figures to denote the Harder-Potschete event. The event is based on old legends. Interlaken was the site of monastic life. Back when monastic life was at its peak, some monks gave in to earthly temptations and often broke their vows of celibacy. One day, one of the monks went for a walk in the Harder and encountered a young girl collecting firewood. The monk approached the girl, who fled in horror. The monk kept chasing the girl until she fell to her death in the abyss. The heavens were so angry at the monk that he was instantly turned into stone and condemned to remain in the place as a reminder of his crime.

The Harder-Potschete tradition was born out of this legend, when masked figures known as Potschete run through the streets of Interlaken, screaming, tugging on spectators and pretending to spread fear and panic. The masked figures would visit the monastery for gifts, which they would receive wine, bread and money. The masked figures represent the dead. Apart from this, the young, unmarried individuals disguise themselves and paint their faces to move from house to house, singing and demanding gifts. In addition to the masked figures, the procession consists of Guggen Music, drummers, cowbell players and kids dressed up in masks. The masks are all made of wood and carved by hand. After the procession is over, the people gather in pubs to socialize.

Belalp Witches’ Race

Skiers dressed up as witches for the Belalp Witches’ Race, 2013
Skiers dressed up as witches for the Belalp Witches’ Race, 2013. credit@ IMPress Magazine

The Belalp Witches’ Race is one of the unique festivals of Switzerland. It is a skiing race in January where the skiers wear witch masks or paint their faces green and dress up as witches. So don’t be alarmed and rub your eyes if you spot any witches zooming down the Natischerberg Mountain in Switzerland. It’s just some witches having a ski race!

According to legend, a witch lived in Hegorn in the Natischerberg Mountain. Her husband was a pious man but she hated him. She went on to have a lover whom she regularly visited by turning herself into a raven. One day, after visiting her lover, the witch flew back. When she neared her house, she saw that her husband was up in a cherry tree picking cherries. She decided to kill him. So she pooped in his eyes. He was blinded and fell to his death. She was caught, tortured and eventually burnt at the stake by the locals. The legend continued to be popular centuries later.

The Belalp Ski Club came up with the Belalp Witches’ Race to commemorate the witch’s husband. According to some, the race honours the witch herself, hence the witch costumes. According to legend, the husband died in Blatten where a cherry tree stands. This point serves as the finishing point of the race. The race is 12 km between Hohstock and Blatten. Skiers show up dressed as witches, complete with broomsticks and pointed hats. The race lasts for a week and has all levels, depending on the skier’s expertise. The fastest witch to race becomes a warlock and is given a wooden witch mask. Witch groups win prizes for their costumes and creativity.

So there you are- a few of Switzerland’s top festivals! History, legend, automobiles, jazz, chocolates and skiing witches- Switzerland’s festivals are indeed unique.

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