„Is this the right place to watch the famous carnival fire procession?“ Crowds of people expectantly lining the dark street, but we are not so sure of the proceedings and whether the actual fire event will be everywhere in town or along a fixed route. „The best spot is the old wooden city gate“ someone had advised. But where is the city gate? And is it worth pushing forward through the crowd? The locals nod and shove, but curiously nobody wants to get into the front row. We have been warned, too, and taken to wear old jackets and hats in case we get hit by sparks of the fires to come.
Finally, a group of people wearing demonic face masks come along the street: They have smaller lanterns mounted on their heads, and larger ones on carts or carried around on sedans. The lanterns are painted with caricatures and slogans in a local Swiss dialect that we have difficulties to decipher and understand and in any case we don’t get the local politics implications. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the procession of dimly lit masks and costumes, many of them quite scary figures with wild hair and huge noses or skeletal grins.
And then again nothing happens for a while. Maybe we are in the wrong spot after all? More people push from behind and then we see the flickering of fire somewhere up the street, at first only reflecting in the shop windows across a street curve. People come walking down the street carrying amazingly huge torches over their shoulders. Some are wearing fire brigade helmets, others have fashioned fire-proof headgear and cloaks from old pots and sieves, from metal sheets and tin foil. The torches look like giant birch brooms. They are made from strong pine wood and are said to weigh up to 100 kg. Sometimes when the flames die down a whole group of torch bearers start to run down the street for a stretch in order to rekindle their torches, and the sparks do dance and fly up very high. We are lucky to stand in the right direction away from the wind and see people on the opposite side of the street taking cover from the sparks and coughing from the smoke that develops when smoldering pieces of wood fall down and continue to burn on the street.
Every now and then a huge cart piled with burning wood is rolled down the street and like almost everyone else we are torn between the urge to rush forward for photos (for once, the street is lit up brightly) and the heat pushing us back into the dense crowd behind us.
The Chienbäse fire festival dates back to the older tradition of lighting fires on the surrounding mountains on the first Sunday after Ash wednesday. The present day procession reportedly goes back to a pastry chef who returned to his hometown after several years abroad, and felt like celebrating. Since pastry chefs used to fire their ovens with pine wood it was a likely choice for the torches as well.
We loved our excursion to Liestal – it was dark and light, archaic, but not too long and a reasonable mix of too cold and too hot.