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Join the tourist-free drunken revelry of Aalst Carnival © alexandre tziripouloff, Shutterstock
Get dressed up and join the merry madness of this lively carnival.
This relatively tourist-free folkloric feast dates back to the Middle Ages, when local rulers allowed the townsfolk to enjoy three days of no-rules debauchery prior to Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. A word of warning: be prepared to party – this is a non-stop knees-up (think Rio Carnival on a Flemish scale) but it’s not just that, with UNESCO recognising the event’s intangible cultural heritage in 2010.
In 1851 townsfolk introduced the procession of flotillas that parade through town and mark the arrival of carnival. Local groups spend months preparing these floats, which take the mickey out of local figures and recent events – eg: a former mayor’s holiday indiscretions or, in 2016, a float with a Trump-esque character demanding a wall between Aalst and Dendermonde (at Dendermonde’s expense, of course)!
The procession starts on the Sunday/Monday before Ash Wednesday and ends with Aalst dignitaries throwing thousands of onions from the balcony of the town hall into the crowd, including one lucky golden onion. Tuesday is Voil Jeanetten – sure to stir up conversation. Men arrive dressed in stockings, corsets and birdcages, and stumble around on high heels drunkenly embracing each other (it’s a nod to Aalst’s working-class roots – in decades past, men couldn’t afford fancy costumes, so dressed in their wives’ old schmatters). As evening falls, everyone gathers on the Grote Markt and, with genuine tears of remorse, watches the Carnival Prince light a bonfire, signalling the end of the party.