A Guide to Aalst Carnival – Like Nowhere Else on Earth!

Aalst Carnival is an annual 3-day pre-Lenten carnival celebration that occurs in Aalst, Belgium. It is a lively and satirical celebration that is over 600 years old and recognised by UNESCO for its Intangible Significance.

22nd February 2020

25th February 2020

Days to start

Aalst in Wonderland

Aalst Carnival or Carnaval Oilsjt is a pre-Lenten carnival that occurs in the normally quiet Belgian city of Aalst (Oilsjt) which sits between Brussels and Ghent. The city of Aalst transforms for three extravagant days each year, beginning on the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and finishing on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.

Whilst Aalst Carnival is not known internationally it is very famous in Belgium because of its wacky, high-spirited and satirical carnival celebrations, that make you feel like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in some Alice in Wonderland type world.

Despite being known throughout Belgium, Aalst Carnival is very much a local affair with about seventy percent of the participants being local Aalst residents. Aalst City takes carnival very seriously, with the parade being a culmination of a years’ worth of hard work by the Aalst locals, and the Aalst City Council even provides free working spaces for carnival groups to work on their floats.

When is Aalst Carnival?

Aalst Carnival is a pre-Lenten Carnival that always takes place in the lead up to Lent. The dates for the 2020 Aalst Carnival are the 23rd, 24th and 25th of February. The 25th February is the 2020 date for Shrove Tuesday.

Where is Aalst Carnival?

Aalst is a Belgium city and municipality which is located in the Flemish province of East Flanders. It is located on the Dender River about 31 kilometres northwest from Brussels.

What is the history of Aalst Carnival?

aalst carnival

The History of Aalst Carnival is over 600 years old and dates back to medieval times when the pagans used to hold ceremonies that were meant to chase out the evil winter spirits and usher in the spring and the beginning of a new harvest.

Aalst Carnival is full of ancient folkloric pagan traditions that died out in other cities like Brussels and Antwerp but stayed alive for centuries in Aalst, passed down through the generations. Many of these traditions having rarely changed from their original form which is why in 2010 it was recognised by UNESCO as being a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

In 2020 the Aalst Carnival Parade will celebrate its 97th year, and whist the parades officially began in 1851, only the parades beginning in 1923 are counted as being official, because that was the first year they were organised by the City of Aalst Council.

How do they celebrate carnival?

On Sunday the procession will take place at 1pm starting at Statieplein and will make its way through the entire city centre heading towards the Grote Markt. After the parade finishes there is a night-time party!

On Monday the carnival groups have to do it all again as there is another procession on Monday. The Monday procession will follow the Aalsterse Gillies while they make their traditional broom dance and broom throw on the Grote Markt. Following this is the Onion throw. Of course party people will celebrate through the night

On Tuesday it is the Day of the Voil Jeanetten. This sees thousands of people parading throughout the city centre of Aalst and the Men dress up in women’s clothing. The carnival closes with the burning of pops, but the partygoers will continue to party for one last night.

Aalst Carnival Prince

aalst carnival

Aalst Carnival kicks off on Sunday in Aalst’s cultural centre with the crowning of the Aalst Carnival Prince, and the handing over of the city keys from the city’s mayor to the Carnival Prince. Following this is a procession of effigies and Bayard, the horse that belonged to Charlemagne. This is a popular carnival event that draws and large crowd.

The Aalst Carnival Prince reigns over Aalst during the carnival period and to be crowned the Aalst Carnival Prince involves competing in a fierce competition that requires almost year-round campaigning.

Being crowned the Aalst Carnival Prince is the ultimate honour and means winning the adoration of the Aalst locals. If the Aalst Carnival Prince wins three times in a row, he will become the Carnival Emperor.

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Onions, Onions Everywhere!

The Aalst Carnival Mascot is an onion, and everywhere you look you will see onions! Onion

costumes, onion floats, onion decorations and if you don’t see any onions then you are not in the right town.

Why are there so many onions? Well its is because of the satirical way that the locals say, “oh yes” which in their dialect sounds like “ah join”, which phonetically sounds like the Flemish word for onion, and that in addition to the fact the city of Aalst is surrounded by many onion farms and fields. The Aalst locals embrace their onion connections with a good humour.

There is also the famous Aalst Onion Throwing Competition that sees the carnival committee members and the Carnival Prince, throwing 1000 onions from the Aalst city hall balcony. Around 100 onions are considered lucky and contain prizes. The ultimate prize comes from catching the golden onion that is a ‘designer onion’, it is 18-carat gold onion and is embedded with expensive jewels.

The Grand Carnival Parade

aalst carnival

Aalst Carnival Parade is a huge spectacle and the highlight of Aalst Carnival that culminates in a years’ worth of hard work and attracts around 150,000 spectators. The parade features over 200+ floats and around 300 official and un-official carnival groups that represent various themes along with loads of caricature puppet heads.

Anything goes during Aalst Carnival, as long as its legal! Each carnival group choses a theme and designs their costumes, floats, dances and music around this theme. The parade is known for its lively, colourful, satirical and often outrageous carnival performances.

The Aalst Carnival Parade marches through the streets of Aalst starting at around 1pm and going until about 8 or 9 that evening. The same parade is held on both carnival Sunday and Monday, but each with a completely different atmosphere because no judging occurs during the Monday parade which gives it a more relaxed vibe.

The Sunday Aalst Carnival Parade is a fierce competition, where carnival groups compete against each other for the title of best group. Carnival groups are split into small, medium and large categories for judging, with each group being judged and scored during the parade. The prizes are given out on Sunday evening after the Sunday parade.

Costumes & Floats

aalst carnival

Surrealism is the best word to describe the Aalst Carnival Parade. The costumes are surreal, magical and have a colourful candy-like look. The Aalst Carnival Costumes are so different to the flamboyant costumes worn in Rio or most Caribbean Carnivals, or the elegant costumes worn during Venice.

The floats are mind-blowing, they are more often funny in nature, but can also be quite political and controversial as no topic or person is off limits. There over 200+ floats elaborately decorated, some with some seriously impressive mechanical moves. Often floats throw candy or confetti to the delight of the crowd, and every float seems to be bigger and better than the one before.

For every float there are group of people who co-ordinate with the float, wearing matching costumes, singing and intricately dancing either in front of the float, or behind along to the music that each float is playing.

Political Satire at Aalst Carnival

aalst carnival

Political satire is also a big part of Aalst Carnival and it is well known for its satire and the way that it makes fun of local and international events. Everything is put on display and absolutely nothing is off limits, not religion, race, politicians or even celebrities.

Local Aalst politics dominate the carnival themes but there are many world events that are represented each year. Donald Trump has been a popular carnival figure in recent years, along with the ex-Catalonian President who fled to Belgium, North Korea, the Russian Doping Scandal and even the #MeToo Movement. Nothing is sacred!

Chasing Out Evil Spirits with Broom Dances

aalst carnival

Something unique to carnival in Belgium is the Broom Dance performed by the Aalst Gillies. The Gilles of Aalst are mythical carnival creatures who perform broom dances in the central market of Aalst, using their brooms to chase away the ghosts of winter which are thought to be evil spirits.

The Gillies Broom dance is a pagan tradition that dates back six or more centuries and in addition to driving out evil spirits the Gillies also beg for the next harvest to be a good one.

The Gillies also throw tiny little brooms to the crowd that are considered to bring the people who catch them lots of good luck. They also hand out oranges to the crowd which is another offer to the gods in exchange for having a good harvest.

Parade of the Dirty Sissies

On Shrove Tuesday there is a “Parade of the Dirty Sissies” which is a men’s cross-dressing parade. It is a hilarious parade that sees men dressed in women’s clothing, and their outfits are often exaggerated to include fake breasts, strollers, umbrellas, corsets, fur coats etc.

This tradition stems from when the lower class were too poor to make or buy carnival costumes and instead wore their wives’ clothing. The men also throw flour, to the crowd during the parade.

Aalst After Dark- When the Real Party Begins

aalst carnival

Belgians know how to party and have a good time! Whilst you may be exhausted from standing around all day watching the parade, you should grab a coffee because after dark is when the fun and debauchery begins.

At the end of each night is when the sound-systems come out and the party lights are turned on. Participants spice up their costumes, and huge crowds of people fill the main square partying, singing, dancing, drinking and socialising until the break of dawn.

The Aalst Carnival night celebrations are wild and full of crass behaviour. After dark is when anything and everything goes, things that would otherwise be considered taboo are accepted.

Burning a Giant Puppet

On the last night of carnival in Aalst, a giant puppet is burnt by the Carnival Prince, that officially closes the carnival. All the blame for any sins or wickedness that occurs during carnival is placed upon the giant puppet, and he is burnt as punishment.

Large crowds with thousands of spectators scream and shout as the effigy burns. Some shed tears and sing songs of love for the city of Aalst. Many continue drinking their sorrows away and for those that can drink till sunrise can receive free croissants at Aalst City Hall, from the Mayor of Aalst.

While the Aalst Carnival may not be one of the most well-known carnivals in Europe it is certainly one of the best! With its own unique costume style, witty social commentary and creative choreography, it’s worth checking out!

Highly Recommended! – Viareggio Carnival!

We highly recommend if you are already planning on attending carnival, that you extend your trip and visit two of the world’s best carnivals! What is more fun then celebrating carnival once, is celebrating it twice!

Viareggio Carnival is one of worlds most renowned carnival celebrations, and rightly so because this Italian town puts on a carnival that is like nothing else in the world! What separates this carnival from the rest, is their awe-inspiring floats! Viareggio Carnival holds the title of having the ‘world’s best carnival floats!’

And Viareggio Carnival also takes place in Tuscany. So enjoy visit two carnivals and enjoy one of Italy’s best regions! Enjoy art, architecture, history, culture, picturesque landscapes, great food, great wine and the best of Italian hospitality the while experiencing the magic of this carnival!

Read more about Viareggio Carnival here.

How to get to Aalst?

By Plane

Aalst does not have an airport so if you are coming here from overseas we recommend flying to Brussels Airport (BRU) which is one of the busiest airports in Europe, so you will have no problem finding a flight there. To get a quote for a flight click here.

By Train

The Aalst Railway Station is located in the city centre. There are direct connections to both Brussels (33 minutes) and Ghent (30 minutes).

By Bus

The Flemish national bus company De Lijin has plenty of buses running to Aalst from Geraardsbergen, Dendermonde, Berlare, and several other neighbouring towns. You can check out the timetables here https://www.delijn.be.

Where to stay in Aalst for carnival?

Aalst is a small city so there are only a few options for accommodation. So, if you are planning on attending Aalst Carnival we recommend you book your accommodation asap. You can check out some accommodation deals here.

Of course, if you are not able to find availability you can also stay in villages nearby. You can also stay in Brussels which is only 31km away which has a much larger selection of accommodation options. Check out some Brussel accommodation deals here.

What to do and see in Aalst?

Aalst is renowned for its Gothic architecture! One of the main attractions is the Aalst town square which actually boasts the oldest town hall built in the 13th century, in the Low Counties. Adjacent to this is the belfry which is has a carillion with 52 bells, and is one of the most handsome in Belgium.

Other notable buildings are the Gothic-style St Martins Collegiate Church which was built in 1480 and has a painting by Rubens. Or the Old Hospital which was built in the 15th century. The Municipal Museum has many great displays about local folklore and history, including one on carnival masks. There is also great restaurants and many major breweries.

Take a tour!

If you have a longer vacation, then thing about doing a tour! Belgium is one of the most overlooked destinations in western Europe and this country is both culturally and historically rich! You can check out Tour Radar who have lots of different itineraries. Or for day trips, sightseeing tours, city tours and other fun adventures we recommend looking at Viator too.

Before you go!

US and EU citizens do not need to obtain a Belgium visa when travelling their for periods of up to 90 days. However, US citizens are required to hold a passport that is valid for at least 3 months.

Belgium is generally viewed as a safe destination to travel but always check your Travel Advisory before travelling. Or for information on any necessary vaccines etc you may need before travelling to Belgium check here.

Never travel without coverage! We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance and being protected on your vacation! It gives you an irreplaceable peace of mind. Trust us you don’t want to learn the hard way about the importance of travel insurance. Get a quote through our recommended insurance provider, World Nomads.

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