Chienbäse in Liestal – a carnival near Basel

Fire procession ath the Chienbäse in Liestal
Giant torches being carried around in Liestal at the Chienbäse fire festival

We have come for the Liestal Chienbäse, a Swiss carnival tradition, but are puzzled what to do exactly. „Is this even the right place to watch the famous Chienbäse carnival fire procession?“. The Liestal Chienbäse, friends told us, is one of the big carnival processions near Basel. But different from the huge Basel Fasnacht, this is a more local event and more of a mediaeval fire ritual. But what is the Chienbäse exactly? Crowds of people are expectantly lining the dark main street of Liestal, 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 us. 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 have decorations of caricatures and slogans in a local Swiss dialect that we have difficulties to decipher and understand in the first place. 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 are quite scary figures with wild hair and huge noses or skeletal grins. This part of the carnival is somewhat similar to the Basel Fasnacht.

Mind the sparks at the Liestal Carnival

Fire procession ath the Chienbäse in Liestal

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. But 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 consist of 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. This is in order to rekindle their torches, and the sparks do dance and fly up very high.

Watch the wind direction

We are lucky to stand in the right direction away from the wind. From here we see people on the opposite side of the street taking cover from the sparks. Apparently they are coughing from the smoke that develops when smoldering pieces of wood fall down and continue to burn on the street.

Fire procession ath the Chienbäse in Liestal

Every now and then a huge cart piled with burning wood is rolled down the street. So, 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.

Background of the Liestal Chienbäse

The Chienbäse fire festival dates back to the older Swiss tradition of lighting fires on the surrounding mountains on the first Sunday after Ash wednesday. The present-day carnival procession reportedly goes back to a pastry chef. As it happened, he 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.

burning logs at the fire procession

Is it worth visiting the Liestal Chienbäse?

The nearby Basel Fasnacht is much more famous, and also impressive. But the Liestal Carnival appeared more local and deep in the tradition. In any case it is always fascinating to experience a place at the time of a local festival. In Tyrol, for instance, we have seen a “Krampus rally”, a similar winter festival. And we happened to pass through Riga during a big choir festival, which was great. We loved our excursion to the Liestal Chienbäse! It was dark and light, archaic, but not too long and a reasonable mix of too cold and too hot.

NB: We had no sponsoring for our trip to the Liestal Chienbäse Carnival. We paid all expenses and organised the trip ourselves.

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  1. I had not heard about Swiss carnival traditions before reading this post. The Liestal Chienbase near Basel looks like a great way to experience this. Although with live flames we too would be careful where we watched from. Interesting that this one was started by a pastry chef!

  2. This looks so intense and cool! I was in Basel two Christmases ago and had a lovely time, I had no idea this kind of festival event existed! Love seeing local cultural event.

    1. This looks spooky and spectacular! Looks fun to take photos and portraits with their demonic face mask and burning torches. But if you’re the person who is afraid of fire, better stay behind the lines or stay behind other people.

      1. Dear Glenn, there are no demonic facemasks – but yes, I guess if you are afraid of fire it might be better not to visit the Chienbäse Festival. There are a lot of fabulous carnival tradtions in Switzerland that do not involve any fire!

    2. Dear Alice, the Chienbäse Festival is really more a carnival festival for the locals. And I guess, if you are not there in season, you never will see any information about it. It is also not directly in Basel.

  3. This is my first time reading about a fire festival like the Liestal Chienbäse. Participants wear spooky costumes and carry flaming torches on their heads during the festival. It looks thrilling to watch yet also slightly dangerous, as spectators could get burned by sparks flying from the large flaming torches.

  4. The Liestal Chienbase festival looks like a very interesting one and I am amazed that it is still going on, with all the fire hazard involved. I understand why you would want to make sure to stay on the right side of the wind, and why you should only attend wearing clothes you don’t really care about. The tradition of the festival sounds like a lot of fun, especially that it was started by a chef celebrating his returning back home.

  5. Oh goodness, yes! Even with fireworks in the US, you have to be careful of where the wind is when choosing a place to sit or stand. It looks like such a fun time, and I’m glad you found the spot you did. I also had no idea from the name Chienbäse that it was Swiss. So interesting!

    1. Dear Jennifer, the Chienbäse Fire festival is really super captivating. Actually the name “Chienbäse” is a very Swiss name – Europeans would recognize it instantly. But of course, living in the US or Canada, one is not familiar with the diffrent German variations in Europe.

  6. Oh wow I bet this is incredible to see first hand (and hot if your standing in the wrong place) but what an cool fire procession and such a unique celebration!! Deffo one for the bucket list! Thanks so much for sharing

    Laura x

  7. I am not sure if this is something that I would like to go to since it’s really dangerous but it’s pretty interesting. I would love to learn about its history and what it truly mens to the locals. Thank you for sharing your experience at the Liestal Carnival. I learned something new today.

  8. I love local festivals. Based on the photos, this event seems exhilarating with all those torches! A unique occasion like this needs to be preserved so the next generations could still get to experience it.

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