Time-honoured 'gilles' mark mardi gras as joyful antidote to dull EU directives


The drummers can’t stop. Not until the next pick-up point. At 3am, they escorted one clodhopping “gille” – but it has grown to three, now five – through the streets of Binche. The shuffling hunchbacked and fat-bellied gille figure is straight out of a nursery rhyme. Orange-suited and white-bonneted, the gilles must make the town square by dawn. This third day of Binche’s mardi gras carnival is their day: le fête des gilles.

A quarter-mile ahead, in a large, white room, 15 locals have gathered at 4am. Pascal is the official bourreur or “stuffer”. He takes a clump of straw and twists it tightly. Raymond the gille stands as he packs it tightly into his costume until his garb is fleshed out fully. Within 25 minutes, a rotund gille stands before us. Next a belt with bells is fitted.

Behind the brown brick houses of Binche, about 50km south of Brussels, some 1,000 gilles are being prepared. The good people have waited all year.

Raymond takes a seat while Claude gets ready. Two women attach a pleated white garment across his shoulders. He steps into his clogs and stands, each move signalled by pealing bells.

As the first bottle of champagne pops, Pascal must leave. His stuffing skills are needed elsewhere. For we hear the gilles and drummers draw near. The door is flung open and the entourage enters the garden. Our two fresh gilles stand poised. As the frenzied drums play, Raymond and Claude dance off down to their waiting colleagues.

What ensues is a blend of myth, ritual, tradition and strange, timeless magic. The seven gilles shuffle and clodhop around as a piper plays plaintively over the percussion.

Forget satire

Polishing off your glass, you stand beside them in zero degrees and know you are beat. Forget folklore, forget re-enactment, forget satire. The cumulative effect overwhelms.

It’s 5am. Bright colours glow in the dark. The gille has replicated: this group – Les Jeunes Independants – has absorbed two more members. The music stops, the trance is broken and the parade of 20 enters the warm house for champagne.

Fifteen minutes later, it’s time to go. We shuffle behind the dancing gilles and banging drums. Shadows are cast against the town walls. Far from an EU directive-dispensing capital, Binche’s ramparts make pre-dawn sense. Roused locals peer from windows. Early commuter cars pull into ditches . We get to the next house. A gille sallies forth, clodhopping into history. After the ritual, we go in for champagne, now 40-strong. Luckily the houses get bigger with the crowd.

By the time we make the fifth house, it is not far short of a mansion. The head of a wild boar hangs in the hallway. A banqueting room holds a dozen gilles and 65 followers. Beads of sweat snake down the owner’s face as he pours champagne.

We march the final stretch, passing gilles from societies such as Les Recalcitrants and Les Incorruptibles. They all twirl twig batons and throw them for good luck. As we reach the archway under the tracks, the dark begins to fade. We have made it to the station and L’Esperance bar.

Joyous and melancholic

Down in the town hall a little after 9am, the lord mayor greets the gilles. They don identical wax masks to become bespectacled, moustached and slightly sinister pink-faced characters. The gilles take the town hall to the delight of everyone, including the symbolic overlord. He awards a medal to mark a man’s 25th year as gille. And then, they shuffle back out, their masked anonymity and fairytale features a joyous and melancholic end in themselves.

By afternoon, Binche is crowded. The streets are lined five-deep, the bars at bursting point. You can’t get into La Renaissance, L’Arlequin or Le Central. Not even El Dorado or Le Diapason.

One thousand gilles are assembled. Cops on horses keep order as the heroes don huge ostrich-feather head-dresses. The brass strikes up and the cavalcade sets off. Orange-carriers feed them ammunition to hurl at spectators. Observers from windows and balconies shelter behind frames of chicken wire. The sky fills with oranges in another of the day’s magic and baffling moments.

Later the dark returns. The physically sapped gilles dance out the evening around fires in the town square. Winter has been defeated once more.