Alone in a carnival – The Laetare in Stavelot

The sleepy town of Stavelot in the Wallonian Region of the Ardennes only wakes up for one thing – The Laetare Festival. Every second Sunday of Lent, hundreds of Blancs Moussis – men (and boys) clad in white robes and masks with red nose – parade around the town carrying what looks like balloons but are actually dried pig’s bladder.

During the parade, your nose could not escape the distinctive smell in Stavelot.  It is the smell of combined animal organs and sterilizing agent, like the pig’s bladders were washed in alcohol. I was glad that I did not have the misfortune of being smacked with those  but some spectators were not so lucky. In the first place that is what the Blanc Moussis do during the parade – slap people with dried pig’s bladders.

But Carnival du Laetare is not all about the Blanc Moussis. The night before the Sunday parade, participants would wear their most colorful costumes and participate in an early parade in the center of town. This is of course simultaneous with a lot of partying and beer drinking.

It was not my first time. I spend a weekend in Stavelot last year in autumn. While strolling down the town looking for a place to eat, I noticed the tiny Blanc Moussis figurines adorning the windows of the houses. I got curious and found out about the Laetare and promised myself I will be back the next summer to participate.

Unfortunately I was alone this time. And cautious. Because of the festival, public transportation was rerouted and I could not stay so late in town otherwise I would not have any bus to take. I was staying in Coo and it was a good 15 minutes by bus from Stavelot.  I did not have anyone to celebrate with and no one to accompany me back to my hotel. I did not want to get drunk with a stranger no matter how much I wanted to party. Alone amidst the crowd of jovial residents, I turned my attention to one thing that always lift my mood – sweets!

Near the Abbey  were two stalls selling all kinds of sweets – from candy-coated apples and grapes, chocolate coated bananas to candies, Belgian chocolates and flavored slush. It didn’t taste wonderful at all but somehow, while munching on a stick of grapes sprinkled in cocos bits and hardened sugar, I began to enjoy watching the stream of colorfully dressed Stavelots walking aimlessly with their respective groups around the town. There were teenage girls with fake pink braids with their mother who was donning fairy wings. There were some dressed as princesses, many were clowns, policemen and different kinds of animals.The kids were especially charming, throwing glittering confetti at each other or to passerby’s. And they are usually very generous posing for pictures.

Sadly it rained during the parade of the Blanc Moussis. This reduced the fun significantly as everyone had to scramble for a dry place or struggle to see the parade behind a sea of umbrellas. However for the Blanc Moussis, this was not a problem. They danced, sang, paraded and fool around with their dried pig’s bladder despite being drenched in the rain. I wonder if they got cold as much as I did. But surely they had fun, just like in this video that I took before the start of the parade.

I was a bad tourist. I wanted to watch the fireworks and party with the Blanc Moussis in the evening but I was so easily discouraged by the rain. And the prospects of having dinner in Paris. So after an hour, I left Stavelot and rushed to the border to enjoy champagne in the City of Lights. But that’s another story.

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