Binche lives for its Unesco-listed carnival, which culminates on Shrove Tuesday. The undisputed stars are the Gilles: male figures dressed alike in clogs and straw-padded suits decorated with heraldic symbols. In the morning each ‘brotherhood’ of Gilles clomps to the town hall. Outside, they briefly don spooky green-eyed masks while shaking sticks to ward off evil spirits in a formalised stomp 'dance'.
After a lunchtime lull, up to 1000 Gilles march across town in one vast, shuffling, slow-motion parade, wearing their enormous ostrich-feather headdresses (weather permitting). Oranges are lobbed intermittently into the heaving crowd and at observers who cheer from those windows that haven’t been protectively boarded up. Don’t even think of hurling one back, however tempting it might be – the Gilles-thrown oranges are metaphorical blessings.
Despite appearances, the carnival is a serious celebration, taking months of preparation and involving strict rules of conduct. The rituals surrounding it date back hundreds of years and the Gilles’ finery is thought to be an interpretation of the elaborate, Inca-inspired costumes worn by courtiers at a world-famous feast held here by Mary of Hungary to honour Emperor Charles V in 1549.
If you’re in town at another time of year, get a feel for what the carnival’s about at the Musée International du Carnaval et du Masque.
Mons–Binche bus 22 (€3.20, 40 minutes) runs every 40 minutes or so. At carnival time, however, impossible traffic makes taking the train much more sensible. Brussels-bound trains run hourly (€9.40, 1¼ hours), with easy en-route connections to Charleroi or Mons.