There’s no denying that when it comes to celebrating carnival, Rio de Janeiro outranks them all. While many travelers want to head to Rio, plenty of us don’t have the money to spend on overly expensive tickets or want to deal with huge crowds and plenty of other tourists. Rio might get all the fame and have all the glitz and glam, but there’s another great carnival gem out there, a bit off the beaten track: Maastricht, The Netherlands!
In Maastricht, carnival is called Vastelaovend and it’s a serious business. Celebrations last for three days – carnival officially starts on Sunday, when a procession with beautifully crafted and decorated floats and extras parade through the city. But the festivities continue until Tuesday evening! For the whole carnival period Maastricht is draped in the traditional red, yellow and green flags. Over the weekend and through the start of carnival week, shops close for the holidays. Maastricht University even gives its students the entire week off to basically party and get smashed.
The essence of carnival is to dress up, go from bar to bar, sing songs, dance and enjoy the streetfood and drinks… a true folk festival. As long as you fully emerge yourself in the carnival spirit and dress up and preferably also paint your face, visitors are totally welcome to join in. So of course we did too!
Carnival officially starts on Sunday at 12:11pm on the Vrijthof. For the inexperienced partygoer the timing may seem totally random but in fact the number 11 is very commonly used during the carnival activities and is known as the ‘crazy number 11’. Carnival preparations begin on the 11th of the 11th (when they start building their floats), there are 11 people in the ‘Council of eleven’ (eleven men that coordinate all carnival activities) and every 11 years they celebrate a carnival jubilee.
What makes number 11 crazy you ask? Well according to history, the number 10 represented perfection and the number 12 was a holy number. Because 11 was right smack in the middle, I guess they decided it must be crazy ;-).
At 12:11pm, 11 shots are fired by the Momus cannon on the Vrijthof. Meanwhile, the huge ‘Mooswief’ (the patroness of Maastricht carnival, aka a giant puppet) is on its way in a parade from St. Pieter. Once it has arrived, Prince Carnival hoists up the Mooswief, where it monitors the quality of Carnival.
At 1:33pm, the ‘Groeten Optoch’ (The Great Procession) starts in the Wyck district. A motley group of colorful carnival partygoers proceed with their floats through the city centre towards the Vrijthof, where Prince Carnival welcomes the entire procession. Parties continue throughout the rest of the day!
At 2:11pm, the Family Parade starts from Wyckerbrugstraat. This parade is traditionally has floats and ‘Hermeniekes’ (small brass bands) who follow Prince Carnival in a family ‘Boonte Storm’ (colourful storm) through Wyck towards the Vrijthof. After the family parade, the ‘Boete Poetezitting’ takes place on the Vrijthof, where children are allowed to showcase their talents.
At 12:30pm in various places in the city centre, Hermeniekes (small brass bands) tour various jury cafés. On the Vrijthof, the brass bands blow their hearts out for the jury, targeting the maximum 111 points and win the prize. At midnight, the closing ceremony ends the Carnival in Maastricht, which concludes when the Mooswief on the Vrijthof is taken down.
How to plan your own carnival celebrations in Maastricht?
- Check out the dates below for the next three years and plan accordingly:
- 2018: 11 to 13 February
- 2019: 3 to 5 March
- 2020: 23 to 25 February
- Maastricht gets pretty crowded during carnival and many streets are closed for the parade, try to avoid coming by car and use public transport!
- Accommodation can be quite scarce and expensive during carnival week. Luckily Maastricht can easily be visited on a day trip by train from either Cologne, Germany (about 2h) or Brussels, Belgium (about 1h30). Day tripping from Amsterdam might be a bit more difficult as it takes about a 3h train ride. Trains tend to be scheduled until late in the evening, or better yet, party all night long and just take the first train back the next day ;-).