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Binche: Home to the world's weirdest Mardi Gras?

It's said the English word "binge" originates in the reputation of the festivities at Binche.

BINCHE, Belgium — To an implacable, hypnotic rhythm, the phalanx of masked men shuffled down the street.

There were hundreds of them, torsos deformed into barrel chests and humped backs. Each sported mystic symbols of scarlet and gold, heads bound with white ribbons, feet clad in wooden clogs pounding the cobblestones in tune with the relentless drumbeat.

Advancing through the narrow space between rows of red-brick houses, came hundreds of identical waxen faces, all with the same upturned moustache, the same round spectacles, the same blank stare.

Welcome to Binche, home to one of the world’s weirdest carnivals.

This gritty, working class town of 30,000 is surrounded by the detritus of a once-mighty coal mining industry and suffers from almost 20 percent unemployment. It is a long way from the glamour of Rio de Janeiro, the mystique of Venice or razzmatazz of New Orleans. But the people of Binche are fiercely proud of their Mardi Gras.

Unlike those of its illustrious rivals, the United Nations recognizes the Binche carnival as one of the great treasures of international cultural heritage, alongside the Argentine tango, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes and the Kabuki Theatre of Japan.

What makes Binche unique are its gilles: hundreds of local men who, for the culmination of three wild days of celebration, squeeze themselves into garish multi-colored costumes complete with jingling bells and lace collars. On the afternoon of Mardi Gras, they strip off their strange wax masks and don crowns of towering ostrich plumes to dance through the streets hurling oranges at the packed crowds of revelers.

The origins of the gilles are lost in time. Historians these days discount the local legend that says the outlandish feathered headdresses were inspired by Inca chiefs said to have accompanied Emperor Charles V when he visited the town in the 1549. It’s now believed that the costumes evolved into their present form during the early 19th century, but their roots go much deeper.

“It stretches back to pagan times,” said Michel Abaert, a gille since 1957.

“The gille is an imposing character, by his size, his colors,” he explained over a glass of champagne outside the gille-filled Philippe II tavern. “His role is to chase away the winter. We dance, we beat our clogs on the cobbles to chase away the winter and welcome the spring. The mask is to show that we are all equal.”

A visit to the towns’ International Carnival and Mask Museum offers an explanation of such traditions local and worldwide, with exhibits ranging from the sequined g-strings of a Rio samba school to head-to-toe sheepskin costumes and wooden monster masks from the Balkans.