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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.

The festivities in Binche start on the Sunday before Mardi Gas, when the various gille societies seek to outdo each other with elaborate fancy dress costumes. They continue on Monday with fireworks, “confetti battles” and considerable drinking in the town’s many cafes. It’s said that the English word “binge” can be traced to Binche.

The traditional gille costumes only make their apparition on Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras itself. Only male Binche natives can become gilles. If one should appear in his costume outside the city limits he faces a banning and disgrace — meaning potentially lucrative offers to make commercial appearances are rejected.

“Anyone claiming to be a gille who you see outside Binche is not a real Binche gille. We never leave our cobblestones,” insisted Andre Fleurus, another gille of more than 40 years standing.
“I had to take a break from it after I was married, you know what women are like,” Fleurus joked. “But when my son was 7 years old, he came to me and said ‘Dad, I want to be a gille.’ That made me so happy. We’ve been gilles together for 30 years now and his son’s a gille too. It’s something in the blood here.”

On Mardi Gras, the gilles awake before dawn and breakfast on oysters and champagne while they are ritually dressed and their costumes stuffed with straw to produce their striking, beefed-up form.

After the drums call them into the streets, the about 1,000 gilles spend the next few hours beating a path though the streets to the square in front of the 16th-century town hall ahead of the afternoon’s grand plumed parade.

Although the gilles costumes are only worn for one day, craftsmen and women work year round to maintain, repair and refresh the uniforms. It takes 80 hours and up to 350 ostrich feathers to make the headdresses, at a cost of up to 3,000 euros.

This year’s celebrations were dampened by the commuter train crash which killed at least 18 people on Monday just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. A minute of silence was held for the victims, but there was never any question that the carnival would go on.

Local officials said Binche isolates itself behind its medieval ramparts during the carnival and that many people refuse to turn on the radio or buy a newspaper during the three-day party, such is the importance of focusing on the festivities.

“In Binche, Carnival is so much more than a religion,” said a weather-beaten placard above one bar on the main street.