A few weekends ago, Joery and I made the one-hour train trip to Ieper (Ypres in French, Wipers in English) to see the triennial Cat Parade (Kattenstoet in Dutch).
I heard about the Cat Parade shortly after I moved here in 2009. Unfortunately, this was in September and the event had just taken place that May. To my disappointment, I would have to wait three years before being able to experience the awesomeness that is the cat parade. I mean, the main events include a witch trial and throwing (stuffed) cats from the clock tower in the main square. What’s not to love?
So when I arrived back in Belgium in January, I did a quick google search of cultural events that were occurring around the country this year. I figure that if I can’t afford a lot of travel outside of Belgium, I should start making the most of being here. Also, I really wanted to see the Cat Parade, and I was worried there were other events I would miss due to my ignorance (see list of different cultural events in Belgium here).
Ieper is about an hour by train from Ghent. It’s located in West Flanders, and the city itself has a lot of history. All the gorgeous medieval buildings in the city center are less than a hundred years old. The city was a strategic position during the first World War, so much of the city was destroyed. If you do make it to Flanders, the museum In Flanders Fieldis a must-see. Currently, it’s undergoing renovations, but it’s due to reopen next month.
The cat festival itself revolves around three events: the parade, the cat toss, and the witch trial and execution. The parade is long. It starts around 3pm and was over a little after 6pm (though this was from my perspective, which was mid-parade route) and is completely dedicated to the cat.
The parade was divided into different sections. The first section celebrated cats throughout history. The floats illustrated everything from the esteemed status of cats in ancient Egypt to the perception in the Middle Ages of cats as the house-pets of witches. There were also sections about the history of Ieper, cats around the world, and cats in expressions (such as when the cat’s away, the mice will play, or in Dutch, dance). The parade was really interesting, and while each section has an announcer who explains the history, it’s not really necessary to know Dutch to understand the floats (though it helps, particularly in the section about the expressions).
The cat toss was due to start right after the parade at 6pm, so I was getting a bit anxious when the parade went until a little past six. The cat toss was the bit I really didn’t want to miss. But, it turns out, they have to clear the square of all the blockades that marked the parade route before they can start tossing cats. So you have a solid thirty minutes or so to get to the square after the end of the parade.
The practice of tossing cats from the top of towers dates back to the middle ages. They used to gather up the cats, which, as I mentioned, were considered to be the companions of witches and bring bad luck, and toss the (live) cats from the tower. Today, luckily, the cats are just stuffed animals.
The cat toss itself lasted about 30 minutes. The jester (whose job description also included cat executioner in the middle ages) stood on the balcony and reveled in taking his time, tricking the crowd into thinking he was going to toss a cat, but then lining them up so they balanced on the edge of the railing. Now, I didn’t even attempt to catch a cat. It was a mad house. Once a cat was thrown, people lunged for it. I’m rather tiny and going up against determined fathers trying to get a stuffed cat for their daughter was not on my agenda. So I just watched. I don’t know how many cats were actually thrown, but it couldn’t have been that many. Maybe 30, at most. So chances are, you won’t be catching one. The same cats, though, are for sale all around the city, so the chance to purchase a memento is there.
After the cat toss, the witch trial begins in the center of the square. This is the only part of the day when it becomes useful to know a bit of Dutch (though the West-Flemish dialect is difficult even for Dutch speakers to understand). While the beginning of the trial is announced in French, Dutch and English, the rest is just in Dutch. It’s not too difficult to follow (after all, the bonfire is already constructed, so there’s no surprise how it’s going to end), but the accusations are fun to understand. Joery had to help with the translations a bit, but the accused woman was said to not only have poisoned her neighbor, but she also appeared to a man in the night, was able to get inside his house even though the doors were locked and, with her mind, force him to touch himself. Yes, what the Belgians consider family-friendly witch accusations includes stories about masturbation.
Once the grand inquisitor finds the woman guilty, the townspeople swarm the accused, eventually switching her out for a dummy. The dummy is then carried by the executioner to the bonfire and tossed on top.
Now, this is the part of the day that didn’t go exactly as planned. The executioner poured some gasoline on the fire, lit a torch and, with a whoosh, the witch was engulfed in flames. For about a second. Unfortunately, the flames were extinguished rather quickly (my hypothesis is that the wood was too wet, so the only thing that burned was the gasoline). The only thing to actually catch fire was the poor witch’s foot. So, while the witch slowly burned, the poor executioner scrambled to try to get the rest of the fire lit. This included picking up a broken pint glass, filling it with gasoline and throwing it on the fire. He also at one point took a lighter out of his pocket and tried to light some paper on fire, but it didn’t really work. The day ended with confused applause and a burning witch perched on a pile of wood.
Now, after experiencing the event, I want to provide some tips if you ever intend to attend.
1) Arrive early.
The parade starts around 3pm (with a pre-parade of commercial floats that begins at 2pm), so it’s best to arrive at least an hour earlier. Joery and I got to the city around 1pm, but we ended up walking around the parade route for a bit before heading back to the station to meet up with his parents. Now, at 1pm there were still enough empty slots on the sidewalk that you could comfortably find a place to view the parade. By 2pm, the selection was sparse.
2) Bring a chair/stool/something comfortable to sit on.
The parade is looong. We started watching the pre-parade around 2:30 (it starts at 2, but by the time it reached us it was closer to 2:30) and by the time the last float passed us it was a little after 6pm. That’s a lot of time standing (especially, if you’re like me, and half of that time is spent on your tip-toes trying to get the best photos). Fold-up chairs/stools would have been nice.
3) Location, Location, Location.
It’s best to get to the parade early both in order to score a place with enough space to park a chair and to pick the ideal location. In my opinion, this location is located either directly before the market or directly after the market on the parade route. If you stand too far from the market, you’ll never get to the square in time to participate in the cat throwing, which you really should stay and check out.
4) Bring snacks.
Like I said, the parade is long. Also, the streets are narrow and the sidewalks are packed with people, so trying to work your way to a fry hut or waffle stand is near impossible. Additionally, the prices are inflated for the occasion. And if you dive in front of the groups of kids trying to get candy thrown from the floats, you won’t be making many friends.
5) Storm the bleachers.
After the parade, the paid seats are, for the most part, vacated. This is because most people either 1) leave or 2) migrate to the other side of the market to participate in the cat throwing (catching). Therefore, by the time the witch trial starts, there are a ton of empty seats. Play your cards right and you could get a front-row seat to the trial (rather than standing in the back and only seeing the back of their heads through a crowd of people).
So that was my experience in Ieper. If you do make the trip, it may be worth it to stay until 8:30pm when they do the Last Post at the World War I monument for the fallen soldiers. We couldn’t stay for it, since we had a train to catch, but it’s something I would like to see.
And now I’m off to watch the rest of the EuroVision song festival. The Russian ladies are awesome.