La Louvière is the capital of the Centre Region, a former coal mining area in Wallonia, the french-speaking part of Belgium in the south of the country. Most of the time, there is nothing special about this small town of 80.000 inhabitants. However, once per year the city becomes the scene of a very special event: the carnival of La Louvière.
In Belgium, the carnival is part of Wallonia’s folklore. Celebrations usually start with the Fasting Period and over the following months one city after another organizes the festivities.
The carnival of La Louvière is, after the Carnival of Binche, one of the biggest and best known carnivals of the area. It takes place at the mid-term of the Fasting Period. Celebrations revolve around one symbolic figure: the Gilles.
The Gilles are traditional participants of the carnival in the Centre Region of Belgium and his history goes back to the 16th century when, according to a popular legend, they first appear in a procession organized by Mary of Hungary.
They are dressed with a linen suit with heraldic designs in the colors of the Belgium flag (red, yellow and black) which is stuffed with straw. On their head they wear a white cap and some even add a huge hat with hundreds of feathers. The Gilles also wear wooden clogs on their feet and bells around their bellies.
Hundreds of them, all male and some as young as three years old, dance around the city in the rhythm of traditional brass music throwing blood oranges in the crowd as a sign of good luck (be careful with your head though). With this procession the Gilles chase the winter time and wake-up the grounds with the hammering of their clogs.
Same procedure as every year
Local families start their day at 4 am when it is time to dress the Gille. Because of the elaborated costume, friends and families participate in this event. The early wake-up is compensated by a glass of champain and oysters.
The procession then starts at 5 am when one Gilles after the other is picked up at their home. From outside the city, they slowly move into the city centre.
We arrived at around 11 am, when celebrations are already in full swing. The city is crowded but the atmosphere is joyful. People from all ages walk and dance in the streets. Some of them wear colorful costumes.
At around 12.30 the procession arrives at the main square where the Gilles and other groups gather for the so called “Rondeau”. The groups dance around the square and offer more oranges to the crowd.
The celebrations then continue in the evening and the following two days with several other activities.
Good to know
We parked at the SNCB parking, which is a huge parking space from the Belgian rail company just a few hundred metres from the heart of the celebrations. The parking was quite empty when we arrived at 11 am. In order to find your way to the city centre, just follow the sound of music and the smell of beer.
If you want to see the “Rondeau” at the main square don’t arrive too late as people are waiting in order to be in the front row even before 12 am.