Every three years, on the 2nd weekend in May, there is a super-sized festival in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium in celebration of the cat. It attracts festival lovers from all over
the world, particularly cat lovers. Held since 1955, the Kattenstoet (Flemish for Cat’s Parade) is a feline-themed Rose Parade with a Mardi Gras flavor. The festival is staged
in Ieper, a mid-sized town west of Brussels in the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders in northern Belgium.
The festival starts on Saturday evening after the daily war remembrance ceremony and the Saturday events include a mini-parade of cats, witches and demons. The witches are caught and put into prison overnight, awaiting their trial and inevitable execution on Sunday, after the other big events on that day.
The town square is lined along one side with multiple sections of tall bleachers with
assigned seats, at several euros apiece. This is a good value, since the parade, the centerpiece of the festival, lasts around 3 hours and seems to include most of the schoolchildren in Belgium!
If you don’t have a seat in the bleachers, simply stand on the curb anywhere along the parade route. The route is shown in the festival program, but you need to find your
spot early. Although the parade does not start until mid-afternoon, townspeople drag their kitchen chairs to the curb – perhaps for the entire weekend – and either place ropes across
the chairs or put ‘RESERVEE’ signs on them just in case some unwitting tourist thinks the chairs are up for grabs.
If you come into town by mid-morning, you avoid the nominal charge levied to enter the town for the day. The shops are not open on Sunday, but their festival-themed window decorations are in place, even if only a handful of ‘official’ stuffed cats or a poster. The bakery has cat-shaped breads and cookies, the chocolate shop window is filled with chocolate cats in various sizes and poses. The bookshop has put all their cat-themed story
books in the display windows. Stop at the tourist information office, located in the
imposing medieval Cloth Hall facing the town square. You can buy a festival program or use the toilet. This is also the place to check for my last-minute tickets for the bleacher seats.
There are only a couple of souvenir vendors behind the bleachers, including a made-to-order tee/sweatshirt vendor. Select the shirt style – tee or sweatshirt – and a color and a size. Flip through the design book, select the design you want and the vendor applies the design to your shirt while you wait. Quick, easy and no leftover shirts in unwanted combinations. Or buy a cuddly black cat toy as a memento in case you don’t catch one thrown by the jester – which you probably won’t.
The beginning of parades in some parts of Europe is a ‘pre-parade’ consisting of floats and ordinary vehicles representing the event sponsors. Each vehicle is filled with people – usually young, frequently female – who smile and wave and toss candy or sponsor-logo’d trinkets to the crowd. Once the pre-parade is over, there is a short lull before the cat parade begins. Time to get to your viewing spot. The sky was bright and completely cloudless at the 2009 festival, so sunglasses and a hat were a must or, failing these, pulling your jacket over your head.
The parade was led by a troupe of kids, uniformly tall and skinny, dressed in black ‘cat-suits’, complete with ears and tails performing a synchronized routine of cat motions: stretching, licking their paws, rubbing their ears. These were quickly followed by a gang of large black cats operating motor scooters, swerving around each other, back and forth, as they passed the bleachers. Other groups were dressed as cats doing cat things such as chasing mice, or doing people things like the motor scooter group or playing musical instruments. Different themes within the parade were introduced by paraders dressed in various period or historical costumes.
Huge bunches of balloons made into cat faces punctuated the parade. The balloons formed
a cat head in a solid color with white balloons marked for eyes; long skinny white balloons made the whiskers or were bent into a triangle for the ears.
The cartoon cats included a giant Garfield float, a squadron of what appeared to be “Hello
Kittys” in white tights and little red dresses and a half-dozen or so incarnations of a large grey tomcat called ‘Le Chat’. He’s a European cartoon character with a slightly skewed view of the world and himself, often dressed in a business suit and appearing in a series of his own cartoon books. There was also a segment with medieval-costumed paraders celebrating the long history of Ieper itself.
Any witches captured on Saturday were paraded through the square, looking properly bedraggled and terrified, chained in hay carts on their way to meet their fate.
The final two figures in the parade, festival mascots that always come last, are a male black-and-white tuxedo cat named Cieper, dressed appropriately in a tuxedo and top hat followed by his white and white-attired bride, Minneke Poes. These figures are larger-than-life, perhaps 20 feet tall, as tall as the top row of the bleachers. This cat-themed spectacle was not limited to the paraders. There were several groups of tourists, some Japanese, sitting in the bleachers and many of the women in these groups had elaborately made-up cat faces, as though they had just finished performing in ‘Cats’. After the parade ended, Puss-in-Boots wandered through the crowd, allowing himself to be photographed with interested spectators; several older Japanese women – without the cat-face makeup –
giggled as they queued up to have their picture taken with this oversized fairy tale kitty.
The next feature, and the only part of the festival I had heard about several years ago, was the Casting of the Cats. In the Middle Ages, cats in this town were used as rodent control
to protect the wool that was stored in the Cloth Hall. After the wool was sold, the cats were no longer needed. The cats were rounded up and thrown to their deaths from a tower by the town jester who doubled as the animal control officer. Another version of the historical precedent for the exterminations says the cats were killed because they were suspected of being witches, not that the reason would matter to the cats themselves. The last time this cleanup was performed using live cats was 1817. Yikes!
The re-enactment of the tossing of the unwanted cats has received a modern twist, since
all the cats tossed now are the stuffed animal kind. With the crowd gathered on the street below, the court jester appeared on the balcony of the Cloth Hall, high above the square. He strutted and posed and pranced for the crowd. The jester urged the crowd to make
noise, as though asking if we wanted him to take care of the cat problem. In true rock-concert style, the jester encouraged the noise first from the crowd to his left and then to
the crowd on his right, seeing who made the biggest racket and thus deserving to have
a cat toy tossed in their direction. All the while, he was lining up several stuffed cats of
different sizes along the metal railing that framed the balcony. These were the same stuffed cats that filled the shop windows but wearing fancier ribbon round their necks. For the next half-hour or so, the jester flung the cats to different parts of the crowd and the crazy scramble for these silly toys put me in mind of the madness of fans trying to go after a baseball when it goes into the stands.
The stiff breeze meant the cats’ landing spots were uncertain until the very last second. You had a better chance of snagging a cat if you were tall so most of the cats were
caught by adults who may (or may not) have passed the cat to a waiting child.
Finally, the witch trial began. Members of an elaborately dressed medieval court entered
the square, taking up their places on a high stage. Helmeted soldiers brought the witch before the court, charges were read and she pleaded for her life. The exact wording of the trial was unclear, but the gist was obvious, even if everyone spoke Flemish. The court is not moved and the witch is condemned to burn at the stake. The bonfire is huge and the wind whips the flames high as the ‘witch’, a full-size effigy dressed in the same clothes as the woman playing the witch, is tossed into the fire. The town’s modern firefighters stood
nearby, hoses at the ready lest the fire spread. The cat-face balloons reappeared in a massive display before being released, marking the end of the celebration for another three years.
Not until much later did I realize that I had not seen a single live cat in the town all day…