The country may be in lockdown, but for the people of Dendermonde in East Flanders, not even a deadly virus can keep them from celebrating the Ros Beiaardommegang.
The event belongs to the tradition of medieval parades, but this one only takes place once every decade, attracts 100,000 visitors, and is included on Unesco’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The parade (Ommegang) is centred on the Ros Beiaard, a magic horse whose legend stretches to Namur and Dinant in Belgium, and farther afield to France, Italy and England, where it crops up in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
The Dendermondenaars guard their tradition jealously, so much so that when the lockdown looked like they were going to miss this year’s event, they went into full rebellion mode.
The committee that organises the event put out a call for the people to fly city flags from their houses, and at the appointed hour of 14.30 on Sunday to sing the Beiaard anthem.
And so they did, but a good number also took it one step further, and descended on the town square to sing the anthem and dance – social distancing permitting, obviously.
“I came out myself and sang the song with my neighbours, at a safe distance from each other,” said Piet Buyse (CD&V), mayor of the city.
“This is a very emotional day and everyone understands that the Ommegang cannot take place, yet every resident wanted to do something today. Hence the flags and the singing of the anthem. I see the appeal has been very successful.”
He denied, however, reports that the crowd had exceeded one thousand people, not all of whom were observing social distancing. “Indeed, a lot of people gathered on the Grote Markt,” he admitted. “But I know my market square, and it was certainly not 1,000.”
“It was a beautiful, emotional moment,” Buyse said. “A real feeling of togetherness. [The police] were on patrol, and it was busy in the city, but no problems were reported. Everything went well, just as safely as when people walk around or shop together. The rules were respected and I don’t expect any further problems.”