A fluffy creature soars through the air. A forest of outstretched arms reaches to grab it. Blood splatters onto the pavement. In the jostling to catch a flying cat, a grey-haired man has received a blow to the nose instead.
This is the Kattenstoet, a festival held every three years in the haunting town of Ypres, Belgium, in honour - or rather, dishonour - of the cat. And here, in a town famous the rest of the time for First World War battlefields and memorials with names such as Flanders Fields and Passchendaele, spilled blood is nothing new.
About 50,000 people have come to enjoy the festival's highlights: a three-hour cat parade, a cat tossing from the belfry of the tower in the main square, and a witch-burning re-enactment. The result is something of a Middle Ages fairy tale - or a dog's fantasy.
Of course, the cats thrown from the belfry aren't real. At least, not any more. These days, the jester (Brian Claeys, a worker in the city's technical department) tosses stuffed black-and-white cat toys to the delight of children and young-at-heart adults.
There's a macabre legend behind this tradition: During the Middle Ages, the city jester would throw live cats to their deaths because the Grote Markt (central market) was overrun with the creatures. The ritual was also supposed to chase away the evil spirits with which cats were said to be allied. Some versions of the story say the cats had been brought in to take care of an infestation of mice that had been eating away at the fabric stored in the Cloth Hall. The last time live cats were tossed was 1817. The tradition was revived briefly with stuffed cats in 1938, but scotched because of the Second World War. In 1946, the tossing began again and added a parade to the fun.
We staked out a sweet spot near the lineup snaking out of Il Gusto d'Italia ice cream and waffle shop for the show of 15 floats and about 2,000 participants. We had a clear view of the town's Cloth Hall, the ancient centre of textiles trade now turned into a charming town hall with its clock tower and infamous belfry. The building also houses the In Flanders Fields Museum and, against that stately background, the winding procession of weirdness would march right past us.
Colourful marching bands fill the square with music, children dressed in feline costumes make clawing gestures, and teenagers twirl flags bearing the shield of arms of Ypres or the Flemish lion. And then it gets weird.
Balloons bundled in the shape of cat heads float by. A tribute to Egyptian cats features a float with a sphinx and young girls dressed like Cleopatra. Children dressed as Egyptian slaves appear to be taking punishment from their masters. In a celebration of Celtic cats, Viking-costumed flutists accompany dancing girls in blond braids pushing a wheeled cart.
Some aspects of the parade seem to have nothing to do with cats, such as knights in chain mail and silver-domed helmets walking by clutching long spears. But that's part of the tribute to the history of Ypres, a town with a rich and bloody past that stretches beyond the Middle Ages.
Two horses draw a wagon of caged "witches" in anticipation of the burning re-enactment that will be the festival's grand finale. The women reach out to the crowd in apparent pleas for mercy. A parade of clergymen and villagers follows them. A line of enslaved children also participate, as mock sounds of whipping echo throughout the march. Another float carries a creature that looks like an elephant with wings, a long devilish tail and fur.
But varieties of felines are the main attraction. One float features a man on safari with jungle cats in tow. There's a king cat, Garfield the cat, cats playing in garbage, storybook cats and a dead cat, with celebrating mice.
It was like nothing we'd seen before, and we were fortunate to be there at all. Four months earlier, a series of e-mails from budget hotels and guest houses informed us that we had no hope of finding accommodations in Ypres during Kattenstoet. In fact, we managed to find lovely accommodations at the Li'lle Gate Guesthouse, on a small street near the action, sharing the space with two women from Singapore who had been waiting three years for the big day. Access to the entire town was blocked, unless you were willing to pay $5 to stand or up to $55 for a seat in the grandstand, a meal and a museum ticket. Inside the town, storefronts hid small cat figurines among the window displays, creating a Where's Waldo experience at each shop.
After the parade and cat-throwing, the witch-burning re-enactment took centre stage. A full set of costumed characters appeared to give the witch a mock trial before the burning. The poor woman in the doomed role kept crying, "Nee! Nee!" The trial felt long, maybe because we had guessed the outcome and maybe because we didn't understand a word of it, prompting my boyfriend to make a sharp quip about the slow pace of justice. In the end, the fire on the mound of kindling was real, but the actress had suddenly become rather floppy.
Kattenstoet returns in 2012 on the second Sunday in May.
More weird ways to have fun
You think throwing cats from a belfry is odd? Check out these other European festivals:
Orange Throwing Festival in Ivrea, Italy. The annual Battle of the Oranges is a sticky tribute to the local 1194 insurrection against the Roman emperor. Every February, hundreds of people turn out to belt ripe fruit at helmet-wearing "tryrants" who return the juicy fire in kind; only by wearing a red hat are you safe from orange splatter.
Phallus Festival in Tyrnavos, Greece. Locals say Dionysus, the god of wine, makes them do it. Every Monday after Lent, townsfolk let loose with a pagan fertility festival that sees enormous penises erected and kissed, lewd songs sung, phallic thrones sat upon and everything from bread to drinking straws made to resemble male genitalia. Apparently, the rest of the year, the town is completely normal.
World Sauna Championships in Heinola, Finland. More competition than festival, the August event attracts heat lovers from around the world. Temperatures start at 110 C, with water poured on the hot stove every 30 seconds. The last one out of the sauna on their own steam wins. Last year's winner lasted three minutes and 46 seconds. But the year before that? A blistering 18 minutes and 15 seconds
Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships in Savonlinna, Finland. Now here's an event we can all take part in. But if you want to be crowned world champ, head to Savonlinna on Aug. 21. Technique is as important as distance, with winners in "over the shoulder" throw, freestyle throw, most creative choreography and an under-12 event.
Catherine Dawson March