The night before, walking through a more subdued town centre, across one of Lucerne’s famous medieval covered bridges, I asked local Marcel why the party had to start quite so early.

His answer was simple: “So people can party for longer.” This attitude might explain why the carnival (Fasnacht in German) has become Switzerland’s second biggest after Basel.

Both are held from Dirty Thursday until the following Ash Wednesday, to throw out winter and welcome in Lent. But as well as being slightly smaller, Lucerne Carnival is an entirely different event according to our guide Christian.

“Basel is more organised. Ours is more … messy,” he concludes, smiling wryly. “There’s no schedule, people just do what they want.”

It seems to start off neatly enough, with a parade of 30 bands, made up of an assortment of musicians, some thumping bass drums, others tooting trumpets or wielding tubas,
and all of them wearing costumes.

At Lucerne Carnival forgoing fancy dress is not an option, and the bands take this most seriously of all, only revealing their chosen outfits on the day.

There are Vikings, monsters, devils and jesters, some with gleaming eyes poking through their giant masks, others with huge medieval helmets.

The odd costume has a political edge, like the polar bears making a point about climate change.

Mesmerised, we follow the bands through the cobbled streets of Lucerne’s old quarter, admiring outfits and clutching our mulled wine to keep warm.

Escaping the cold, we head inside and by the time we come back out again the sun is high in the sky and the carnival spirit is in full flow.

The bands, now split up, continue to parade the city, the sound of drums and brass signalling their arrival.

Wherever they stop a crowd forms around them as they alternate between covers of chart songs and traditional tunes.

People dance and chatter, while mothers and fathers pull trailers filled with kids, also in costume. I spot an entire family of Smurfs dancing to the Beatles’ All You Need is Love.

At 2pm an official parade of bands and floats organises the chaos slightly, but afterwards it’s back to anything goes.

With so much revelry it’s hard to take in the charms of Lucerne that have been drawing in tourists for centuries – the frescoed houses and ancient guildhalls, the many churches and chapels, and the winding alleys that open on to medieval squares.

Today, littered with ticker tape and discarded props, they provide a surreal backdrop to the carnival cheer. As the night draws in and the fun steps up a gear, it’s hard to believe it carries on for another five days.

But it’s easy to believe that things get more than a little messy.

» Amy Adams travelled with Switzerland Tourism. For info see or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30