Top 10 Cologne Karneval Do's and Don'ts
Mon 10 Mar 2014
Having returned for a second Karneval comes with a first up generic warning that applies to all festivals. Don't get drunk and over commit yourself by saying, "I will come back next year. I promise." People have long memories, particularly when you had a great time with them the first year - they are not going to let you forget it!
Karneval in Cologne is possibly the brightest festival and most participative festival in the world. Where else do you find a million people in all manner of costume partying in the bars, streets, restaurants, on the trams and in the parades for 5 full days. Timed with the other "Carnivals" around the world in February or March every year, its a time when people come together to celebrate. In Rio, you watch the parades of women dancing in sequined bikinis with headdress, in Salvador its about the music, in Nice the spectacular parade includes enormous inflated characters. There is a Carnival for everyone, but its only in the centre of the Rhine land (Cologne and other near cities) that participation "requires" you to spend the best part of a week in Kostume / Costume and BE the party.
These series of Do's and Don'ts orient around the 5 (final) days of Cologne Karneval which include party district Thursday, regional town parades Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, countless bar and club parties across the city all the time, Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) major parade Monday and wind down party Tuesday night when they burn the Nubbel.
1. Don't miss the party district Thursday
Students (of all ages) dress to the maximum in full Kostume regalia and turn out in numbers edging 10,000 for the party in Zülpicher Strasse. At either end of this famous street, barricades and security are set up to provide a safe party drinking environment inside and outside the hundred or so bars, clubs and restaurants. Its a spectacle in any terms with a lot of alcohol used to stave off the cold and increase the fun factor. Its good natured, save the occasional barb about sexual performance should you not be willing to drink the supplied schnapps forced upon you by someone you do not know.
2. Do wear a costume
Going without a costume is NOT an option. Last year, some of our group were denied access to a club because they only had something on their head. That's the extreme, but wearing a costume is a central part of the activity. It is kind of like cake with out icing.... and no one wants to be a plain vanilla cake! If there is any concern about hitting the streets in hippie colours or even a Kangaroo suit, it soon disappears as you enter a supermarket to find frogs, supermen, clowns, pirates, giant mushrooms, and much more - you are soon at its completely normal.
3. Don't forget to stay warm
Nursing the flu as I write, I can relate that rugging up inside your costume is essential. You see young (and not so young) girls turned out in mini (mouse) dresses, and racy air hostess outfits, while some guys dress for track and field with shorts. For the newbie, its strongly advised to select costume for the rigours of the German winter. 2014 temperatures were mild and above zero, but 2013 was sub zero most of the time, with snow on the ground. Brrrrr!
4. Do talk to everyone
Particularly if you are from another country, you should announce yourself as a visitor for Karneval. I can relate that 100% of locals participating in Karneval are very proud of their party and likely to launch into a spray of broken english about their festival ... and then force some schnapps or Kolsch (the local beer type) on you. Done well you will never have to buy a drink :) They will otherwise be-friend you and be eager to hear your Karneval story.
5. Do visit the region town parades
Like to be showered in Candy? Last year's visit to the near region town of Brauweiler, and this year to Frechen for their regional parades netted a haul of candy that rains down on those assembled to watch. People walking in the parade, adults and children, people on floats and other modes of transportation are armed to the teeth and regularly restocked with candy... locally known as Kamelle. You know this is the local word for lollies or candy because people are constantly calling out for it. There is more than enough for everyone and so all are on a sugar high for the week!
6. Don't projectile vomit
There is enough alcohol consumed per capita to impress any ranking alcoholic ... and for the week, drinking excessively is on display the entire time. Alcohol is cheap and available everywhere... and surprisingly (for an Australian) consumed in good nature. In all the week I only saw once, evidence of a fight... and that's despite some very crowded spaces, trams and close quarters... It could be that its a bit hard to fight someone when you are dressed as a clown and the guy facing you is wearing a pink tutu. Its otherwise advised to not drink too much and the one attempt that I saw to walk and vomit was very unattractive and was going to spoil the guy's costume. Avoid at all costs.
7. Don't pay for the trams
As a returning visitor, I knew better to try and by a ticket for a tram or train. The locals are not that eager on ticket purchase any time of the year it seems, and during the Karneval there is no sign of ticketing, if any room to get to a ticket machine onboard the tram. Never mind that, I had to go out of my way to find a ticket selling conductor on a DB train back to Dusseldorf during a quieter moment. The machines at the station were also rejecting attempts at cash and card transactions! Even better, the train in the opposite direction was so overcrowded that a Tokyo commuter would have not boarded! No room for ticket checks there.
8. Do go to dance in the Ghost Train
Saturday night is one of the more ghoulish costume displays. A specific anti establishment parade comes with ghosts, zombies, bloodied figures in hockey masks, witches and everything else ugly. The music is supplied by bands and drumming groups. The latter punch out samba beats that you can't help but jump around to.
9. Do get a first floor window view for Rosenmontag parade
By far the biggest event of Karneval is the Rosenmontag parade through the centre of town. Its snakes through narrow streets and the older district, through the famous shopping heart of town, past grandstands of people that have paid premium prices to sit in the cold and watch... and past the Cathedral. Its an amazing display of colour, costume, shows of strength, massive floats. There were 64 sections this year, most of each had a band, a group walking, marching couples, and a float. Its easy to see why the parade takes more than 5 hours to pass! All along the way their is enough candy, chocolate and sugary treats raining down on the million plus crowd to send a small nation into diabetic shock. 99% of the viewing public is dressed up, dancing, if not also a little tipsy.
If you can swing it, find a first floor window along the way to watch the proceedings ... its super giel. This comes with an additional caution - watch for flying chocolate bars. Last year two friends ended up with split lips from large bars... While a candy projectile got me in the forehead while standing back from the window this year.
10. Do stay out Tuesday to see the Nubbel burn
With all this debauchery someone has to take the fall and lucky that has been set up prior. In the Sulz district that I stayed. A ugly faced straw figure called a "nubbel" was perched atop a street sign for the length of Karneval. On the Tuesday night amid the final Karneval carousing, the Nubbel is bought down and carried around the block to a marching band playing Karneval songs. A costumed figure masquerades as a member of the religious community and M.C.s the proceedings. The culmination is a tirade of blame bought upon the figure for everything from waking up in the wrong bed, drinking too much, to the failure of the local football team. Then covered in lighter fluid the Nubbel is burnt in middle of the street.
This officially signifies the end of Karneval and the Cologne locals go into depression, with the religious element turning to fasting, while the rest stack away the colour and costume. The following morning Cologne returns to a normal EU city, probably grey skies overhead and dressed-for-the-cold people going returning to work.
If you are looking for your own special world adventure, carnival or festival, then view the range of special experiences around the world with G Adventures.
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John Nayler has been a flat-out-traveller for almost 20 years. 37 countries, but who's counting - he is likely to have been there, done that AND probably recorded something about it. You want entertaining answers? You have come to the right place.
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