Do you like drinking?
Do you like dancing?
Do you like wearing fancy dress?
Do you like having no idea what’s going on (but thoroughly enjoying yourself anyway) for an entire weekend?
Well, my friend, the Cologne Carnival is for you.
This past weekend I’ve celebrated my first carnival and taken part in all of the drinking, eating, singing, dancing and cross-dressing that it has to offer.
And if you’re considering coming to Cologne for carnival (or just want to see how I look in lipstick) then in this article I’m going to tell you all about it…
What Is Carnival?
Carnival is known as the 5th season here in Cologne. Because for a solid four months between the 11th November and Ash Wednesday (the five week point before Easter) carnival takes hold of the city.
It’s the only place in the world you can see Chewbacca making out with a Minion on a street corner and absolutely nobody thinks it’s weird.
For most people Cologne Carnival is the closing weekend of the season. Where for five days people push the boundaries of drinking, dignity and dancing to see just how much fun they can have.
In the next few sections I’ll take you through all of the main events and share some of my stories from celebrating it.
Altweiber: The Beginning Of The End
Altweiber is the start of the end of Carnival. It’s a Thursday and it’s the day that people decide they’re going to get the most drunk out of all the days.
Thousands of people take to the streets in fancy dress to drink, dance and pay €5 to get into a dive bar that would otherwise be empty.
Jake and I opted for traditional German lederhosen so we’d blend in like locals:
Traditionally it all kicks off with a breakfast where people bring different food and alcohol to someones house or apartment. People tend to eat Brotchen (bread rolls), Berliners (jam donuts) and Mett and drink beer or Flimm.
Mett is raw pork mince served on bread. So if you’ve ever woken up and thought, “You know what I need for today’s party? Diarrhea” then you’re in luck. I’ll stick to jam, thanks.
Flimm is an awful green liquid that tastes like the jelly you used to get with your school dinners.
Around 1pm, when everyone is drunk and full enough, it’s time to leave the apartment and go into town. And turning up on the street for the first time is a sight to behold.
The streets are closed to cars and the city is filled with people in elaborate fancy dress, drinking beer, laughing and dancing on the street. People go around and kiss each other on the cheek, dance with whomever and just take part in the fun.
I’d like to say I was sober enough to capture the entire moment on camera, but I wasn’t. It seems drunk James decided to try and take a photo at some point but this is all I could manage…
If you’re looking to travel to Cologne carnival to get drunk and party, then I’d highly recommend that you come for Altweiber over any of the other days. You don’t need to take part in the traditional breakfast event if you don’t know anyone there, and you can still get as drunk as possible.
The best place to go is around the Zuelpicher Strasse, which is in the middle of the more student area. But don’t worry they’re not all students. You can mix with people of all ages too.
I was in bed by 7pm because, well…I’ll let this Facebook status I don’t remember writing explain:
So I’m going to make a seamless segue and talk about the weekend.
The Weekend: Drinking, Dancing and Debauchery
From Friday until Monday there is a constant party. Every evening you can go out on the town. So there’s nothing ‘traditional’ going on other than the drinking and the dancing.
The entire city is one big party so there’s no really bad place to choose. And, Of course every day you need to wear fancy dress.
Sadly I’d managed to ruin mine and was left only with my Girlfriend’s fancy dress boxing. Meaning I was left with no option other than to go as Little Red Riding Stud:
Most of the bars you’ll find yourself in are tight and cramped. And, they have a wide range of around 12 Karnival songs that you’ll come to know off by heart by the end of the evening.
But for all of it’s cheesyness, Cologne Carnival really does do the party like no other place on earth.
You couldn’t compare it to Rio de Janerio or anywhere else around the world. This is a unique festival, in a unique city. Which is perfectly depicted by this picture that looks like an LSD dream sequence:
If you’re here for an entire weekend you’ll find lots of bars like this throughout the city. And the price of the beer doesn’t really change too much, despite being a trap for people. You’ll be looking at €1.30 – €1.80 for a Kolsch which is pretty standard.
Okay let’s skip through the weekend and on to Rosenmontag.
Rosenmontag: The City Comes Together
After a weekend of partying, you’d think that the Monday would be the ‘comedown’ period. But the party just continues on. Only this time in a much more family friendly way.
Rosenmontag is the day of the big parade in Cologne. The entire city shuts down – there are no shops, few businesses and occasionally a bakery that are open – and the people descend on the city centre to take in an 8km long parade that lasts about four hours.
If you enjoy shouting words you don’t understand, like Alaaf!, at random strangers who are handing you sweets, then you’ve hit the jackpot here.
We found ourselves a quiet little corner down a side street do we didn’t need to contend with the large crowds and could get nice and close to the parade:
All in all there are 12,000 people and 500 horses that take part in the parade, as well as over 100 different, intricately designed floats.
Some of them come with political messages, or observations on life, like this float:
And some are more focused on traditions and looking elegant, like this one from the Blau Funken:
Today is also the day you forget that you’re not supposed to take things from strangers, because the entire day is spent with people throwing chocolate bars, sweets and flowers from the floats. It’s probably one of the happiest occasions you’ll ever come across.
This is about the least German thing I’ve ever experienced. I understand the drinking and the eating and dancing. But this was an event that wasn’t about being serious, frowning or filling out paperwork. And people still looked happy. It was a nice surprise.
But, in their defence, there were lots of people in the parade who did their best to look like someone had broken into their house and pissed on their kids. But I imagine after six kilometres of playing the same three songs on a tuba I wouldn’t be too happy either.
Marie and I came home with enough sugary food to give us a strong case of diabetes and an entire bouquet of flowers:
And, just when you thought that would be the end of it, there is still one more day to go…
Burn The Nubbel!
The Cologne Carnival is closed by probably my favourite ceremony. And, it’s in-keeping with the absurdity and fun that the entire weekend brings with it.
Burning the Nubbel is a little like when the English burn Guy Fawkes on November 5th. They take five or six a large, stuffed, human-shaped dolls and proceed to burn them in a 10 foot high shopping trolley.
The Nubbel is brought through the streets carried by pallbearers through the streets holding large candles and torches, while people chant “Tod dem Nubble!” or “Death to the Nubbel” rhythmically.
The Nubbel represents the sins of the people who celebrated the carnival in cologne, and this ceremony marks the passing of those sins from the person to the Nubbel for them be burned away in the fire.
So if you cheated on your partner, stole a sandwich from a homeless man, punched a man dressed as a clown because he tried to steal your beer, or laughed at an old woman falling over, you’re technically forgiven.
That doesn’t quite explain why Freddie Kruger is stood on top of a ladder is chokeslamming them into the cage. But everyone needs a hobby, right?
Once all of the Nubbels are carried through the streets, a speech is given in the local dialect of Kolsch over a large tannoy. The speaker asks questions like:
- Who’s fault is it that Donald Trump is President?
- Who’s fault is it that FC Koeln lost 3-1 at the weekend?
- Who’s fault is it that rent for students is so high in Koeln?
- Who’s fault is it that you threw up on your wife’s shoes?
To every question the crowd responds, as loudly as possible, “Das war der Nubbel!” (That was the Nubbel!).
The first time you hear it you feel a little weird. But after two or three times you can’t wait to chant back and join in. It wasn’t long until my bastardised English accent was the loudest in the group.
Once the chanting and the passing of the sins is complete, the Nubbel is set on fire by all of the pallbearers…
The crowd then comes together to say a non-religious prayer about how sad it is that the Cologne Carnival is over, and then they dive right back in to playing loud carnival music, singing and dancing.
This was probably my favourite part of the whole carnival, and I can’t wait to see it again next year!
The Big Question: Would I Do It Again?
Although there may be a hint of sarcasm in my post, I honestly loved the Carnival and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
Next time I’d probably be a bit more prepared so I don’t have to wear so many women’s clothes. And not drink quite as much on the first day.
But there’s something about Carnival that just sticks in the back of your mind and makes you want to live it all over again.
I’m quite glad it’s over, but I can’t wait until the next time.
If you’re considering going I definitely recommend you do it. And maybe learn a little German before you do, too.