It’s cold, very cold, and I’m on the 5am train to Heathrow airport heading for Cologne Bonn, Germany. This all sounds perfectly normal for a Friday morning, aside from the fact I’m in a traditional German dirndl, dressed as a pirate with a fake parrot strapped to my shoulder. I’m going to Koln Karneval, to celebrate yet another traditional German festival, like a true native.
Luckily I’m not the only one in an unusual costume at the airport, there is a man in a tiger onesie, and a girl dressed as a rather covincing clown.
As I discovered on my European adventure in 2012, Cologne is a cultural hub of the Rhineland, and is famous for having its very own chocolate museum, and for its partying. Such partying can’t be experienced any better way, than by taking part in Koln Karneval, and that was exactly what I was about to do.
Remembering Rudolphplatz as a great spot from last time, that was exactly where I was headed, on the most raucous party train (well, they were all unofficial ‘party trains’ once you got close to the center) imaginable. The atmosphere is quite remarkable, yes everyone is pumped up on booze, but no anger, no arguing; yes shouting and loud voices – but this is usually cheering and (out-of-tune) singing. It can be a challenge to tell cop from reveler as many revelers dress as cops, many preferring the American style uniforms, and some official cops actually wear bright neon wigs and join in the merriment.
To fully appreciate Koln Karneval, a brief understanding of the festival’s history is a good idea. The story goes that this festival has been around since medieval times, since the city first came into existence. However, in 1814, after French Revolutionary troops left Cologne in the advent of the Prussians taking over, many people saw it was time to “organise” a proper street carnival, as the new authority felt it was getting ‘a little out of hand’. In 1823 the “Festordnendes Komitee” was founded, predecessor of today’s “Festival Committee” – yes, the Germans are that organised they even have a Committee specially dedicated to festivals. On 10th February of that same year (1823) Cologne celebrated it’s first Rose Monday (“Rosenmontag”) with the motto “Inthronisation of the Carnival Hero”.
Over the decades and centuries that followed, certain traditions and customs began to emerge, many of which are still a part of Cologne Carnival today. The indoor festivities such as ‘sessions’ and ‘balls’ and the infamous street carnival, climaxing in the grand parade on Rose Monday are all such traditions. It is up to the Festival Committee, seen as the main umbrella organisation representing over 100 Cologne Carnival associations, corps and companies to set common standards, coordinate festivities and preserve the tradition of the “fifth season” for future generations.
Preparations for Koln Karneval actually begin the year before, and the festival is officially declared ‘open’ at 11am on 11th November. There are breaks for The Advent and Christmas, then revelries pick up again in the New Year, with “the crazy days” (the best times to go) running from the Thursday (Womens’ Carnival Day) before Ash Wednesday, until Rose Monday – just before Ash Wednesday.
If you can’t afford Rio Carnival or Mardi Gras this year…Koln Karneval sure gives them a run for their money, and at much more affordable flight prices. The best time to arrive (if you are tight on time) is Friday, early in the morning. Travel light so you can head straight into town and join in the fun. Aim to fly out Monday late afternoon / early evening so you can enjoy some of what Rosenmontag has to offer. Be prepared to be partying all day (and all night) from Friday morning until Saturday night (the small hours of Sunday) so wear practical, and warm shoes. It’s February, in Germans and so is very (VERY) cold, so warm shoes and warm additions to your costume is a good idea – you will be grateful of this at 3am whilst walking through the streets in the snow.
But most of all, enjoy. Remember at Karneval, costume-wise – anything goes. So wear whatever you like.
Flights: Easyjet run return flights from London Gatwick to Cologne/Bonn airport for around £30-£40 (if you book enough in advance).
Accommodation: Air BnB offer a fine list of great hosts at very reasonable prices. Good places to stay are Hennef and other neighboring villages which provide easy access into the center.