Notes on that other Carnival, in Cologne, Germany

Most of the time you can find yourself in Cologne, Germany, and not really know why you’re there — that’s how relatively unexciting and nondescript Western Germany’s largest city is.

But say you find yourself on the platform of Cologne’s main train station at around 6 a.m. on a Thursday (this Thursday, for example). You’ve just arrived after a night journey and your eyes are trying to snatch some focus in the early morning darkness. You move through a constant clamor: screams, shouts, yawps , laughter. You see figures, more than you should for this hour, crisscrossing, boarding and alighting from trains. Further into the station the din grows louder, and you can see the people more clearly: Everyone’s in costume, and most are carrying crates of beer.

Welcome to Day 1 of Cologne’s Carnival (or Karneval in German).

This is a Carnival celebration that is not on many people’s radar screen, even though, with more than 1 million people annually in attendance, it amounts to one of Europe’s biggest street festivals, and certainly Germany’s largest after Oktoberfest in Munich.Officially, Cologne Carnival starts every year at 11:11 p.m on November 11. But it hits its full celebratory stride starting this Thursday, the beginning of the “crazy days,” and won’t end until next Tuesday — so-called Fat Tuesday, for all you Mardi Gras fans out there.

In fact, Cologne’s festival has much in common with other Carnival celebrations around the world, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the carnivals in Rio and Trinidad and Tobago. Historically, they are essentially Catholic celebrations ahead of Ash Wednesday, the official start of the Lenten season. In reality, of course, such revelry doesn’t seem very religious, but the celebrations all include the same basic ingredients: Costumes, parades, drinking and music (though I’ll admit, the Cologne Carnival lacks music with the same beat as, say, samba in Rio and is decidedly less sexy — see the video at the end of this post).

All throughout Germany’s Rhineland towns will be holding their own carnivals. Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, gives Cologne a good run for its money with its festival and one of the best ways to experience the party in this region is to divide your time between the two cities (they’re only 30 minutes apart).

This Thursday is known as Weiberfastnacht (Wieverfastelovend in the Cologne dialect), which translates roughly as “women’s day,” a day dedicated to the fairer sex, some of which seek to seduce male Carnival-goers by dressing in provocative, playful nurse and devil costumes, which traditionally means they are looking for some, em, attention. The following days feature small parades in the region’s various towns. Saturday night is a big night in Cologne, with several major carnival balls and an unofficial bar crawl through many of the pubs and breweries of Old Town.

Carnival’s biggest day is Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, which features the festival’s major parade through Cologne, followed by street parties and an evening in the Cologne bars.

I find myself mentioning pubs and bars a lot. The few times I’ve been to Cologne Carnival, I’ve always thought of it as primarily a beer festival, one to rival Oktoberfest.

In this part of Germany, the traditional beer is Kölsch, a light, fruity draft that is notable in that it’s one of the only beers in Germany actually appellation-controlled: Only beer from Cologne can be called Kölsch (for Köln, Cologne in German). The same light beer brewed 30 minutes down the road in Bonn is known as Bonnsh.

I know Cologne Carnival is about much more than drinking. Still, it seems every year each day’s festivities ultimately come down to kölsch: That is, huddling with friends in a packed pub, dressed in something embarrassing (I was a cow one year; at right, a devil), plucking eagerly at tall, thin kölsch glasses (called stange) that are cradled by the 10 in a round wreath or kranz, and singing traditional Carnival songs at the top of your lungs, no matter how many times you’ve heard them that day:

Da simmer dabei! Dat is prima! Viva Colonia!
Wir lieben dat leben die Liebe und die lust
wir glauben an den Lieben gott und ham uch immer durscht!