Carnival in Cologne – a trip into the heart of madness

Procession of Clowns during Cologne Carnival

The European climate is marked by four distinct seasons: Spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This year, the winter is very harsh, so we head to Cologne, a region blessed by a fifth season: Cologne Carnival!

The merrymaking of the Cologne Carnival officially begins on 11 November, but the real start is on Thursday before Lent. We get up early and, after breakfast, dress up as pirates. We have even bought some accessoires to augment the stock of costumes available in every Cologne household.

Man in baroque costume on a bridge in Cologne

Start the Cologne Carnival at a bank!

By 11 am, the city centre is crowded as on no other workday. Our first destination is the main office of the Kreissparkasse. That’s not necessarily to stock up on cash for the Cologne Carnival. It is the place where many locals go first on Weiberfastnacht. Beer and Soft drinks are served for free here, and cowboys, pirates and angels in the cashier hall greet each other cheerfully. Many come here every year for carnival although they bank elsewhere. Three clowns with curly green hair and dark sunglasses sit somewhat gloomily behind the bullet-proof glass of the cashier. Until the brass band arrives, you can still attend to your banking needs. Even in Cologne, Weiberfastnacht is – in theory – a workday.

Clown in a branch bank during  Carnival

As the bank succumbs to folkloristic songs (…Kölle am Rhing! Alaaf, Alaaf!) we make our way to a friend’s apartment. Conveniently he lives in the traditional Severin’s Quarter, a hotspot of the old Cologne Carnival activities.

Bibo and two unicorns are also travelling this way, as are Little Red-Riding Hood, along with her grandmother and the wolf, a band of Christmas trees and hordes of Red Indians, witches, clowns and Napoleonic soldiers. When we arrive at J’s place, the Karaoke singing has just started, with the cheap Karaoke set he bought a few weeks ago from a discounter. For carnival, he has painted his whole face blue. Too late, he realised that the paint wears off easily and he will miss out on this year’s motto of the Cologne Carnival. This year, they proclaimed it as “In Kölle jebüzt” (Kissed in Cologne).

The story of Jan and Griet

Members of the Jan von Werth Equestrian Corps

„Wer et hätt jewooß…. If she had only known before,“ the story-teller laments the fate of Griet, a poor market woman in the 17th century. Her rejected lover, Jan von Werth, later turned out to become a war hero but did not ask again.

Street procession at the Cologne Carnival

Like every year since 1925, the story without a happy end is told at the Severin’s gate as the starting signal for the Carnival’s first parade. And the Jan von Werth Equestrian Corps belongs to the largest carnival groups in Cologne.

Soon, well-organised Huns, musketeers and clowns march down the street. They are throwing sweets and flowers, while behind the first two rows of spectators the hunt for alcohol continues.

The Huns of Cologne (a Carneval association)

Although this year glass bottles have been banned from the city centre, the revellers drink a lot of alcohol, not least because it is so cold. We have another date in the evening and want to stay sober. So we take the tram back home around 4pm. The costumed dancing and drinking, the parades and –except for J. – the kissing in Cologne will go on for almost a week.

Although Isa grew up in Cologne, she was not an avid carnivalist in her childhood, instead preferring sober sightseeing such as the Cologne Cathedral. Thus, we treated our travel to the Cologne Carnival similar to other exotic festivities: For instance, we have also visited the Krampus Rallyes in Osttirol. And very different carnival traditions in Switzerland, namely the Basel Fasnacht and the Liestal Chienbäse.

NB: We had no sponsoring for our visit to the Cologne Carnival. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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