1. The Carnival is the highlight of Cologne’s social calendar, with the season officially beginning on 11/11 at 11.11 am. It then goes into silent mode until the new year, when the celebrations begin in full swing and go on till Ash Wednesday in February. Carnival week is usually one of the coldest spells in Cologne but also one of the best times to visit the city.
2. The Carnival period after New Year is known as the “fifth season” of the year – just goes to show how seriously this city takes the festivities. There are private carnival parties, local neighbourhood celebrations, music performances and of course, drinking events through the weeks leading up to the final parades.
3. One of the traditions is that at the start of the celebrations in November, the “triumvirate” for the year, consisting of the Peasant, the Prince and the Virgin are presented to the public. They are all chosen from among the influential citizens of the city and are technically supposed to “rule” the city during carnival time.
4. The Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the city itself, but in its present form, has been celebrated for less than 200 years. It may have been a homage to the winter solstice or a marker for the beginning of Lent season; the word Carnival from Carne Vale meaning “goodbye meat!”
5. The highlight of the Carnival are the few days towards the end, with the boisterous street parades, also known (rightly) as the “Crazy Days.” It starts on a Thursday celebrated as Women’s Day, and Sunday marked for children and families, in the Schull-Veedelszoch (School and neighbourhoods) parade. There are alternative carnivals in several neighbourhoods, such as the “Ghost Parade.”
6. The big daddy of this parade is “Rose Monday” with the streets filled with celebrations for the entire day. The official parade goes on for 7 km, with over 13000 participants marching in costumes or sitting on floats, to the sounds of drumbeats and trumpets.
7. This finale has over 1 million people as audience and the best part (my favourite bit about this carnival) is that spectators are all dressed in costumes, most of them more interesting and quirkier than the marchers. From fluffy green dinosaurs to funny clowns with painted faces and groups of flower children straight from the 1970s, the audience takes costuming very seriously.
8. Participants in the parade throw candy and flowers at the audience, who fill the air with cries of Kamelle! and Strüzjer! respectively. Think of these numbers – 300 tons of candy, 700,000 bars of chocolate and 300,000 small flower bouquets. In return, they also allowed to demand Bützje, a quick, friendly peck on the cheeks.
9. Local beer (kölsch) flows freely during carnival time through the day and authorities turn a blind eye to the high spirits floating in the crowds. On Tuesday night, a straw puppet called Nubbel is burnt in many places, marking an end to the guilty pleasures of the carnival days. Most institutions – museums, the cathedral and even many restaurants – are closed during the big parade days, to reopen only on Ash Wednesday. On that day, people go to church and eat fish for lunch before returning to their normal lives.
10. To best enjoy the carnival, paint on a clown face, wear a quirky costume or just put on a red nose and stand at any point in the heart of the city, where the parade passes. And to be an authentic Jeck (Carnival fool), be sure to shout out “Kolle Alaaf!” at full volume – long live Cologne! This term, by the way, derives from All Av! meaning a “bottoms up” toast from the Middle Ages.