10 interesting facts about the Cologne Carnival

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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

Kids in the Cologne Carnival

Kamelle! The cry rents the cold, crisp Cologne air. A few thousand kids are out in cute costumes, all bundled up against the cold, eager participants in the general colour and chaos.

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The official Carnival begins on Thursday with the Women’s Day, but Carnival Sunday is when families come out in full force. The streets are filled with children, accompanied by their parents, sometimes pushed around on strollers. Around 50 schools also participate, getting their kids to march in the parade in costumes created around a central theme.

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I particularly loved it when parents and kids wore matching costumes, like this father with his one-year-old daughter.

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The Carnival starts a few minutes past 11 in the morning, passing the street by my hotel just after noon. I got there early to watch the spectators and get some photographs. There were already hundreds of families out on the streets, the kids getting impatient by the minute.

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Participants in the parade throw small chocolates, toffees and candy to the crowds, and Kamelle! is the shout for “candy! I want candy!”

And to go with the demand, kids also stood with little bags to collect the goodies for the day.

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All in all, great fun. My first experience of the Cologne Carnival, also been my favourite.

No rhyme or reason

I had not been in Limerick for an hour before someone mentioned Angela’s Ashes. The most famous book to come out of this city is the depressing story of a poor, dank, Catholic Limerick from the 1940s. And I had gone there, fully expecting to feel as dejected as I did when I first read it as an unsuspecting teenager.

Instead what I found on its streets was this signboard:

The Limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks up to the slums,
And promptly becomes,
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

This could easily be a description of the current mood of the city too: fun, boisterous, and ready to become drunk and disorderly at the wee drop of a Guinness. Add to it the words young and prosperous, and you will know why I was happy to be there that spring evening.

This is Limerick’s year in the limelight, chosen to be Ireland’s first homegrown Capital of Culture. And from everything I have seen in the past, European Capital of Culture cities preen endlessly and go on public relations rampages.

Limerick, on the other hand, sits quietly, refusing to take any of it seriously. And I mean it in the best possible way. At an informal press meet, CEO of this project Mike Fitzpatrick was asked about how Limerick was chosen. And Mike, also director of the Limerick School of Art and Design – cue long hair and twinkling eyes – said, “Oh, there was some talk of an Irish Capital of Culture and we put our hands up, and here we are.”

For all that nonchalance, they have their eyes set firmly on the larger target: European Capital of Culture for 2020. Mike and his team have put together hundreds of events and exhibitions through the year, some extending into the next. In early September, the Royal de Luxe came to Limerick for a three day-and-night romp through the streets. The world’s largest street theatre company arrived with a float – The Giant’s Journey – telling the story of an Irish Grandmother Giant.

The Giants Journey
(image courtesy: Limerick City of Culture website)

My favourite event though, which happened over the weekend I spent in the city, was the Culture and Chips Carnival. You tell me, how can you not adore a city that equates fried potatoes with culture? And creates an event around it during what is possibly one of the most significant years in its modern history.

So the Salon Perdu, a massive circus style European mirror tent (Spiegeltent) was set up in the heart of Limerick. For almost a century now, these tents have been used as travelling dance and entertainment halls. Marlene Dietrich has performed there and Marilyn Monroe loved it. And history may – or more likely, may not – say that I have eaten there. For, that evening, I joined a few hundred other people at a formal dinner hosted at the Spiegeltent. Think beet chips with goat cheese, beef chips and mushroom toast, crafts beers and local wines. The dinner ended with music provided by local rock bands, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Salon Perdu

Spiegeltent

Over that weekend, Lema Murphy emerged chip champ at the World Chip Championships, with her triple cooked chips with a baked bean and bacon sauce, served with a deep fried egg yolk on the side. And judges spoke of seeking participants with a passion for the potato. As I said, my kind of place.

But the Capital of Culture project is not just about food. There is a lot of investment in art, on the streets and in the city museums. The EVA International Project, Ireland’s Biennale of contemporary art, has this time around been brought under the umbrella of the Capital of Culture. The theme, not surprising for Ireland perhaps, given its recent violent history, is Agitationism. There are installations everywhere, in traditional venues such as the Limerick City Gallery of Art and in quirky spaces such as a former milk plant.

So there was total cultural immersion, walking among these installations, in a somewhat bemused manner (modern art being modern art). Then we were taken on a whirlwind tour through the fabulous Hunt Museum, one of Ireland’s largest private collections of art and antiques. And at St. John’s Castle, I amused myself posing for photographs behind heavy duty armour suits – hail fellow, helmet – and playing interactive video games, all in the name of understanding 800 years of Limerick’s dramatic past. Before you judge me, remember, there is only so much culture anyone can imbibe in one morning.

Later that afternoon, there was the incident of what came to be known in our group as Twice Backwards On The Shannon. This Limerick story practically wrote itself as I stepped out of the Shannon river, adrenalin pumping, fingers shaking, bodysuit dripping. My maiden kayaking adventure and I found myself going backwards on the rapids (ok, in hindsight, they were not that rapid but hey) not once but twice. The second time was when I saw that my fellow kayakers, bloody showoffs who had likely been doing this all their lives, had smoothly got themselves to the shore. And I let down my guard, happy in the thought that one more box in my long list called ‘adventure activities’ was marked, never to have to be repeated.

Just when I started paddling towards the bank – and the inviting warmth of our team leader Dave’s van parked there – I felt myself being pulled back by the strong currents. Not a good time to remember everything we had discussed earlier in the day: that the Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, not far from the Atlantic Ocean and that at low tide, the currents get rather rough. To cut a long story short, Dave had to pull me ashore and to my acute embarrassment, has documented it all on his nifty camera.

Kayaking

This is not to say I hated it all. After the initial ten minutes of sheer terror, I found myself relaxing and waving a cheery hullo to the swans gliding by my kayak, perhaps attracted by the bright green colour. I even seem to remember a brief spell of time when I was fearless enough to let Dave – bless his patient heart – out of my sight. And co-kayakers say (although like Aamir Khan in Ghajini, I have no memory of it now, since there exist no tattoos, or photos of the moment), I even let go of my paddle and played a ball game with the gang once.

There is something to be said about seeing a city from the water; not from the comfort of a cushioned seat, as a guide drones on about the buildings you cross but wedged tight in a canoe, paddling on for dear life. Medieval castles and bridges loom large in the horizon, making you feel very small and strangely excited.

St Johns Castle

However, of all the Capital of Culture events, the one I cherished was the choral festival called Limerick Sings at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The 12th century Cathedral is the oldest living building in town, used for both daily church service and community events such as this choir festival. During my quick visit earlier in the day, it was a quiet and dignified place of worship with stunning stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers.

Come evening, as locals and tourists together headed there, the Cathedral turned into a spectacular venue, with the chandeliers lit up and the voices of the choir singers soaring into the tall ceilings. And you know the best part? Beginning with the devout Lassus Scholars, soon joined by spiritual musician Nóirín Ní Riain, who glided in through the aisles playing what seemed like a small Indian harmonium, and then the choir groups all the way from Minnesota, they all seemed like they were having great fun.

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Limerick Sings
(image courtesy: Tourism Ireland)

Limerick today is a big University town and there are crowds of young people everywhere – on the streets, in the outdoor cafés and in the pubs. And as you would expect from any young self-respecting Irish person, they are drinking beer. There’s nothing left of the impoverished, miserable city that McCourt wrote of; Angela’s ashes have long been scattered into the wind. And there is no better time to be in Limerick.

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THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Fly Jet Airways or Etihad out of Mumbai (Rs. 33,000) or Delhi (Rs. 35,000) to Dublin via Abu Dhabi. You can take a coach from Dublin Airport to Limerick (more frequent services from downtown; 3hrs; about 200km; from €10; dublincoach.ie), or take the frequent 747 bus to Heuston Station to board a train to the Limerick Junction (from €14.99; irishrail.ie).

Visa: Visa for travel to The Republic of Ireland is processed in seven working days (Rs. 5,000 for single entry and Rs. 8,300 for multiple entry; 022-67866033, vfs-ireland.co.in). Holders of a valid short term visa for UK don’t need a separate visa for travel to Ireland although the Irish Short Stay Visa Waiver Programme requires they travel first to the UK for immigration check. This programme doesn’t amount to a common UK and Irish visa regime (and the possession of an Irish visa does not allow travellers to enter the UK). Travel to Northern Ireland is governed by additional regulations. The British- Irish Visa Scheme, expected to become effective from December 2014, will allow visitors from China and India to travel to Ireland and UK on a single visa, though they would have to travel first to the country that issued the visa.

Stay: The Savoy is Limerick’s best address, located in the middle of the shopping district and within walking distance of all attractions; rooms from €109.

Trivia: The name Limerick has nothing to do with the poem with the format AABBA but derives from the Gaelic word Luimneach meaning ‘bare ground.’ However, there is a theory that the poetry form got its name due to its popularity in Irish bars and public houses many centuries ago.

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An edited version of this story was published in the November issue of Outlook Traveller – read it online here

India’s Culture Calendar for 2014

Here is a list of unmissable festivals through the year in India, dedicated to arts and culture, local colour and just pure fun. Roll up your sleeves and join in the celebrations.

1. Jaipur Literature Festival
Where: Jaipur, Rajasthan
When: Friday to January 21

This month, all roads lead to Jaipur. Held at the Diggi Palace in the Rajasthani capital, the Jaipur Literature Festival is now in its ninth year and bills itself as “the world’s largest free literary event”. In the past, the festival has attracted celebrities ranging from the Dalai Lama to Oprah Winfrey. This year, the best-selling author Amish Tripathi (of the Shiva trilogy) and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri are likely to attract large crowds. Free entrance on registration on the website.

2. Kala Ghoda Arts Festival
Where: Mumbai, Maharashtra
When: February 1-9

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Now in its 15th year, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is drawing bigger crowds than ever to its myriad cultural performances, literary workshops, rows of street-food stalls and theatre events. It also includes children’s events, film screenings and heritage walks (Mumbai boasts dozens of colonial-era structures), all within the Kala Ghoda art precinct in south Mumbai’s commercial hub. Entrance is free.

3. Khajuraho Dance Festival
Where: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
When: February 20-26

Khajuraho
(image via)

Every year, classical dancers from all over India converge on Khajuraho, which is renowned for its cluster of temples from the 10th century. The week-long festival is simultaneously an ode to spring and to the subcontinent’s rich tradition of dance. Apart from traditional dance styles such as Odissi, kathak, Bharatanatyam and mohiniattam, recent years have included recitals with a contemporary twist.

4. Goa Carnival
Where: Goa
When: March 1-4

Goa
(image via)

Goa hosts India’s biggest street carnival early on in the year – a legacy from its days under the Portuguese. The music, dance, partying and merrymaking go on for three days just before the beginning of Lent. The highlights are the colourful parades in four cities: the capital Panaji, Margao, Vasco and Mapusa. Entrance is free.

5. Nehru Trophy Boat Race
Where: Alleppey, Kerala
When: August 9

Alleppey

The lazy backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala come alive during this regatta, introduced in 1952 and held on the second Saturday of August. Go early to grab a spot on the banks of Punnamada Lake, from where you can watch the thrilling contest among the long, narrow “snake boats”, each with more than 100 men at the oars and four at the helm. Ticket prices are usually announced later in the year (from about 60 rupees for standing space on makeshift bamboo decks to about 1,540 rupees for VIP access).

6. Ladakh Festival

Where: Leh, Jammu & Kashmir
When: September 1-15

Go as much for the stunning destination as for this festival itself. During this time, Ladakh (from La-dags, meaning the land of high passes) reveals its best secrets to visitors. Celebrations include ritual dances at the Buddhist monasteries, polo matches, archery contests, exhibitions of rare thangka (paintings on silk with embroidery) and music concerts. Entrance is free.

7. Prithvi Theatre Festival
Where: Mumbai, Maharashtra
When: Early November

Prithvi Theatre, originally set up by the Bollywood thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, celebrates the best of the performing arts during its annual event. It is usually held every November. Between performances, browse through the bookshop or sip chai at the cafe within the theatre complex. Tickets for the plays can be bought online.

8. Pushkar Mela
Where: Pushkar, Rajasthan
When: October 30 – November 6

Pushkar

With camel trading at the centre of all activities, the large fairground in Pushkar comes alive with makeshift food stalls, handicraft shops, fun rides and astrology booths. Don’t miss the quirky competitions – turban tying, the longest moustache and, of course, the camel races. Entrance is free.

9. Hornbill Festival
Where: Kohima, Nagaland
When: First week of December

If you haven’t visited India’s north-east yet, then attend the Hornbill Festival. The unique culture of Nagaland – one of the seven states in the region – is showcased in the form of music and dance performances, art exhibitions and sporting events. And if you have it in you, enter in the Naga King Chilli-Eating Competition. But be warned: trying to eat bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), one of the hottest chillis in the world, is not for the faint of heart. Entrance is 10 rupees.

10. Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Where: Kochi, Kerala
When: Mid-December

Biennale

There is already a buzz about the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and there are high expectations of the newly named curator, the Indian artist Jitish Kallat. Not surprising in the least, given that Muziris gave India its first biennale (December 2012 to January 2013), for contemporary art, showcasing the work of 94 artists from more than 20 countries. Tickets cost 50 rupees.

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This was published in The National on January 14, 2014 as 10 Ways to Celebrate India.

The great Indian Regatta

There is a buzz in the air. At 11 in the morning, the dozens of houseboats lined up on the edge of the water are all packed, people already sitting on rooftops for that vantage view. Police patrol boats have been going up and down the lake for the last hour, with the cops making security announcements over the megaphone. A local model dressed as a king, gilded crown and all, is peddling life insurance from another boat. A speedboat whizzes past, with an ‘Umpire’ banner fluttering in the air. On the other bank of Punnamada Lake, there are rows upon rows of plastic chairs neatly laid out for those holding tickets sold by the government.

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On the second Saturday of every August, the placid Punnamada Lake on the backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala hosts the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Alleppey in 1952, locals held an impromptu boat race in his honor, to which he donated a silver trophy. And it became an annual event, with his name attached to the race and the prize.

The Nehru Trophy is the most popular of the boat races in Kerala. It attracts dozens of teams from across the state, who prepare for it months in advance. Winning the trophy bestows prestige not just on the team but their entire village and district. Not surprisingly, villagers pool in money for the boat and all other expenses. And sponsorship from local brands flows in generous amounts.

The highlight of the race is the contest among the snake boats (locally known as Chundan Vallam). Named for their long and narrow shape – they can be between 120 to 140 feet long – they glide gracefully through the water. Each of these boats has over a hundred oarsmen, four key helmsmen who steer the vessel and a group of musicians to keep spirits from flagging. Indeed, the latter fully live up to their roles as floating cheerleaders, as they sing special boat songs and maintain the rhythm with peppy drumbeats.

The race begins a couple of hours after lunchtime, just when all the biryani and booze is threatening to send everyone to sleep. All the rowing teams have their own uniform: sleeveless T-shirts and shorts in their team colors and soon reds, yellows, purples, whites and blues fill the backwaters.

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While only 16 snake boats actually compete for the Nehru Trophy, other categories of boats kick off the event with exhibition rounds and minor races. The big favorites are the “ladies teams,” who have their own contest. They are seemingly petite women in their sparkling white saris with blue or red blouses and strands of fresh jasmine in their hair. A fresh roar of approval rents the air as they row furiously. Go, girls! For the first time in 2012, an all woman team (with only four men on board) met the others head on for the Nehru Trophy.

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Through all this, there is a lot of action offstage too. The sight of men holding up pink umbrellas – even in a land where umbrellas are quintessential fashion accessories – is distracting. Colorful language floats in the air when too much beer under too much sun causes people to drop their mobile phones into the water. Elsewhere, it is not beer but toddy (local fermented alcohol) that works its magic on locals. Friendly rooting for and wagering on opposing teams soon leads to fistfights and there is the quick flash of a knife before someone intervenes.

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By the time the macho oarsmen of the Chundan teams come vying for the big prize, all is forgotten. Throats are hoarse by then but everyone hoots and cheers loudy. On the Punnamada, the dozens of men on each snake boat row as one, arms moving up and down in a steady tempo, water slapping loudly against the sides of the narrow boat. Only the locals know the teams by name and can identify each Chundan. The rest are happy to just enjoy the spectacle and applaud lustily when one of them finally reaches the end point with a resounding splash.

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This year, the race is on August 10th. Visit the Nehru Trophy website for more details.

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A different version of this was published in India Real Real Time (The Wall Street Journal) on August 10, the day of the race.

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