My first experience with carnival in Cologne was on a certain dreary November 11th in 2011. A flat mate and I had scoured Ryanair for the cheapest place to fly for Reading Week, and it had happened to be Cologne, for a bargain 20 pounds round trip. Little did we know a year and a half later that we would be returning, but this time for the full week-long carnival in February.
Wednesday night we arrive in Cologne, and the pre-carnival preparation begins. The floor is strewn with the tools of a five-year-old’s dream, all of them essentials for the creation of magic: newspaper, glue, coloured felt, tape, and cardboard galore. Memories of Halloween costumes, arts and crafts, and papier maché fill my head. Inspired and determined, the costume construction persists into the early hours of the night until heavy eyelids and nodding heads make it impossible to carry on.
The day begins at 11am with a rush of adrenalin-filled madness as we scramble to adorn our costumes and head out onto the streets of Cologne. The morning is a whirlwind of face paint, wigs, morph-suits and last minute touch-ups, and finally we are ready to go. As we step out onto the streets, we are immersed in a fantasy world swirling with colours. A pack of penguins walks by, followed by Edward Scissorhands and a clown. To my left I see a giant bumblebee holding hands with a sparkling strawberry. We pass a group of kings in golden gowns, and as we turn the corner a smurf greets me with a grin. Everywhere I look there are people in costume, from a two-year-old girl to an 80-year-old man. The city is filled with contagious enthusiasm, and the rare person walking about in normal clothes is given strange looks. Movie characters, animals, and walking fruit spill out of shops, milling about in the streets and commenting on each other’s costumes. In every pub, bar or club the traditional carnival music blares from speakers at top volume, and swaying crowds link arms and join in, singing at the top of their lungs. Everywhere we go there is carnival music and people singing, laughing and dancing.
The days blur together into one long dream, and time ceases to move forward. We meet people from all around the world as well as locals born and raised in Cologne, but they all share one thing: a love for celebration. The vibe of the city is incredible, complete strangers becoming friends in an instant, joining together in song and in dance, and the streets filled with colour. It is a time to stop the dull routines of daily life and to come together and celebrate. Though other towns and cities in Germany celebrate with their own carnivals, Cologne is world-renowned for its week-long carnival; the so-called ‘fifth season of the year.’ Carnival culminates in a series of parades. Saturday night is the ghost parade, while Sunday morning sees the school groups march through the city centre, with coordinated group costumes for the children prepared long in advance. The climax of Carnival is Monday morning with the official city parade and an audience of thousands. Though we unfortunately were not able to stay past Sunday, judging by the several days we spent there I can only imagine the full extent of the carnival finale.
Carnival ended for us on Sunday morning as we took our uncomfortably small seats on the obnoxiously yellow and blue Ryanair plane. We were all silent, reminiscing on the past few days: the people we had met, the costumes and the dancing, and our heads still pounding with traditional carnival music. It is difficult to put some things into words: Cologne’s Carnival is one of those things. It is an experience unmatched by others, and one that must be seen in person. So next year, if the November blues or dreary February weather is getting you down, a weekend away in Cologne for Karneval is guaranteed to cure your misery. Just be sure to bring a costume!
Image Credit: Haley Scheer