Köln to the Germanic world, Cologne to the rest of us, the ancient city on the Rhine and contemporary Germany’s fourth largest traces back its origins to the first century A.D. as the Roman Colonia. Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself.

Germany - Cologne Gürzenich

Originally built in the fifteenth century, the Gürzenich remains to this day a prestige location for Carnival events.

The ancient Germanic tribes celebrated the winter solstice as homage to the Gods and to ward off evil winter spirits. The Christians later adopted this heathen custom and by the Middle Ages it had evolved into rowdy masked street celebrations. The first written records of the Cologne carnival date back from the year 1341. By the eighteenth century the patrician class introduced elegant masked and fancy-dressed balls in the Venetian style. The organized carnival celebrated today only dates back to 1823.

Making Fun of the Prussians

Germany - Cologne Rosenmontag Band

The tradition of dressing up in mock Prussian uniforms dates back to the early nineteenth century.

In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, Cologne, which had been under French rule for two decades, was allocated to Prussia along with all of the Rhineland. During Carnival, people of the region began dressing up in satirical Prussian uniforms as a protest of against their occupier. Thus began the tradition of Carnival societies with their own “regiment”, complete with marching bands, military banners and powered wigs that we still see today.

 

Germany - Cologne Rote Funken

The Rote Funken  became the first Carnival society in 1823.

Then in 1823, the Festordnende Komitee (Committee of Guidelines) was founded. The former city militia, the Rote Funken (Red Sparks) reinvented itself as a Carnival society. The first Rosenmontag parade, which by the way has nothing to do with roses but rather is a distortion of the original name Rasen Montag (rush, or anything-goes Monday) was held to enthrone the “Carnival Hero”, today’s Prince Carnival, along with his entourage, the Peasant (der Bauer) and the Virgin (die Jungfrau), traditional medieval characters. This was a nod to the days when Cologne was a Free Imperial City-state within the Holly Roman Empire. Then as now, the Virgin was a man attired as a woman.

Carnival Societies

Germany - Cologne Blaue Funken

The Blaue Funken trace back to 1870.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Germany - Cologne Prinz Karneval

Always accompanied by the Virgin and the Peasant, Prince Carnival visits his faithful subjects.

After the creation of the Committee of Guidelines, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. The Carnival societies multiplied. The Ehrengarde (Honor Guard) was added in 1902 to complement the Virgin and the Peasant. Then in 1906 the Prince was given his personal Prinzengarde (Prince’s Guard). Today, there are over 150 Carnival societies and neighborhood groups in Cologne. All take an active part the celebrations, which have grown into a hometown festival with that encompasses close to 500 Sitzungen (shows), balls and parades.

Crazy Days

Germany - Cologne Weiberfastnacht.

On Thursday before Carnival, women in costumes rule the city.

Women may have been excluded from official carnival celebrations in the nineteenth century, and the Carnival Jungfrau still be a man in drags, but they get even on Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival). Starting early morning, women take over the city in their most colorful costumes and face paint. Everywhere they happen to be as they go about their daily business, they can cut off the tie of any man who crosses their path or pucker up and give him a Butzie (Carnival kiss), or both. The day also marks the beginning of the five Crazy Days of street Carnival, with dozens of parades and parties in the surrounding suburbs. On Sunday, school groups and neighborhood associations from all around the city gather in the center of town for the colorful Kinderzug (Children Parade).

Rosenmontag Revelries

Germany - Cologne Funkemariechen

The dance groups of the various Carnival societies are a most popular part of the parade.

It’s finally Rosenmontag! Starting early morning on Monday, well over one million people in outlandish costumes of all kinds converge onto the 6.5 kilometer (4 mile) long parade route that meanders through the center of Cologne. The parade begins at 11:00 A.M. With over 10,000 participants, including 117 bands, 125 floats and 500 horses, it stretches over 6 kilometers (3.70 miles).

 

 

Germany - Cologne Prinzengarde.

The Prince’s guard heralds the arrival of Prince Carnival, who closes the parade.

It has a pass-by time of three hours, during which 140 metric tons (310,000 pounds) of sweets and 300,000 bunches of flowers will be thrown at the cheering, singing crowd. After the mammoth float of Prince Carnival closes the festivities, everyone repairs the nearest pub for a final evening of partying.

 

I have it on good authority that the Fifth Season doesn’t officially end until Tuesday night when the “Nubbel”, a symbolic straw figure, is set ablaze and the sins committed during Carnival go up in smoke. But by Tuesday, I have never had enough energy to check it out!

Good to Know

  • Greeting – Throughout the Fifth Season, the official greeting at all Carnival events is ALAAF!, usually shouted at the top of your lungs while vigorously waving your right arm. It is short for “Cöllen al aff”, which in the ancient Kölsch language means “Cologne above all.”
  • Drinking – Cologne hold the record for the highest number of pubs per capita in Germany. Predictably, its Carnival is fueled by the local Kölsch beer, served in Stangen (small, 0.2 liter or 7 ounce glasses). Waiters are quick to bring you a fresh one before the previous is even finished. They keep track by marking your coaster with pencil marks. To stop the beer from coming, just put your coaster on top of your empty glass.
  • Viewing – There are many places along the parade route that can provide good viewing spots. However, most of the sidewalk space through the center of town is closed to bystanders by rows of reviewing stands with reserved access, put up by the Festkomitee Kölnerer Karneval (Festival Committee) as well as the major hotels along the route. These tribunes offer various level of comfort such as sheltered or non-sheltered seating and self or full catering, and they are priced accordingly. Seats must be secured well in advance from the individual providers. Order via e-mail from the ticket service of  the Festkomitee kartenservice@koelnerkarneval.de. My local friend’s and my favorite perch is the tribune of the Hotel Pullman, Helenenstrasse 14, 50667 Köln, pullmanhotels.com/de/hotel-5366-pullman-cologne, for its excellent central location, high open bleachers that offer an excellent perspective of the approaching parade as well as an eyelevel view of the passing floats and refreshments. It also includes entrance to the hotel for warm-up breaks, and a hearty after-Parade dinner, which allows time for the streets to clear up before we start on our way home. Tel: (+49)221/2752200. e-mail: h5366@accor.com.
  • Dressing – For men planning to be in Cologne on Thursday during the Women’s Carnival, I recommend wearing one of the giant, garish Carnival ties available for a couple of Euros from any costume shop. To play the game to the fullest, get a couple of spares. For the Rosenmontag Parade, dress warmly and use your imagination. Hint, the official colors of the city of Cologne are red and white. Can’t go wrong with those.
  • Getting there – Cologne Bonn Airport handles non-stop flights to most European capitals. It is located 15 minutes away by S-Bahn (local train) from the centre of the city. There are  several Thalys highs speed trains daily from Paris (3:15 h), Brussels (2:00 h) and Amsterdam (2:30 h) to Köln Hauptbahnhof (Cologne central train station). Additionally there is a direct ICE Train connection with Frankfurt airport (1:00 h).
  • Getting around – There is a good bus and hybrid subway/tram network to get around the city, with vending machines or ticket-offices at all main stations. Beware that on Rosenmontag, the entire center of town as well as the parade route area are closed to all traffic from the wee-hours until early evening. Public transports take you to the edge of the designated area. It’s on foot from there on.
  • Where to stay – If you chose to stay at the center of the action, there is a large variety of housing options ranging from budget to multi-starred hotels throughout the city. However, all tend to fill to capacity months ahead of the Crazy Days. Advance planning is key.

Location, location, location!

Cologne