On Monday I had the pleasure of attending the Cologne Carnival, a week long street festival between Fat Thursday and Ash Wednesday that marks the beginning of Lent. The biggest day of this massive, city-wide carnival is Rose Monday, which I was lucky enough to go to for the day (while en route from Frankfurt to Hamburg). I didn’t really know what to expect going into it – I knew that everyone dresses up, has a big party and that there would be a big parade, but that was about it.
How safe was the Cologne Carnival?
Let’s first address the elephant in the (web?) room. One thing I was quite conscious about were the issues Cologne has been having with sexual assaults and robberies of late. For those of you who may have somehow missed the extensive news coverage on the issue, approximately 516 criminal complaints were filed following the 2015 New Years Eve celebrations in Cologne and about 40 per cent of these related to alleged sexual assaults. It was reportedly North-African looking men committing these crimes and as a result Cologne has since experienced an anti-migrant backlash, with protests and attacks on migrants of North-African and Arab appearance.
To be honest I didn’t really think about all this when deciding to go to Carnival, but a quick Google search before arriving showed that there had been a further 22 sexual assaults reported on the first night of the festival alone and only a day later a Belgian news reporter was groped live on TV by one a (caucasian) reveler. Basically, things weren’t looking good.
For these reasons I was extra cautious when I got to Cologne. I put almost all of my belongings in storage at the train station for the day and only carried the bare minimum with me – cash, some ID, my phone, and camera. I also decided to keep my wits about me and not have too much to drink, which made sense anyway since I was hopping on a 4+ hour train to Hamburg in the evening anyway and didn’t want to suffer the consequences of intoxication.
So did I experience or witness any issues? Thankfully not! All I saw were friendly, crazy Germans having the time of their lives. At least during the day time the celebrations were very much a family affair and, although a lot of drinking was taking place, none of it was messy. I couldn’t help but think how different this is to Australia and New Zealand, where binge drinking at events is a way of life and things get real messy, real fast. Perhaps us Australasians just can’t handle our liquor like theses hardcore Germans?
Although the parade was supposed to start at 10am it only reached where I was standing a little after Midday. I think this was because I was near the end of the parade route but also because the parade starting time was also a little loose… so much for German efficiency and precision! 😛 The late start didn’t bother me though as there was plenty of great people watching to be had. The costumes were great and even though I didn’t have a clue what anyone was talking about it sure was fun to try to read everyone’s body language and guess.
When the parade finally did kick off it was full of fun marching bands, cheerleaders doing tricks, cheesy floats and a whole lot of colour! What I couldn’t get over, however, were the amount of freebies being given away. Being an amateur I didn’t think to bring my own giant bag to put all the goodies I received in. Everyone else at the parade had huge bags ready to be filled. Some people even brought massive IKEA bags, boxes, and my personal favourite – giant catching nets – to collect their freebies. You probably think I’m exaggerating about how much stuff was given away but nope… in total 700,000 chocolate bars, 300,000 bunches of flowers, and 1.4 tonnes of candy were tossed into the crowd (though I suspect it was even more). A lot of the edible stuff had branding on it. I couldn’t understand what it was for but a lot of it appeared to be political campaigning and general business marketing.
Compared to many others my bounty was small. I received about 30 flowers (in exchange for a kiss on either cheek to the person handing it out), and at a guess about 5-6 kg of chocolate and sweeties. The guy standing to my right had a large bag that he held open and the paraders would just come along and fill with it handfuls of stuff. However, I was most impressed by the racket the family of smurfs to my left had going on. This family included a very cute little girl smurf who they put up front. Whenever the paraders came by they would see this little cutie’s almost empty bag and throw her a whole lot of candy. Then every few minutes the family would empty out her bag into another giant bag they had tucked away at the back of the footpath and then come back for more. Smart smurfs!
I was also amused by the hot blonde girl standing near me. The men in the parade probably gave her about 100 flowers in total. As the men walked past her they would do a double take and then walk back to give her a flower in exchange for a kiss on both cheeks. Every time this happened her boyfriend, who was standing next to her, would say “if you give one to her you have to give one to all of us” (well presumably… I don’t speak German) and the men parading would have to give flowers and kisses to everyone in her group.
The Parade Floats
The other thing I found interesting about the parade was how political the floats were. I couldn’t understand the writing on many of the floats but in most cases the message was quite clear nonetheless. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was heavily featured on the floats. Other characters included Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, and suspended FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
After the Parade
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay in Cologne for the night because accommodation rates were extortionate, so instead I had to get a train at 6pm for my next destination – Hamburg. For this reason I didn’t get to join in the ‘after party’ revelry. However, during the couple of hours I did get to walk around after the parade everyone was having a great time and I even passed the odd congo line.
Although for now I still have all the free candy I got with me (as a frugal backpacker I’m finding it hard to let go of), I knew it wasn’t practical to take my 30 flowers on the train with me with all my luggage. Er go, I stood on a street corner and handed out individual flowers to the delight of passers-by, who apparently didn’t have enough flowers themselves already. Quite fun really! Then, I lugged all my candy to the train station. Two days later and I still can’t even look at it without getting a toothache…
All in all though, I would highly recommend attending the Cologne Carnival if you ever get the chance, even if it’s just to stock up on a year’s worth of candy! I had so much fun and spent the whole day grinning from ear to ear.
Have you been to Carnival in Cologne or anywhere else before? If so tell me about your experience in the comment section below!