Winter, spring, summer and fall -- in most of Europe, the year has four seasons. In Cologne, there is a "fifth season" -- Carnival.
Carnival is not just for kids
Kölle Alaaf! -- Watch out, Cologne, (here come the jesters)! -- that's the battle cry heard on the streets every year in the city on the Rhine, signifying that Carnival has arrived.
Starting on November 11th and ending on Ash Wednesday, Carnival enthusiasts wearing brightly colored costumes take control of the city. They crowd the streets, bars, and even the supermarkets. Musicians beat their drums. Silly, catchy pop songs, sung in the local dialect, blare from loudspeakers in bars and shops. And everybody feels free to sing, dance and drink along.
Cologne's Hohenzollern bridge with the cathedral in the background
If Cologne seems to be out of its mind for days and nights on end, the only thing left for a visitor to do is hop right in and join the party. In the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday, small parades cruise through various Cologne neighborhoods, where costumed participants throw candy and toys to clamoring crowds.
The culmination of this is the giant, televised Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parade with its miles of decorated floats. The festivities end abruptly on Ash Wednesday with the burning of the Nubbel -- an effigy representing all the excesses of the carnival season. The Nubbelverbrennung simultaneously celebrates a return to reasonable behavior, the end of winter and the welcoming of spring.
While less frenzied than during carnival, Cologne has an upbeat, party atmosphere in the other four seasons as well. Among Germans, the city is renowned for its openness, zest and friendliness -- possibly reflecting its situation close to the Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg borders. People from around the world have settled in Cologne and made it their home, and no one stays alone for long at one of the many bars or restaurants that serve the city’s standard brew, Kölsch.
When in Rome...
Aside from its party culture, the city has a good deal of high culture as well. With approximately a million inhabitants, Cologne is Germany's fourth-largest city, and its oldest.
The Roman Empire stretched to the Rhine River 2,000 years ago, and it was here that the Romans established a trading post they named Colonia -- the Latin word for colony. Over time, the Rhine became ever more important as a trade route, shipping goods from the Alps to the North Sea or the other way around.
During the Middle Ages, Cologne prospered as a trading center. The Roman influence can still be seen today, most obviously in the city's twelve Romanesque churches and three fortress-like city gates.
Clowns take over the streets on Carnival weekend
Cologne's most famous landmark -- and the most visited tourist destination in all of Europe -- is the famous Kölner Dom, or Cologne Cathedral. This masterpiece of Gothic architecture was begun in 1248 but was only completed in the nineteenth century (work is still being done to repair damage from World War Two).
The cathedral's twin spires rise some 157 meters into the sky and dominate the city's skyline. Visitors without vertigo can climb up even higher than the bell tower. Just 509 steps bring you to amazing views of the city, the river, and an up-close-and-personal look at the cathedral’s carved angels and gargoyles.
Looking at one of the art-nouveau buildings scattered about the city or the Old Town south of the Cathedral, with its concentration of gabled houses and narrow alleyways, a visitor can see how charming Cologne must have looked before World War II. The war exacted a heavy price, however. Over 90 percent of Cologne’s downtown was destroyed by allied bombs, and today the cityscape is primarily characterized by the functional (some would say ugly) buildings that went up during the city’s speedy reconstruction.
Art world capital
Still, Cologne is regarded as a metropolis of contemporary art and boasts more than a hundred art galleries. The Ludwig Museum is known for blockbuster shows focusing on contemporary artists, and 10 other major museums round out the program with everything from ancient Roman art to contemporary photography. The renowned Art Cologne contemporary art fair held every year in October or November is one of Europe’s biggest.In addition, Cologne is a premiere German media center. There are ten radio and television stations headquartered here, including West German Broadcasting (WDR) and RTL TV. Around 400 production companies have their headquarters in Cologne, and hardly a day goes by when filming isn’t going on somewhere on the city’s streets.