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Tips for Carnival in Cologne

Silke Wünsch db
February 7, 2018

Carnival starts in Cologne's streets on Thursday and as always, it will draw thousands of revelers. If you follow the wise articles of Cologne's "Basic Law," you, too, can enjoy what people there call the "fifth season."

Carnival in Cologne
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

§1 Et es wie et es (Things are as they are)

Look the facts in the eye! From Women's Carnival on Thursday to Violet Tuesday a week later, the clocks tick differently in Cologne, a stronghold of Carnival in the Rhineland. People go crazy: they squeeze into crowded pubs, drink lots of beer and sing songs in the local dialect. They dress up, wear wigs and costumes, and that's not only in the streets. If you go to the bank on Thursday, don't be surprised if the teller is a clown with a bright red nose. And don't be too disappointed that a cold meatball with mustard is the only thing on the menu in most pubs.

Read more: 10 German comfort foods for the winter

§2 Et kütt wie et kütt (What will be, will be)

When in Rome, or rather Cologne, do as the locals do! The "fifth season" has its own peculiarities. People may party from morning until night on Women's Carnival, but Friday is a regular workday. In the evening, however, the clowns, pirates and witches line up to get into their favorite bars for some more partying. The people of Cologne mainly have their city to themselves on Carnival Friday, but on Saturday, hordes of tourists start pouring in from across the country. Pubs open in the early afternoon and parties often last until the early morning hours.

Costumed participants at Rose Monday Parade. Copyright Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa.
Traditional costumes at the Rose Monday paradeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

§3 Et hätt noch immer joot jejange (Things always work out in the end)

Relax! If you've managed to survive the first three days, you've clearly figured out how best to "do" Carnival in Cologne. If you partied all of Saturday, you can take it easy on Sunday. People who plan to go to the Rose Monday parade the next day — it starts at 11:11 am — go to bed early to be fit for the long day ahead.

The only thing that never survives Carnival is a man-sized rag doll called the "Nubbel" that is mounted outside many bars. On Tuesday night, just before Ash Wednesday, the rag doll will be the one who has to pay for people's sins during the fifth season: he is burned. The largest ceremony takes place in Cologne's Kwartier Latäng student district, where Nubbels from the many surrounding bars are collectively reduced to ashes in a huge bonfire. Needless to say, parties continue in the bars until the early morning hours.

Nubbel doll. Copyright Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa.
Farewll, Nubbel!Image: picture-alliance/dpa

§4 Wat fott is, is fott (What's gone, is gone)

Don't fret if you've lost something! Make sure you travel lightly, and put your valuables in your pockets. People lose cell phones, hats, glasses, wallets, feather boas and much more. Hundreds of coats are left behind in checkrooms throughout the city on a single evening. And only few are ever picked up again because, often enough, the owners will have forgotten where they dropped the coats off in the first place.

§5 Et bliev nix wie et wor (Nothing stays the same)

Be open to everything new! Music is a big part of Carnival in Cologne. For a long time, four bands dominated the scene: Bläck Fööss, Höhner, Paveier and Brings. But that has changed, and for the past few years a new, young generation of musicians has captured the hearts of the crowds with cheeky lyrics, loud rock music and Cuban tunes.

§6 Kenne mer nit, bruche mer nit, fott domet (Don't know it, don't want it, out it goes)

On the other hand, you don't want to overdo embracing everything new either! In particular new acquaintances. Alcohol flows freely and people are in a good mood, so the atmosphere is extremely relaxed ... which inevitably leads to some smooching. Don't be too disappointed if the cute little devil you just cuddled is kissing some other cowboy half an hour later.

§7 Wat wellste maache? (What are you going to do?)

Accept your fate! Wherever you go, it's going to be crowded and long lines form in front of bars, bathrooms, cloakrooms and snack bars. It will be noisy, too. If that's not your cup of tea, it's best to take a vacation and leave the city for a few days, which is what many so-called "Carnival fugitives" do.

§8 Maach et jot ävver net ze off (Do a good job, but don't overdo it)

Pay attention to your health! Remember, you'll be outdoors a good part of the time, watching a parade or waiting in line to get into a pub. Once inside, it's tropical. If you venture outdoors again, hot and sweaty, to catch a breath of fresh air or have a cigarette, be careful not to catch cold. After Carnival, half the city is under the weather and hoarse — and that's not only due to the singing.

Read more: Feeling ill? German folk remedies for a speedy recovery

§9 Wat sull dä Quatsch? (What's going on here?)

So what's really going on? Why doesn't the Kölsch beer taste as good as it usually does? People often suspect the beer may be watered down, but it's more likely to go stale more quickly in plastic cups. If you snag a glass that isn't as clean as it could be, just wipe off the lipstick rim. With pubs that crowded, the barstaff may not be as conscientious as usual.

A waiter with a tray of Kölsch beer. Copyright Oliver Berg dpa/lnw.
Invite your fellow cowboy or princess to a beer.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

§10 Drinkste eene mit? (You want to have a drink?)

Go ahead and pay for a round of drinks! Most bars ask you to buy tokens. Make sure you get plenty, and if you're buying ask the waiter for a "Kranz" — literally, a wreath — which is a special serving tray for up to 12 glasses. They'll be gone faster than you think. If the person singing and dancing next to you regales you with a radiant smile, give them a Kölsch beer, too — you're sure to be remembered next time around.

§11 Do laachste dich kapott. (Crack up laughing)

Keep your sense of humor! You may know that the cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf are traditionally at loggerheads. In Carnival, they can't even agree on the friendly greeting for the "fifth season": it's Alaaf in Cologne and Helau in the state capital. The two cities also specialize in distinctly different beers: Kölsch in Cologne and Alt in Düsseldorf. As long as you don't order an Alt beer in a Cologne pub you can get away with anything. This freedom means a great deal to the people of Cologne, so Carnival is a wild few days. Join the fray, have fun and there's no doubt that, after a short while, you'll be singing along, too.

The Cologne Basic Law is a collection of 11 worldly wisdoms in the local dialect and are valid all year round...not just during Carnival season.