Crazy Days of Cologne’s Carnival

Today is Mardi Gras, which is one of those days that I’ve always kind of loved despite the fact that I don’t really partake in all of the Mardi Gras festivities. Despite the fact that it’s been Carnival fever over here in Basel and the fact that I knew that the Catholic carnival celebrations are the week before Basel’s Carnival, it somehow came as a surprise to me that the trip that I planned to Cologne this past weekend fell squarely in the height of the city’s famous carnival. I guess it’s somehow fitting in a way. Exactly a year ago, I spent the same weekend in the American capital of Mardi Gras. Granted, that was for a half marathon and not Mardi Gras, but it still checks out.

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Back to Cologne, though. The city has a very long Carnival tradition and, as it turns out, a long Carnival season. It starts with a big celebration on November 11 and culminates with the “Crazy Days” that lead up to Mardi Gras. These are days filled with costumes, parades, events and drinking. A lot of drinking. Doing the trip on my own, there’s only so much of the Carnival activities that I can partake in without it being sad or potentially dangerous, but it was still a fun experience.

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This is Alea having fun.

 

The Crazy Days kick off with Women’s Day on Thursday, but (11 pm trek across the Cologne train station on Friday aside) my first major Carnival event of the weekend were the celebrations at Neumarkt. There were musicians playing, groups performing and dancing and, of course, plenty of the local Kölsch to drink. This was a lot of fun to watch and I would have stayed for longer if I didn’t have a walking tour of the city to meet up with.

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Going into the experience, I knew that people dressed up in costume for Carnival, but I didn’t realize that essentially everyone young and old took part in this experience. As soon as I stepped off of the train on Friday night, I realized that this was the Halloween experience I missed out on last fall. The problem was that I was entirely unprepared. Even the Maleficient hat that I had purchased at Disneyland just the week before would have been sufficient for a low-key costume. I couldn’t miss out on a costume event again, so I had to pull something together quick. Fortunately, the city’s colors are red and white which made it very easy to throw together a quick Waldo costume.

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The other Carnival experiences on Saturday involved a lot of people watching. There were so many costumes. As the day wore on, the crowds grew. Most of the big bars and breweries in the city were also jam-packed, so I didn’t get the classic brewery experience, but I will survive. It somehow never felt overwhelming, though, and while people were clearly very inebriated, it never actually was too bad. Then again, I was back at my hotel by like 10 pm when the night was still young, so I’m sure I missed the height of the celebrations.

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The other big Carnival event I tried to hit on Saturday was the big Ghost Parade, which is part of the Alternative Carnival. The event takes place closer to the university and involves a lot of people dressed up as ghosts and with lights and march in a parade. It was more participatory than I anticipated and I was cold from the rain by then (and a little hungry), so I wandered around a little before heading back to the main part of town.

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While the big parade of Carnival takes place on the Monday, Sunday is also filled with a number of parades through the city center. Leading up to the big parades, there were people gathered in all parts of the city playing drums and/or making music.

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I didn’t experience the height of the Sunday parade until I was getting ready to leave Cologne. After returning from a trip to the sculpture museum and the zoo, I got off at the train station and started heading to my hotel to pick up my bag. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a panic because the parade route completely looped around my hotel. In Alea panic brain, I briefly considered whether I actually needed the contents of my bag. This was followed by a moment of clarity where I realized from navigating the intense crowds of the Chinese New Year Parade during the SF Treasure Hunt for several years that there’s always a way around the parade route. Well, in this case, it was under the parade route through the subway tunnels.

With my bag in hand, I had some time to sit and enjoy the parade before I had to catch the train.

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Carnival is the type of experience that is better enjoyed with at least one other travel companion. Nevertheless, it was still a fun weekend, if anything to take in the atmosphere and crowds. There was some great people watching and even better costumes. Being in Cologne during the Carnival weekend added a colorful and vibrant element to the weekend that I’m glad I got to experience. I only wish I knew about the costume element a little sooner.

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More on Cologne itself in my next post.