Cannon fire followed by a rain of confetti heralded the start of Cologne’s annual Carnival yesterday, when hundreds of thousands of revellers take to the streets and pubs of the ancient German city for five days of boisterous partying.
Festivities this year have been overshadowed by security concerns, prompting police to double the number of officers on patrol to more than 2,000 in an effort to reassure the public after an unprecedented series of robberies and sexual assaults mostly targeting women at New Year.
Police said the attacks were mostly carried out by foreigners, fuelling debate in Germany about the country’s ability to cope with the huge number of migrants that have arrived over the past year.
In the old town, three young women dressed as clowns said they were not deterred by what had happened at New Year. “There is a lot of security and everyone is looking out for each other,” said one of them, Julia Moser.
Special safety points where people can go if they feel threatened have been set up at major squares. Henriette Reker, Cologne’s mayor, has pledged to prevent a repeat of the New Year attacks.
Some revellers said the city felt emptier than in previous years, although the wet weather could have been to blame.
Christa Schneider, a native of Cologne, said the mood seemed more sober than usual. Her group planned to avoid dark alleys and overly large crowds, she said.
The first day of Carnival is traditionally referred to as “Weiberfastnacht” – a day when women symbolically take charge of the city.
Josef Sommer, who heads the city’s tourism agency, said he was confident the additional security measures would prevent a repeat of the New Year assaults and allay fears of Paris-style attacks by extremists.
“Everyone can celebrate Carnival the way they’re used to, with the exception perhaps that people should follow police advice to refrain from wearing costumes that include realistic replica weapons,” Mr Sommer said.
The New Year assaults sparked a nationwide uproar, the removal of Cologne’s police chief and a heated debate about integration at a time when Germany has seen huge numbers of refugees come into the country. Almost 1.1 million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany last year and most of the attackers in Cologne were described as being of Arab or North African origin.
Cologne prosecutors say they have received 1,037 criminal complaints over the New Year events, including 446 allegations of sexual assault, three of them rape.