The German city that knows how to party all week long
An invite to attend Carnival conjures images of the theatricality of Venice or the extravagance on Rio de Janeiro’s streets.
Yet nestled in the heart of western Germany, Cologne, which straddles the Rhine River, may be ready to claim the title of Carnival’s true king.
Scratch the surface of this commercial hub and you soon discover a place of great liberalism, culture and character, with a Gothic masterpiece in the form of the city’s magnificent cathedral beating at its heart.
And for one week every year, Cologne really knows how to turn it on.
A cultural centrepiece dubbed the “fifth season of the year” by locals, Carnival in Cologne officially starts on 11 November at 11:11am.
However, seven “crazy days” celebrated with parties on the streets, in public squares and pubs falls after Weiberfastnacht, the first day of Lent.
I arrive with my wife in February to experience Carnival Cologne-style and my first glimpse of the city centre is an unmistakable one.
Climbing the escalators from Köln Hauptbahnhof, we emerge to the sight of Cologne Cathedral rising imperiously above the main train station.
Situated in an open square, the building dwarfs everything around it. The sheer scale of the 157m-high twin-spired structure takes the breath away.
The cathedral, originally started in 1248, took more than 600 years to complete and is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting around 20,000 visitors a day.
It is a miracle the building has survived in all its glory.
By the end of the Second World War, 90 per cent of Cologne’s buildings had been destroyed by Allied aerial bombing raids. The cathedral suffered 14 hits, but remained standing in an otherwise flattened city.
We wander next through the Belgian Quarter – a quaint district of pubs and restaurants where all the street names are derived from cities in Belgium.
It is barely 11am, but the Carnival spirit has already taken hold. Closing times for pubs and bars are suspended for the duration of the festival and, despite the early hour, people in fancy dress are spilling out of venues dressed as zombies, superheroes and the traditional red-and-white striped Cologne clowns.
There is even a faux Scotsman wearing an obligatory kilt.
This is where we first hear Carnival’s official catchcry.
“Kölle Alaaf” is a phrase shouted by revellers in the street and at venues across the city. It is the official greeting of Carnival, meaning simply “Cologne above all”. The phrase is said with gusto and a theatrical wave of the hand – and is one that unites strangers in search of a party.
We head for the bustling Früh am Dom brewhouse located on Am Hof. It is here that Cologne quickly turns my assumptions about Germany’s beer culture – of oversized steins of frothy lager – on its head.
We are served skinny 20cl glasses resembling test tubes.
They are filled with Kölsch, a pale and hoppy beer that must be made in Cologne to be granted the title.
It goes down easily and we have managed four rounds in short time before placing a beer mat over our glasses, signalling to the köbes (waiters) we are done.
That evening we have tickets to a masked “sitzung” (session) at Cologne’s exhibition centre Koelnmesse.
A brochure is published each year listing the dates of every Carnival ball and stage show, with dress requirements ranging from elegant to the alternative.
For those who arrive in Cologne at the last minute, masks, costumes and make-up can be readily bought in stores around the city centre.
We have been forewarned and come prepared with face paint, a bowler hat, wig and a skeleton suit to dress as a couple straight from Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition.
We are seated alongside hundreds of guests at trestle tables in a large hall. The entertainment ranges from traditional folk bands to comedy and even cheerleading, washed down with kegs of beer and three varieties of giant pretzel.
The show is capped off by the arrival of the three main characters of Carnival – a tradition that dates back to the 19th century.
The Prince is clad in peacock feathers, the Peasant holds the keys to the city and the Virgin, traditionally played by a man, represents Mother Colonia.
In a sign of the passion Cologne locals feel for Carnival, our host Mario Anastasi tells us those playing the three key roles pay thousands of euros for the privilege.
The festivities continue in earnest until 2am, proving the Germans certainly know how to party.
After a delayed start the next day due to the late night revelries, we head back into the bracing cold at dusk to Köln Triangle Panorama – a 103m-high skyscraper situated on the right bank of the Rhine.
The lift soars up to the 29th floor at dizzying pace from where a glass-walled platform provides superb views of the cathedral, the Rhine itself and the cityscape.
Back at ground level, we walk towards the Hohenzollern bridge. More than 500,000 “love padlocks” hang from the structure’s railings, each one inscribed or decorated by the couple who put it there before throwing the key into the Rhine to symbolise their everlasting love.
That night we have a special invitation to watch Divertissementchen – an annual musical performed by the theatre group from the Cologne men’s choir. About 90 performers take to the stage at Cologne’s opera venue Oper im Staatenhaus.
Their stirring rendition of Die Rache von Melaten features a mash of classical numbers and modern pop songs such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In true classical style, all the roles are played by men. Each night of the five-week run plays to a packed crowd and embraces Carnival’s great sense of theatricality.
But a word of warning – the entire performance is in German, so be sure to brush up on your Deutsch to get the most out of the experience.
The festivities build towards the Rose Monday parade that snakes through the city centre. Upwards of 190 floats, tractors and baggage trucks are used to transport performers along a four-mile route. The parade starts at 10.30am and can take up to five hours to pass any one vantage point. For those with a sweet tooth, a bag is highly recommended to catch the kamelle (sweets) thrown in their multitudes at bystanders.
We are lucky enough to be treated to a luncheon at the offices of Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker before being given a seat in one of the main grandstands.
Among the parade’s highlights is a float led by a giant papier-mâché Theresa May, with the Prime Minister carrying a “Brexit baby’”over one shoulder clutching at the bosom of the European Union. It is a cheeky dig, but one that sums up Carnival’s spirit of fun.
Donald Trump also features, proving we are not the sole butt of Europe’s jokes.
We leave Cologne the following morning, exhausted, but with a newfound love for Germany’s best hidden secret. I am left to shout only “Kölle Alaaf” – until next time.
Cologne Carnival 2020 runs from 20-25 February.
Eurowings offers one flight a day between Edinburgh and Cologne-Bonn, three to five days a week. Fares start from £34.99 one way including 8kg of hand luggage and £55.99 including 23kg of hold luggage, preferred seating and complimentary in-flight drinks and snacks. Visit www.eurowings.com or call +49 221 59 988 222. Radisson Blu Hotel, radissonblu.com/en/hotel-cologne, double room for two with breakfast from £130.
Wyndham Köln, wyndhamkoeln.com/en, double room for two with breakfast from £139.
Leonardo Royal Hotel Köln, leonardo-hotels.com, double room for two with breakfast from £104.