If you happen to arrive at a train station in Germany the week before Lent, you might be startled to see a clown strolling by arm-in-arm with a giant lady bug. Or you may see a serious-looking teenage boy purchasing a ticket, seemingly unaware of the bouquet of flowers perched on his head. Walking outside, you might see a man take off his mask to sip his coffee while another lowers his fake beard to chug a beer that he carries on a specially designed scarf that keeps it dangling like a giant pendant around his neck.
Carnival is enjoyed throughout Germany not just by Christians who associate the event with a total letting-go before the period of Lent but with many non-religious, fun-loving people as well. And that’s fitting since Carnival has its roots in Pagan times, when it was celebrated to drive out the evil spirits of winter and usher in a fruitful spring. Although there are theories, no one seems to know precisely why the number 11 is associated with Carnival, but the season kicks off at precisely 11:11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month and develops to a crescendo in the week and days before Lent.
Depending on where you are, you’ll hear people greeting each other with unusual funny greetings such as Alaaf, Ho Narro or Haloa! These greetings, specifically reserved for carnival, are sometimes accompanied by butchen or carnival kisses. The many greetings or words to describe Carnival and the name that describes Carnival itself—Karneval, Carnival, Fastnacht, Fashing—attest to the different way each town celebrates the funny fifth season in Germany.
In Cologne, or Koln—where eau de Cologne was born and can still be purchased in many forms—they say Alaaf. In Constance, they say Ho Narro! In Villingen, you’ll hear Narri, Narro! In Mainz, it’s Helau! However it’s said, what all of the carnival celebrations have in common is that young and old come together in costume to feast, drink, dance and march at non-stop parties, community gatherings, concerts, balls and parades. Thousands of people rejoice together in an environment of fun, music and laughter. For those visiting Germany for the first time, some choice Carnival destinations would be Villingen, Constance and Cologne—all worthy of a visit any time of year.
Villingen, the better half of the twin cities of Villingen-Schwenningen is an old walled city, much like Lucca in Italy. The people are friendly and the art and architecture are spectacular. The cobble-stoned town, located in the Black Forest, is famous for its clock museum. For tourists looking for a charming and lovely small town experience in Germany, Villingen is the ideal destination.
Constance is large for a university town, and it features many shops, a beautiful harbor and a huge array of museums. It’s a beautiful city for strolling and boating. Be sure to pick up a walking tour map at the Tourist Information office at Bahnhofplatz 13. As in Villingen-Schwenningen, many carnival goers belong to guilds. Guild members wear identical costumes with elaborately carved masks, and these must be registered before they’re allowed to wear them in the parade. Before and after the parades, they walk in a group around town, behaving exactly the same. The Steigenberger Inselhotel is a five-star hotel situated right on the bank of scenic Lake Constance. Whether you stay there or not, a visit is highly recommended.
Cologne is a city of 1 million—the fourth largest in Germany. Elaborate shopping malls, dance clubs and museums share the spotlight with 12 splendid Romanesque cathedrals. Taxis abound, but an excellent, apparently safe and reliable metro whisks people around day and night. An enormous spire defines the bustling city’s skyline and is attached to the giant cathedral that is a highlight to many visitors— and not just because it is said to house the remains of the Three Magi. Cologne is an exciting choice for city-loving carnival goers and is considered the carnival capital of Germany. Each year, millions of tourists flock to Cologne to join in the massive carnival celebrations.
Whether your taste is small town hospitality or big city excitement, you should enjoy a few days of wholesome raucous fun along the Rhein in Germany. Skoal!
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Sheree Bykofsky is the author of The Best Places to Kiss in and Around NYC and the 52 Most Romantic Dates in and Around NYC
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