Sometimes the insularity of us Brits gets to me. How can I have grown up a short hop across the Channel from (arguably) Europe’s biggest annual party without ever having heard of it? Bigger than Glastonbury, madder than Octoberfest, in a different league from the Notting Hill Carnival, I am of course talking about Karneval on the Rhine. Had I not had the fortune of befriending various Germans, I would have no doubt continued in my ignorance and missed out on this awesome manifestation of human eccentricity. Fortunately for me, my friends Thilo and Kat live in Düsseldorf and invited us to Karneval 2015.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?
There is a long and grand tradition of Karneval amongst the cities on the Rhine, principally in Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz which today house mass celebrations. It is the “fifth” season of craziness. Officially starting in November each year, but coming to life on the six days which lead up to Ash Wednesday and Karneval’s close.
While Cologne is the biggest and oldest (over a million people turn up on Rose Monday alone), Karneval is huge in Düsseldorf, attracting hundreds of thousands of people, national coverage, and tonnes of what you may think as uncharacteristically German odd-ballness. From the opening by the “official” jester, via women ceremonially storming city hall and cutting off men's ties, to Tuntenlauf, rather oddly described as the “Homosexual Race” (meant in a positive liberal sense), a conglomeration of strange traditions and party mix together to cause havoc.
Having bailed on Karneval 2010 at the last minute due to illness (we were literally on the way to the airport), I was desperate to make amends and grabbed the offer with both hands, booking flights to Dusseldorf for Chris and our three small ones, Niko, Alexi and Aria.
One of the more major sub-events of Karneval in Düsseldorf is the Jugendumzug (the Youth Procession), where thousands of children parade through the centre of the city. This was to be our introduction to all the silliness.
The kids slipped into their fancy dress costumes (two dragons, a hippo and a princess) and, guided by Thilo and his daughter Marie (the princess), we headed into the crowds to witness the parade first-hand.
It was brilliant. Thousands lined the streets of the parade route, cheering troop after troop of kids. Each troop had a zany theme, competing to be the most ridiculous. We were passed by bees, clowns, octopi, cowboys, aliens and a number of unidentified species. Bands played and everyone smiled.
The kids were enthralled. At the start they stared, riveted but bemused by the strange passers-by. This soon turned into cautious participation and then frantic, head-long mixing it up. The catalyst, of course, were sweets.
As each troop passed, they ceremonially threw sweets to the side of the road and into the crowd. A small one here, a couple of small ones there, a whole bag further along. With each throw, local kids would jump into the road to collect the sweet manufactured nectar. Our kids soon realised proactiveness was necessary to beat the crowds, standing on edge, ready to pounce and push their way to any stray candy. Chaos, only increased by the sugar intake. We tried to collect as many as possible into our bags – as opposed to their mouths – but with only limited success. They loved it!
When the kids had completely over-cooked, we made our way across to the Altstadt and the beautiful brewery street by the Rhine. This was thronging with revellers swilling down the local altbier (a dark, but surprisingly light, brown beer served in small glasses). Fancy dress everywhere and the slight hint of on-coming carnage in the air.
We joined in, had a couple of beers and then, with the kids literally asleep on our shoulders, crashed out for the day.
The BIG event. A REALLY BIG event. An estimated 800,000 people squeezed along the parade route in 2015 to watch the 5km long procession of floats wheel by.
Somehow, thanks to cunningness of Thilo, we managed to find a relatively easy route street side (via a railway track!). By the time the parade started, the crowds were a dozen deep, nearly everyone dressed up in zany attire. We were likewise, the kids this time being accompanied by a pirate (Thilo), Pooh Bear (Chris) and Batman (me).
With the exception of one angry drunk man who took candy from children (confrontation was only narrowly averted), the crowd were in a happy, positive, party mood. It was a wonderful atmosphere.
To my surprise, the floats were fantastic. Sarcastic, funny, political and rude. Political sensitivity went out the window as ridicule rained down on may a target - the papacy, the EU, fundamentalist Islam. Here are some of my favourites.
It went on and on. A great example of competition pushing on people to do ever more creative things.
As with the Jugendumzug, candy rained down and the kids, who like us were loving the whole thing, steadily moved into a state of hyper-happiness followed, predictably, by the odd tear.
ROSE MONDAY NIGHT
The kids safely and deeply asleep after their day’s excitement, Thilo and I ventured back into town to join the evening’s entertainment. We arrived reasonably late to a scene of drunken carnage. The streets were packed, people in often risqué costumes pouring out of every bar. An 'anything goes' atmosphere. It was brilliant.
Needless to say we tried out a few bars. While I particularly enjoyed a student rock bar, the brauhaus scared me. Nowadays I do not find much intimidating, but pissed, loud, promiscuous, middle-aged German women are an exception, and the brauhaus seemed to specialise in such clientele.
Karneval is known as the night when relationships start and end, and I could see why. People were all over each other and having a great time.
The remnants of the night’s carnage literally littered the streets. On our walk back to the metro, we passed through steets ankle-deep in paper cups, rubbish and the odd worse-for-wear party goer.
HELAU TO KARNEVAL
Karneval exceeded my expectations. On my travels through Germany, I have been continually surprised by how a country so famous for being conservative and efficient has bursts of left-field craziness and counter-culture that puts other countries to shame. Perhaps it is the everyday conformity which gives birth to and allows that otherness to flourish.
Needless to say, by the time we arrived back into town the next morning, all signs of carnage had been efficiently cleaned away and, bar some obvious killer hangovers, things were back to normal.
I would like to say a special thank you to Kat, Thilo, Nora and Marie who put us up so magnificently. To all those celebrating Rose Monday 2016 tomorrow - “Helau Düsseldorf”!