November 11: How to survive the Karneval kick-off
Do’s and don’ts – for newcomers and experts alike
Cologne natives just know. No matter where they are in the world, from mid-morning on November 11 they start compulsively checking their watches or smartphones until they see four 1s in a row. Some claim it’s genetic. Others quite openly admit that they can hardly wait until that magic moment finally comes around. After all, the period that kicks off at precisely 49 minutes to noon on the eleventh day of November is like no other on the planet.
It’s known by many names – Karneval, the “fifth season” or simply “Session” – yet none of them suffice to describe the period that commences on November 11 with some serious merry-making around Alter Markt. At approximately 9 am the Karneval dignitaries, who will be in the limelight all the way to Ash Wednesday, start to assemble in the old town. Surrounded by tens of thousands of revellers, known as Jecken, they count down the minutes until the official kick-off, all of them clad in lovingly crafted and creative costumes.
Once the clock strikes 11.11 am, all hell breaks loose. Well-known Karneval bands from Cologne and surroundings play well-loved anthems as well as new songs to compete for the honour of “best link-your-arms-and-sway-to-the-music song” and “most rousing party hit”. Meanwhile, Kölsch flows liberally from enormous barrels while the crowd links arms to dance, an activity known as “schunkeln”. Another popular activity is “bützen”, the local term for “kissing” which, during Karneval, is the customary way to acknowledge, respectfully of course, the welcome presence of a fellow human being.
While the happy atmosphere in the streets keeps getting happier, many revellers start to populate many of the city’s bars. And regardless of what day of the week November 11 happens to be, the bars are full to bursting since only a fraction of the working population actually goes to work that day – a fact that is considered entirely normal.
Visitors to the city, too, tend to acclimatise quickly to this rather exceptional situation. However, regardless of whether you are a newcomer or veteran, there is no blueprint for a truly successful Karneval kick-off experience – although there are some ground rules that can help make November 11 a day to remember.
First you should decide what kind of Karneval you want to experience. If you’re happiest in a crowd, head for the epicentre around Alter Markt and neighbouring Heumarkt. This is largely the habitat of more traditionally minded Karnevalists who want a prime view of the Dreigestirn, the holy trinity of the Session – and who will even go so far as to pay for the privilege of a spot in front of the stage.
Zülpicher Strasse, by contrast, is the domain of the younger generations. The area between the Ringe and Bahnhof Süd station has become so popular in recent years that during Karneval, the entire quarter is extended towards Grüngürtel and fenced off to create a veritable party zone. Live bands whip up a frenzy on a stage outside the university dining hall (Uni-Mensa). Here, at a remove from the city centre, you also get to hear slightly less Karneval-heavy music. For greater security and safety, there is a ban on glass bottles in most of this area, known as Kwartier Latäng, with security staff ensuring compliance with this and other rules on good conduct.
For a much more intimate approach to Karneval, head to the bars dotted across the various neighbourhoods to enjoy the atmosphere just as described in the lyrics of local band Bläck Fööss’ evergreen “En unserem Veedel” (In our neighbourhood). Colognians of all ages and backgrounds gather indoors to enjoy Karneval while singing, “schunkeling” and drinking. While queuing is almost inevitable, die-hard Karneval-goers know that this, too, is a positive part of the experience: meeting new people in the queue and exchanging Karneval anecdotes is considered part of the fun. In the case of a well-run pub, the waiters, known as Köbesse, will keep the queue happy by dropping round at regular intervals with their circular Kölsch trays; alternatively, you can bribe your friends inside to take pity on you.
The network of Karneval bars is probably at its densest in the Südstadt around Chlodwigplatz, but the pubs in Eigelstein, Nippes, Agnesviertel, Ehrenfeld and Lindenthal are also well versed in the art of celebrating the essence of Karneval. And with some pubs staying open on November 11 until the wee hours, there’s no real need to start the day’s revelries in the early morning.
As it happens, it makes sense to pace oneself – as the Session opens, many seasoned Karnevalgoers prefer to take it easy. After all, the Karneval season is long and no one wants to run out of steam before the celebrations peak before Ash Wednesday, so it’s a good idea to observe a number of strict rules: do not drink any alcoholic beverages but Kölsch, intersperse that with the occasional glass of water, and – like any endurance athlete – don’t forget solid food. Traditionally, Mettbrötchen (bread rolls topped with raw ground pork and chopped onions) or Flönz (black pudding) work well, but vegetarian options such as Mutzenmandeln (fried pastry scraps) or Krapfen (doughnuts) also do the job.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that 11/11 is really just the harbinger of greater things to come. Traditionally, the fifth season does not start for real until Epiphany on January 6. The exact duration of Karneval depends on the date of Easter, a movable feast: Strassenkarneval (the revelry in the streets) reaches its climax six weeks prior, owing to the religious roots of Karneval. Even though the city appears to go a bit crazy during this period, it’s not a bad idea to exercise a certain measure of restraint. Loss of self-control and disrespectful behaviour are a total no-go for real Jecken – but that goes without saying.