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March 1996

Fasching Fever: The who, what, where, why and how of celebrating Germany's "fifth season"

Fasching festivities throughout Germany

In Munich it's Fasching, in Mainz it's Fassenacht, in Düsseldorf it's Karneval and in Cologne it's sometimes called Fasteloovend. Whatever the name, Germany's frivolous "fifth season" precedes Lent and marks a welcome break in the long, hard slog towards spring. Besides, it's a good excuse for a romp in the streets dressed in a silly costume. If Munich seems a little tame for your taste, head north to the biggest parties at Germany's three main Carnival strongholds: Düsseldorf, Mainz and Cologne. Narren (fools) is the term used for those who indulge in Faschingstreiben (festivities). As the Rhinelanders say, "Anyone who is not a fool at Carnival is foolish for the rest of the year." DANCING IN DÜSSELDORF Karneval is celebrated with gusto along the Rhine. Düsseldorf stages some of the most spectacular balls and boasts one of the longest traditions, with its first Carnival Prince elected as early as 1825. Make sure you arrive in time to see the local character of Hoppeditz, a rather eloquent jester, hopping out of his "grave" in the market square and spouting witticisms about the past year's events in rhyming couplets. He is then greeted by the mayor, marking the start of Karneval in Düsseldorf. On Ash Wednesday an effigy of Hoppeditz is burned by Fasching jesters mourning the end of Karneval. Another celebration unique to Düsseldorf is the storming of the Rathaus, punctually at 11:11 (11 being the number traditionally associated with fools) by the city's women on Altweiberfastnacht, February 15. On this day, they snip off men's ties in a symbolic act of female defiance. A dazzling array of over 300 balls ranges from local club bashes to glittering high society events that reach a climax on February 17 with the lavish Fe-de-Fe costume ball (short for das Fest der Feste). The Gala Ball on the same night is, however, the event to attend. Two great rival balls on February 17 are the Heisse Hexennacht (Hot Witches' Night) and der Böse-Buben-Ball (the Naughty Boys' Ball), which offers DM 1,000 for the most outrageous costume. The highlight of Düsseldorf's Karneval is undoubtedly the spectacular five-hour parade or Rosenmontagszug on February 19, where you'll see costumed marching bands and colorfully decorated floats full of bizarrely dressed revellers. Arrive early for a good position in the crowds lining the streets, who shout "Helau!" (the local Carnival greeting) and jostle for the Karnellen (sweets) tossed from the passing floats. MERRIMENT IN MAINZ The local saying "Mainz lebt auf seinen Plätzen" (Mainz lives on its public squares) is certainly true of Karnevaltime. To witness the fanciest of costumes, go to one of the many balls and Prunksitzungen (gala meetings). They all start at 11 minutes past the hour with the arrival of the Elferrat ( the 11-member Carnival commitee). Mainz's Karneval or Fastnacht is particularly famous for its clever political satire, dating back to the first half ofthe last century, when the presence of French, and later Prussian, invaders stimulated the Rhinelanders into finding a safe way of expressing opposition to their foreign rulers. Even today, the Carnival flag is an inverted tricolore and the "Fool's Parliament," which runs the jamboree, parodies the structure of the city's council during the French occupation in 1806. Today's program of Sitzungen and street festivals is still sharply political. Pandemonium breaks out punctually at 11:11 at the Rosenmontagszug when the streets are full of carefully planned, police-controlled, televised anarchy! For stay-at-homes, Fassenacht is broadcast to over a million viewers, in an aptly-named program"Mainz bleibt Mainz, wie es singt und lacht." KÖLSCHE KARNEVAL In Cologne, the most famous Karneval city of all, over 400 celebrations and parties lead up to Ash Wednesday. The first major event is at 11:11 on the Thursday before the final weekend of Lent (this year, February 15). The Mayor of Cologne hands over the keys of the city to a trio of fools: the Prince, the Peasant and the Virgin (a man in drag) and Weiberfastnacht begins. For the rest of the day, Cologne's Weiber (women) take control, "castrating" men's ties as a gesture of emancipation. The afternoon sees the first of the big street parades. Lookout for the Blaue Funken (Blue Sparks) and Rote Funken (Red Sparks), comical military corps in brightly-colored dress uniform who willfully disobey all orders. They were originally introduced to tease the Prussians, who were obsessed with military drills. Weiberfastnacht marks the start of die Drei Tollen Tage (Three Crazy Days). The city is packed, all the shops and museums are closed, and pubs have no official closing times. The streets overflow with "Jecken" (Carnivalfigures) at all hours of the day and night. If you don't dress up, you are mocked as a Karnevalsmuffel (sourpuss). The weekend gets more and more out of control, with Butchen (kisses on strangers' cheeks) givenliberally. The high point is on Rosenmontag with a huge procession of floats: first a pageant of city history, then a jibe at political and social taboos, and finally the Carnival Prince and his retinue, who shower onlookers with over 40 tons of flowers, sweets, small pretzels and miniature bottles of Eau de Cologne while they pour out generous tots of warming schnapps. Karneval in Cologne ends on Shrove Tuesday (February 20) with the Prince handing back the city keys at the final and most prestigious ball of the season. At midnight the brightly-colored straw dolls hanging outside pubs and restaurants throughout the festivities are solemnly cremated. Then on Ash Wednesday (February 21),religious people start Lent with a fish supper. The not-quite-so-religious nurse their hangovers and start to plan next year's Karneval. T O L L E T A G E(Please note that it may be too late to book some of these specials for 1996.) Düsseldorf: Destination Düsseldorf, tel. (0211) 33 22 85, arranges ball tickets and excellent "Tolle Tage" hotel deals starting from DM 55 per person per night. Order tickets in good time for a sneak preview of the floats spectacularly displayed at the Richtfest Wagenbauhalle on February 16: phone the Verkehrsamt at (0211) 17 20 20. Mainz: The Verkehrsamt, tel. (06131) 22 37 41, offers a one-night "Fastnacht Plus" (double room, tickets for a Fastnachtsitzung and procession and a surprise souvenir) from DM 200 or a two-night "Drei Tolle Tage" offer (with tickets to the Fastnachtsamstagsball and the Rosenmontagszug) from DM 376. Cologne: The two-night package at Classica Hotel Europa am Dom (tel. (0221) 205 80) is one of the best deals; the Veedelszog and Rosenmontag parades go right past the hotel. The Verkehrsamt (tel. (0221) 221 33 45) has details of other offers. For balls, Sitzungen or parade tickets, call the Verkaufswagen des Festkomitees am Neumarkt, tel. (0221) 258 04 04, or the Theaterkasse am Neumarkt, tel. (0221) 257 38 42.

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