Boringly efficient, straight-laced and humourless – that’s Germany, right? Wrong. James Goffin found Düsseldorf in carnvial mood and ready to party.
Trips can be memorable for different things.
Sometimes it’s the people you are with, sometimes the things you see and do. If you head to the German town of Düsseldorf during carnival season what’s most memorable are the phrases you never thought you would hear – surreal snatches of conversation. Because if you enter properly into the carnival spirit they’ll probably be the only thing you remember through the constantly-lubricated celebrations that take over the city.
There’s much more to the city than carnival – it has a rich architectural heritage and some stunning modern buildings, a thriving artistic community and great luxury shopping – but for a few days each year there is only one thing that matters, and anything goes. And that’s carnival.
“Is he dressed as an apple?”
The whole escapade actually begins on November 11 at 11.11am when the Hoppeditz – who we would recognise as a jester – awakes, kicking off the party season. A few months later on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, events begin to build to their crescendo when the old women of Düsseldorf storm city hall and take the lord mayor hostage, taking over control of the city and kicking off one of the first of many street carnivals. (They also have a habit of cutting men’s ties – try not to think of the symbolism.)
Cue my arrival on the Friday night, just as things were hotting up. After a short taxi ride to the city centre – think Norwich airport to the city, rather than Heathrow to London – we were in a hotel bustling with people in costumes ranging from military uniform to pieces of fruit. There isn’t really a theme to carnival, other than to enjoy yourselves and, apparently, to get all your sinning out of the way before Lent.
There are more than 300 carnival events and costume balls in this period, and in the final weekend the old town is branded the longest bar in the world thanks to the sheer number of revellers filling the streets. We retired reasonably early after a late flight… the city kept going.
“What’s the German for cobblestone?”
The Saturday morning of carnival is quieter – not least because most people are still in bed – and is a great time to explore the more shy and retiring parts of Düsseldorf.
The city’s history goes back to the eighth century, but modern-day Düsseldorf sprang up in the 14th century. It has a charmingly compact and very walkable centre, that includes narrow streets and squares with many older buildings well-preserved and sensitively renovated for modern use.
The Konigsallee – or King’s Street – is perhaps one of the most impressive roads, comprising wide tree-lined boulevards around a central canal and lined with dozens of upmarket shops. It is known throughout Germany for its shopping pedigree, and is topped off with a large park for when the capitalism gets a bit too much.
Other escapes include the city’s many museums and art galleries. Perhaps the most unusual is the KIT on the banks of the Rhine. A subterranean gallery, this strange and captivating space was left over from construction works on road tunnels and converted in to a highly unusual exhibition space that rapidly tapers out in height at one end and bows out in to a gigantic curve at the other. It hosts regularly changing exhibitions that mix modern art from across Europe with the work of Düsseldorf’s own artists.
Also nearby is the quirky Apollo Theatre, hiding under a bridge and offering modern vaudeville and circus-style shows – perfect for a night out without language barriers.
The city has a prominent Japanese population. That influence was felt in our hotel, the Hotel Nikko, which was originally founded by a Japanese company and still features a top-notch traditional Japanese restaurant. It is also evident in the surrounding shops, and in the calm environs of Düsseldorf’s Japanese garden – created by the local Japanese community in the northern park to reflect the links between the two countries.
“Well, it’s a story…”
Our visit to the old town was led by Renate, a local tour guide who was certainly enjoying carnival and determined to fill us in on some of the city’s strangest folk stories.
Take for one the legendary Schneider Wibble. A tailor working under French occupation, Wibble decided he’d had enough of Napoleon’s ways and said as much – prompting his quick arrest. Suddenly he realised that being in prison might not be good for his wife or his business and so persuaded a friend to take his place (the French apparently didn’t notice). Things got more complicated when the patsy died in custody, prompting local outrage and a virtual state funeral – all watched by the still-very alive Wibble. He eventually came back as his own long-lost brother and (re)married his wife, and is now remembered with statues and animated clocks in the city.
Another tale involved one of the symbols of Düsseldorf – a cartwheeling boy. According to Renate the tradition started when a carriage carrying a noblewoman broke down, the spokes of the wheel splintering. A boy took the place of the spokes to enable the carriage to continue on its journey. The more official version is that children began spontaneously flipping when they learned of Düsseldorf’s victory in the 1288 Battle of Worringen. Either way, it’s a story…
A story that is a little easier to believe is that of Killepitsch – a speciality liqueur made in the area since 1955 and apparently born out of the bombing raids of the second world war. The story goes that two friends were huddled in an air-raid shelter and promised each other that if they survived they would invent a drink to celebrate, and the liqueur – which is made up of 98 herbs, berries and fruits – was born. It certainly packs a punch and is one of the mainstays of carnival.
“Did I just pay to wax a man’s leg?”
Lined with a few shots of Killepitsch ourselves we headed to Saturday’s Tunten Laufe – or drag race – an annual event where the city’s transvestites battle it out for primacy.
There are some things that transcend language and – helped by some traditional locally-brewed altbier – we got on with joining in the carnival songs and double-entendres even though we didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on. But that’s carnival.
Later things got even stranger when hopping between bars in the very busy old town I somehow managed to get involved in waxing a man’s leg in the street. I’ll never be entirely sure what happened, but he seemed to leave happy, if a little less hirsute. Which, I was assured, was perfectly normal.
The next day the festivities continued with a family day where the normally serene Konigsalle is taken over by thousands of people in fancy dress, spending the day drinking, dancing and singing. The streets are stuffed with people, with a fantastically warm and friendly atmosphere, although it would be hard to take offence from someone dressed as a tub of Nivea.
Events round off on the Monday with a giant parade of floats through the streets, drawing in a million spectators who all get in to the spirit too – and then carnival is finished for another year, the streets go back to being spotless and all our sins our forgiven. Hopefully.