Let the Nubbel Take the Blame

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was highly commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

Sitting opposite me is a chicken, legs wide apart, head lolling. Next to me is a wine bottle, drinking shots with a zombie. Two clowns sway by the tram doors, discussing where to get the best vegan breakfast. It’s Karneval week in Cologne, of course.

I am in the city as a tourist, visiting friends who grew up here with the yearly misbehaviour of Karneval. My travel here has been carefully organised, decision after decision, tickets and taxis and pirate moustaches – and now I am ready to let the carnival atmosphere take over. 

Cologne’s festivities had begun in earnest three days earlier, continuing a tradition going back at least two millennia. The bacchanal predates the Christian calendar, fitting neatly before the more modern abstention of Lent, and has evolved into six days of festivals, balls and parades: the city’s “fifth season”, which now attracts a million people a year. After the dark of deepest winter, and before the renewal of spring, February is the time to clear out the cupboards and exorcise the demons – possibly while dressed as one. 

Dangling outside corner pubs in the city centre, stuffed straw guys take the blame for anything that happens during the Jecke Zeit, the “crazy days” of Karneval. These effigies, the Nubbel, will be publicly burned as scapegoats on Shrove Tuesday, taking the sins, slips and lingering aftertaste of debauchery with them. For now, they swing in the cold winds, leering at the revellers, holding out their promise of absolution.

Beyond the city limits, in the neat Rhineland villages that surround Cologne, the weekend’s parades draw local crowds who shout for Kamelle, and catch the handfuls of sweets and treats thrown from the floats in reply. Dressed in my pirate gear, I filled my pockets, caught up in the abundance. Children are the main audience here but as the light dwindled they left for the safety of home, and we headed for the city centre, joining the trains, trams and buses packed out with an audiovisual riot of costumes and chorusing.

Last week had been normal, regulated life for Kölners: work and chores and closely observed recycling schedules. Now it is the time for Party. And the best place for Party, they say, is at the massive Früh beerhall in the Altstadt’s main square, opposite the twin-spired medieval cathedral that wears scaffolding rather than carnival garlands. However, the best place for Party is popular, and we have to wait our turn.

Outside the Früh’s closed doors, watched over by the dark mass of the cathedral, who has seen and heard it all, the waiting crowd pulses and ripples, slipping on the slick paving stones. Flakes of snow are falling, melting on our outstretched tongues and bravely bared shoulders. Dinky bottles of Kuemmerling herbal liqueur clink in pockets, are shared out by a lively devil and a ballet dancer, and we drain them in a single draught with shouts of Kölle alaaf! Cologne above all, and most definitely above rival celebrations in nearby Düsseldorf. Periodically, the tall doors of the Früh open. Out pour light and music; in pour the lucky ones at the front of the throng: we are among them.

Within the many-floored Früh, a waitress pivots through the groups, her arms aloft, each gripping a wreath-like circular Krantz tray holding several frothing glasses of the drink this place is famous for: its cold and fizzingly fresh Kölsch beer. The waitress pauses; distributes; retrieves the empties, and whirls away. Around and above her the music rises, falls: familiar Euro party hits – Come on Barbie, let’s go party! – take turns with local classics – Wir lieben das Leben, die Liebe und die Lust … Viva Colonia!

For these Karneval anthems, we link arms in mandatory dances that bring us closer, old and young, Kölners and tourists, in a rhythmic kindling of warmth against the dark outside. In we go and out we go, arms raised, hearts pumping, cheeks flushed. I feel the relief of all those choices I made to travel, to leave my own cold city for this festive one, to open myself up to the world, to step outside what I know too well.

Snug in shadowy booths and out under the bright lights it’s happening: the spirit of Karneval is making itself known. I can see a sailor in a clinch with a Viking, and a sexy cat entwined with Angela Merkel. Beside me, the twinkly-eyed devil offers me a glass of beer. And perhaps the chance of something more.

Relationships that begin here, in these crazy days, are called Karnevalflirt, no matter if they last for hours or years.

Should we take the risk, and let the Nubbel take the blame?

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.