This was the only regionally published piece nominated for the GNTB’s annual Travel Writer of the Year award, upon its original publication in the Norwich Evening News circa 2010 (I lost out, but got a fancy pants dinner with the Fleet Street elite out of it)
A three-month fancy dress drink-fest taking place across 260 bars? ROB GARRATT packed his bags and headed to sample Düsseldorf’s dramatic and decadent Rhenish Carnival
An eight-foot-tall stick of Uhu glue is walking towards me, a trio of medieval knights are aggressively clashing swords to my left and I’m sure I just spotted Superman racing in the opposite direction with a skinny blonde on his back.
Elsewhere a troupe of circus clowns grin unnervingly like The Joker, and a giant bee is about to sting a passing elf.
No, this is not a dream or a hallucination; it’s what must be the world’s largest fancy dress party.
For three months of every year the people of Düsseldorf leave their better sense – and taste – at home and take to the streets dressed from a wardrobe to rival the most hardcore fantasy role-playing enthusiast’s… and drink.
The Rhenish Carnival starts in November every year, and culminates in an epic bender on the weekend before Ash Wednesday.
This is, of course, when Airberlin’s press team thought it would be best for me to visit.
From what I could gather, Düsseldorf is normally a modern, attractive, city with a pretty, sleepy Old Town historical centre. This weekend though, every bricked lane and quaint square was bursting with cartoon characters, nurses, superheroes, giant insects, gangsters and every permutation of fancy dress you can think of, and more.
And the whole Technicolour, stage show cast is swinging contently from cans of lager and chanting, a layer of Lycra apparently enough to keep out the sub-zero temperatures and showers of snow.
Düsseldorf ‘s Old Town is known as the ‘longest bar in the world’, and is said to boast 260 different bars, breweries and restaurants within a 1000m square. At festival time the atmosphere is positively electric; street corners host bands and buskers, drinkers line every inch of pavement and any nook and cranny becomes somewhere for a crowd of people-posing-as-kitchen-utensils, or whatever, to cower in.
As if that wasn’t surreal enough, the final Festival Saturday hosts a Tuntenlauf – translated simply as The Gay Race – where a pack of men in drag sprint in front of the Rheine. Anyone who has ever scorned dressing up as the domain of kids birthdays and hen nights should book a flight for next year at once.
People in Dusseldorf are acutely proud of their carnival traditions, which date back more than 150 years, and go to great lengths to spell out their carnival differs from, and betters, the competing Rheinland Carnivals of Cologne and Mainz.
Inevitably, a trip like this attracted the kind of journalists who weren’t scared of a drink, and early on in the evening our German guide noticed this fact and introduced to us to perhaps the most appropriately-named drink I’ve come across, Killepitsch. Native to Düsseldorf, its’ combination of 90 fruits, berries, herbs and spices was apparently crafted by two soldiers on death’s door.
Needless to say the German pronunciation of the liquor sounded very close to an English phrase which would be accurate to describe the affect it had on us all. But while our party lasted well into the early hours, the natives appeared to never stop. The next morning the streets were packed with seemingly the same grinning drinkers, who must have forsaken any sleep, while teenagers offered us their sugary alco-shots from their army-style supplies.
But at least the omnipresent drinkers are well catered for, with the region well known as the best place to enjoy altbier, a top-fermenting ale-like beer, which predates lager but is now served cold. A great place to get it fresh from the barrel, and with more meat than you can eat, is Zum Schiffchen, Düsseldorf’s oldest surviving restaurant and brewery pub which dates back to 1628.
Defiantly though, I made a pledge to see more of Düsseldorf that the bottom of a beer glass, and was pleased to find even without the bizarre thrill of the festival there’s something a little bit, well, different about the city: This is the kind of place where the main indoor shopping centre has a café, Poccino, for singles to meet. The kind of place where there is a grand piano in the airport foyer, with a pianist who takes requests while passengers wait to fly. The kind of place where the museum opens until midnight on a Friday night.
But it’s also the kind of place where the monument constructed to commemorate the city’s foundation, dating back more than a century, features layers of beer bottles at the politician’s feet.
To escape the mania of the Old Town I walked out and along the Rheine, heading towards the modern hub of the Media Harbour. The sense of space by the river was refreshing after the Old Town’s bustle, with fantastic sweeping views over the wide expanse of water.
The views are enhanced by going up 168m in the Rhine Tower 180, a bizarre and striking building which must have looked the height of fashion when it was commissioned in the late seventies. Think of that iconic globe suspended by a spike in Shanghai, and transpose it into concrete.
Originally built as a broadcasting tower, by the time it was finished in 1982 satellites could do the job better. But by now the embarrassment has been shirked off and it hosts a lively café, restaurant, and some positively sublime views through the globe’s walls of glass. The misplaced sense of technological fashion is laid bare again by a bizarre system of flashing coloured lights going up its side, which apparently tell the time. The whole building is a quaint misadventure, and well worth a look.
Düsseldorf is capital of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and home to more than 585,000 people, of which more than 100,000 are foreign nationals, many working for the 5,000 foreign companies who have chosen to invest in the city. More than 3m overnight stays are clocked up in the city’s 250 hotels.
A great place to experience the city is Hotel Melia, just a stone’s throw from the Hofgarten, the city’s central garden, which features a striking sculpture of Schumann looking bleak towards the end of his life.
Culture vultures will be pleased with the city’s 25 different museums, more than 100 galleries and 40 fairs. I took time out to check out the NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft – which despite the dull name is a vibrant hub of art and media. It hosts regular world class exhibitions, and until mid-August it is displaying a thrilling exhibition of works by controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But it is also establishing itself as a general hang out, opening until midnight on Friday’s and hosting a meeting point for English speakers to meet and chat.
It is the Old Town, though, which sold the city to me, and the frantic energy of the carnival just leaves me wondering what it is like for the other nine months a year. I can only wonder what it is like to order a meal in a restaurant without all my fellow customers dancing a techno-flavoured conga line around me.