Any time I’ve heard about celebrating carnival in Germany, the stories are about visits to popular cities such as Braunschweig, where the largest parade in Germany (dating back to as early as 1293) takes place every February.
But there are other celebrations of carnival elsewhere in the country. These parties are part of the Swabian-Alemannic carnival, also known as Fastnacht, based on the word fasen which means to be wild and silly. On a recent visit, I tried to check some of them out.
When I arrived for my own tour, I landed in Frankfurt, a city that felt familiar to me because it reminded me of my hometown of New York City. Frankfurt’s cosmopolitan and energetic vibe made me comfortable. Finding someone who spoke English to help me with directions was easy to do.
Outside of the city, the experience became a bit more intimidating. I struggled to immerse myself into more rural and traditional Germany, where the language is sprinkled with dialects unique to the region (not that it mattered; I don’t speak German anyway), and ancient customs are preserved and practiced with full commitment and passion. Still, the desire to see Germans being silly and wild drove me to seek more.
I told myself it was time to embrace the unknown and embrace a “No Excuses” attitude toward the carnival experience in Southern Germany. And so I headed into the Black Forest for a crazy adventure.
I started in Schramberg, where Fasnet kicks off with a traditional Hanselsprung.
This is another way of describing a city-wide party. Everyone in town, including the mayor and other local officials, gathered as the sound of music fills the air. The masked women, men, and children paraded while jumping and sounding their Geschell (bells), through the city. The spectacle of everyone participating in the music was both an eerie and beautiful sight. I couldn’t really believe my eyes.
After blessing of the pretzel, it’s feasting time
The parade was followed by the pretzel blessing. The pretzel is a significant symbol during lent, and though this isn’t necessarily a religious occasion, many of those traditions are present. About 25,000 pretzels are distributed every year, mostly to those who accurately sing and dance to chants dedicated for the ceremonies.
I couldn’t tell you what the chants meant, but I will say there is nothing more enjoyable than watching adults and children a like delight in what resembled a form of festive trick-or-treating for pretzels! Even I got into the fun, though it took many tries before one of the Hansels felt sorry for me and gave me a pretzel.
The fun continued the next afternoon with the Da Bach na Fahrt, a race during which local men and women sail down the icy-cold Schiltach River in remodeled laundry tubs. Participants usually decorate their tubs to commemorate anything they want, from a favorite movie to a favorite brand. The rules of this contest are simple: Participants must be born and raised in Schramberg. Watching this event was pretty hilarious and surprising because it showed a free-spirited side of German culture I previously never had experienced before.
Viewfinder Tip: There are direct trains into Schramberg and Rottweil, but driving there gives you access to other local areas of historic and cultural significance.
In Rottweil, the 2.5-hour Narrensprung (parade) took place with horseback riders, a town band, fools, and other characters crossing the Black Gate in the city center. For lunch most usually feast on the traditional dish of lentil and pasta, called Linsenessen. Participants also spend a good bit of the day mingling with high-level politicians and locals; most of them greet each other with a funny sound instead of hello. The concept behind the identical greetings is that everyone is equal. It’s all a bit ridiculous, but extremely sweet.
Finding hotels along the way is easy enough to do, though don’t expect to sleep much. The streets are loud during these festivities and the partying goes on all night long. It’s quite a sight to see so many people partying like this, passing on traditions, year after year. When you consider most of the celebrants are family members, you realize it’s pretty special, too.
At at one point on my trip, I was so in awe that my jaw dropped as I watched the laughing, dancing, and spectacle of it all. At that moment, the wife of one of the mayors looked at me and said, “It’s quite out of character for us Germans, I know. But don’t worry. After this week, we will all go back to normal again.”
What is your favorite place to celebrate carnival?