Cologne's carnival: when the city comes to a standstill

Best Discovery

Eastern Germany boasts many splendid historic towns which are little- known and seldom visited. Among these, Tangermunde is particularly intriguing; it's a provincial place with a population of 11,000 which served for a brief period in the 14th century as the joint capital of Germany. It preserves all the main landmarks of its heyday, notably an ornate brickwork Rathaus (Town Hall), and a virtually complete set of walls guarded by giant gateways and towers.

Best Bargain

For DM35 (pounds 12), the Schones-Wochenend-Ticket allows up to five people travelling together to make unlimited use of local and regional trains anywhere within the national network for the duration of a weekend. Even a single traveller can normally recoup the cost of making a return journey from one city to the next; those in search of bargains will find it the cheapest possible way of travelling from Denmark to Austria or Belgium to Poland.

Biggest Surprise

The Germans justifiably have a reputation for being a serious, hard-working and formal people. It's therefore always a surprise to see them switching to a wholly different mode - as they do en masse whenever there's a big festival on. The most extreme example of this is Carnival in Cologne, which is celebrated with a verve worthy of Nice or Cadiz, if not Rio. For several days, normal life in this great media and commercial metropolis comes to a standstill as everyone dons make-up and costume to join in the non-stop fun and revelry.

Favourite Hotel

"Zur Stadt Mainz" in Wurzburg is a Gasthof (inn) with a pedigree stretching back to the 15th century, though there's certainly nothing antiquated about its bedrooms. Like so many of the best German hostelries, it is of modest size and family-run. The restaurant serves a good selection of locally-produced wines (which are hard to obtain outside Germany) and regional dishes (including a couple from its own recipe book of 1850). However, the piece de resistance is the gargantuan breakfast buffet, an assault on which is guaranteed to ward off hunger pangs until well into the afternoon.

Favourite Church

The Dom (Cathedral) in Naumburg is the product of the most innovative masonic workshop of the European Middle Ages. Its exterior is a fine example of the German penchant for aggressively picturesque architectural effects, but it is primarily the sculptural decoration of the interior which makes the building so extraordinary. The serene statues of the founders and the exquisite friezes with botanically accurate depictions of plants, flowers and fruits are all unlike any other carvings of their time, anticipating the far-off Renaissance and Reformation.

Strangest Building

The Junkerhaus in Lemgo, the single-handed creation of a totally eccentric 19th-century architect, painter and sculptor, offers a bizarre variant on the normal concept of a "dream home". A nightmarish fantasy inspired by the elaborate Renaissance mansions characteristic of the town, it makes the sets of the scariest vampire movies look tame by comparison.

Best Meal

Traditional German cuisine - the staple fare of the overwhelming majority of the country's restaurants - employs uncomplicated preparation methods and is relentlessly dominated by pork. It isn't to everyone's taste, yet at its best is delicious. A particular favourite is schweinehaxe, roasted or grilled pork knuckle oozing with fat under a crackly skin. It should be accompanied by mountainous piles of potatoes and cabbage and a mug of beer. This is generally a local brew, as no fewer than 40 per cent of the world's breweries are in Germany.

fact file

Getting around

Tangermunde is the terminus of a short branch railway from Stendal, a major junction on the northern of the two lines between Berlin and Hannover.

The Schones-Wochenend-Ticket is readily available from automatic vending machines as well as ticket offices, but cannot be purchased in advance. Note that it is not valid on express trains (designated as D, IR, IC, EC, ICE).

Lemgo is at the end of a branch rail line from Bielefeld, on the main Cologne to Hannover route.

What to do

Cologne's carnival reaches its climax on Rose Monday (the day before Shrove Tuesday) with a four-hour-long costumed procession. The next takes place on February 15th 1999.

"Zur Stadt Mainz", Semmelstr. 39, Wurzburg (Tel. 0931 53155) charges around DM130 (pounds 44) for a single, DM190 (pounds 65) for a double, breakfast buffet included. Set meals begin at DM32 (pounds 11).

Gordon McLachlan wrote 'The Rough Guide to Germany'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.