Travel: Dress code: fishnets and half a tie

As Cologne gears up for Carnival, Darius Sanai puts Kolsch, customs and costumes to the test

NEXT WEEKEND, up to half a million partygoers in fancy dress will be rampaging through the streets of a certain Catholic city. On the preceding Thursday, women with scissors will already have cut off the ties of thousands of men in the street. Brazil? Spain? Wrong. Germany.

They say the people in Cologne are the friendliest in Germany. When I was there last week, everyone said it. The ruddy, jolly, ash-mustachioed taxi driver said it as he chatted in a delightful mix of tongues - German, Dutch, English, French.

The woman at reception who showed me to my room, with its view of the spires of the massive cathedral, said it. I replied that she was paid to do so and she looked at me through a fringe of straight blonde hair, wearing an expression of genuine hurt, and said she would never say something she didn't believe. I apologised.

The man walking his dog on the footbridge across the Rhine, his oilskin shiny from the rain, his pipe damp and unlit, his Jack Russell looking at me contentedly, also said it. I had asked him for directions to the beerhall I was visiting, and he told me that once I'd been there five minutes, I'd have made five new friends.

The Paffgen beerhall was vast inside and dimly lit, the air crowded with the sound of 300 people talking and laughing. The ceilings were painted yellow, criss-crossed with old oak beams, and from them hung grand chandeliers filling the place with a parchment-coloured light.

The windows were of stained and engraved glass, and some of the clientele, from lissom young professionals to white-haired grandparents, had taken to the historical theme, dressing up in Napoleonic tunics and revealing 19th-century dresses. A young man with inky hair and skin the colour of hazlenuts was dressed as Mr Darcy. His companion was a young woman with pure blonde hair and skin like cream, wearing a Victorian bodice on top of which she had thrown a Gucci black leather jacket.

It was carnival season in Cologne, and though the brochures say the Lenten festival starts on 11 February, the preparations and rehearsals, mainly involving revelling, had started early.

I sat at the end of a long wooden table where 20 men and women were sitting. As I approached they automatically shuffled along and ushered me to sit.

They had the heads of middle-aged, middle-class businessmen and housewives, greying, bespectacled, permed, bejewelled, but they were wearing white tunics and pinafores that made them look like a collection of senior house servants from the turn of the century. "We're practising for the carnival," said the lady closest to me, sharing with her husband a huge plate of what looked like bangers and mash.

"Heaven and earth," her husband bellowed happily when I asked him what it was. "Here, here," he said, in jagged English, pushing the plate towards me. He just stopped short of offering me his fork and I grabbed a dessert spoon, shovelling a mouthful of the mashed potatoes, deliciously flavoured with apple puree, and another of the dark red sausage, which was spicy and gamey. "Blood sausage," he said, gesturing, which prompted me to take a big swig from my beer glass.

Beer is, in a way, what Paffgen is all about, as it's one of the city's oldest breweries of Kolsch, a specialist beer that, by German law, can be made only in Cologne. As soon as you sit down, a passing waiter lays a tall, thin glass of what looks like lager down in front of you with a thunk. The glass was so small - 20cl, about a third of a pint - that I asked him, in my politest halting German, for two. "Are there two of you?" demanded the stubby young man. "Er, no ..." "Then you get one beer, not two." With that he left. I was told by my table companions that as soon as your glass was empty, another would be slammed down in its place, and that the waiters were as vigilant as they were abrupt.

They were true to their word, and I found myself seamlessly drinking Kolsch and chatting to my carnival-attired neighbours about all manner of matters, with diminishing amounts of lucidity. Hoppy and aromatic, Kolsch looks and tastes like a particularly pure lager, but as I was to be told repeatedly, and proudly, it is in fact an ale, and you can drink it without gas building up in your stomach.

From Paffgen I went on to the Domplatte, the city's central square, an open space in the shadow of the cathedral where I had arranged to meet Granz, an American friend, and his German wife Barbara in Fruh, another Kolsch beerhall. Fruh is one of the few buildings of the old town which survived the bombing of the Second World War - a tall, slightly rickety 18th-century structure that looked delightfully warm and inviting from the outside. Two corridors lined with dark wooden panelling stretched out from the entrance, where I stood with a crowd and waited to be served. Within seconds, a massive, dark-haired waiter with a bushy moustache appeared, swinging a deckl, a metal carrier which held eight diminutive, foaming glasses. He handed me my beer and a beermat which he marked with a pen. This, he told me, was my bill, the marks being totted up at the end of the session by the cashier.

While waiting, I noticed a menu chalked on the blackboard. Along with various food suggestions was the choice of beers: Kolsch, Dm2.40 a glass. On the line below: low-alcohol Kolsch, Dm3.60 a glass. Cologne, a Catholic city surrounded by otherwise Protestant northwest Germany, prides itself on its sense of fun.

I found Granz and Barbara in a side room, with an engraved wooden ceiling and a huge chandelier, originally designated for candles, in the centre. In Fruh, the number of people in fancy dress outnumbered those in normal clothes. Happy and rumbustious, a group of thirtysomethings dressed in clown costumes were drinking on the table next to us, and soon the conversation spread to our table. Granz entertained them in his Brooklyn-accented Deutsch, and a dark-haired Catherine Zeta Jones lookalike lifted the hem of her yellow-and-red clownette costume to reveal black fishnets and suspenders. "Funny, huh," she said to nobody in particular, grinning. "Wanna kiss me?"

This didn't seem like a good idea as her husband, a beefy, brown-haired Coco, was sitting beside her, but Barbara assured me this was normal behaviour during the carnival season. "You have to be ready for all the girls to kiss you," she said.

Their husbands didn't mind because they were being kissed by other girls themselves, though my friends added that sometimes, fuelled by Kolsch, by the festive atmosphere and quite possibly by the fishnet stockings, this led to other developments that tended to cause an increase in the number of domestic rows immediately after Carnival ended in February, and a surge in the number of babies born in November, when hospitals cancel all leave.

"Don't wear a tie," Barbara added, "because the girls will cut it off." Another Carnival tradition but, as long as my tie was the only thing they were going to cut off, it sounded rather sweet.

We finished the evening in Peter's, one of the city's biggest brew-houses whose interior has been faithfully restored in modern-classic style. Groups of colourfully dressed people were standing at long, S-shaped tables beside floor-to-ceiling windows protected by curved wrought-iron railings. Most of the people were slightly curved as well, leaning at a considerable angle because of the late hour.

The brew-houses in town derive from a tradition whereby Kolsch was brewed, often by family-run concerns, at the edge of town and each brewery had an outlet in the city centre. The friendliness is enticing. I was just wandering around, admiring the hi-tech bar (where fresh barrels arrive from the cellar on an electronic lift), when, unsolicited, Joseph, a student out with his girlfriend, explained how the tap fills 10 glasses at once, automatically. "This is where we drink before going out," he said. It was around midnight, and Cologne was just warming up.

FACT FILE

cologne

Getting there

Darius Sanai travelled to Cologne as a guest of Lufthansa and Hyatt Hotels. Lufthansa (tel: 0345 737 747) flies three times a day from London Heathrow to Dusseldorf. Return flights start at pounds 79. The airport at Dusseldorf is 25 minutes from Cologne by taxi or train.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Hyatt Regency Cologne (tel: 0845 758166) cost from pounds 110 per night. Dorint Hotel (00 49 2 2116140) has double rooms for about pounds 60.

Further information

For further details about Cologne and the Carnival, call the German National Tourist Office (tel: 0171-317 0908). The main carnival activities start on 11 February and continue until 16 February, Shrove Tuesday. Women cut off men's ties in the street on Thursday 11 February.

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