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Weekend Wanderlust: 'Fasnet' and foolhardiness in Rottweil

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Weekend Wanderlust: 'Fasnet' and foolhardiness in Rottweil
'Jack With Feathers' welcomes you to Rottweil. Photo: DPA
15:41 CET+01:00
Rottweil’s annual ‘Fasnet’ is equal parts silly, spooky and serious. Few towns celebrate the weird and wacky with the same dedication and attention to detail as this Swabian town.

February and March mark the end of carnival season in Germany. From the beer-fuelled silliness of Cologne’s Karneval to the doughy feasts of Schmotziger Donnerstag (Fat Thursday) throughout Bavarian Swabia, most regions have a unique way of celebrating the time before the beginning of Lent. 

In Rottweil, a village of 25,000 located between Freiburg and Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg, the annual festival period begins in mid-November, with the true celebrations not kicking off until February. 

The carnival is known in the local dialect as 'Fasnet', a Swabian variation of Fasching which translates loosely to ‘fasting’, referencing the pre-Lent fast that gives rise to carnival celebrations across the country. 

SEE ALSO: Fasching: Tracing the roots of southern Germany's 'dark Carnival'

The picturesque town situated on the upper Nektar river is also the oldest in Baden Württemberg. During times of the year when you aren't being followed by fools down the streets, it's an ideal spot for biking or hiking, learning about its Roman ruins at the City Museum, or sitting in a sprawling outdoor patio in the Altstadt.

Rottweil's 'writer in residence' Thomas Perle peers out over the scenic small city in November 2018. Photo: DPA

An unique celebration

During Fastnet, the similarities to Cologne’s famous Karneval - and many of those dotted across the west and south of the country - are minimal..

While Cologne’s carnival seems to be an annual wacky costume competition attended mostly by drunks - think a three-week long version of American Halloween with less candy and more booze - Rottweil’s Fasnet is a strictly regulated event celebrating both superstition and stupidity.  

And the costumes manage to do what no Halloween costume has done ever. They are genuinely and enduringly scary. 

The delicately embroidered coats and jackets - complete with sticks, baskets, bells, armour and other accessories - are held together by an odd wooden mask.

The permanent grimaces which adorn the masks are genuinely terrifying - too terrifying, one might think, to be the centrepiece of a festival popular with children - until you learn that being terrifying is kind of the point. 

So scary that spring comes early

To many outsiders, the carnival seems like a wacky mishmash of traditions celebrated by a culture not known for its silliness. For many insiders, carnival represents a historical signifier of cultural and religious traditions which must be taken very seriously. 

If the masks seem scary, it’s because they are supposed to be. They are designed to frighten the dark spirits of wintertime, allowing for the coming spring and the dawning of new life. 

Bizarrely, the children of Rottweil do not seem at all afraid of the wooden masks and those who lurk behind them. It might be familiarity - or it might be the promise of sweets - but the figures of Fasnet apparently hold no fear for the unperturbed children of Rottweil. 

Hu-Hu-Hu-Hu-Hu (pronounced sillier than you think)

The first thing that you’ll notice once arriving in Rottweil at carnival time - other than the scenery, the wooden masks and the drifting smell of Bratwurst meeting Glühwein - is the greeting, which is like nothing else in Germany. 

Gone is that ‘hallo’, ‘guten Abend’ or a stray ‘Grüß Gott’ that might meet you from March to January; in their place is the Swabian fool’s call, a spontaneous shriek of delight which replaces all other traditional greetings for the duration of the festival. 

Bus and taxi drivers, police and old ladies, they’re all in on the gag. We were woken by our bed and breakfast host early each morning by a high-pitched Swabian fool's call and it was only the smell of coffee and sausages that convinced me we weren’t being burgled by a Tickle Me Elmo. 

SEE ALSO: The calls you'll hear at Carnival - and what they mean

The calls derive from traditional war cries and while in other parts of the region they may have evolved into a more manageable ‘hoo-hoo’ or a slightly sprightlier ‘joo-hoo’, Rottweil has been determined to stick with tradition, no matter how much it scares the tourists or confuses the owls. 

Carnival characters

The costumes of Fasnet seem random, however they’re anything but. Depending on who you talk to there are either seven or nine official characters at Rottweil’s carnival. 

The star of the show is the Federahannes - Jack With Feathers - a cheeky local with a toothy grin and a penchant for stealing hats. You’ll know him by his feathered coat and his wooden stick, which he uses to spring across the pavement and towards unsuspecting children before plying them with candy. 

Another character you’ll certainly encounter is the Gschell. Formerly known as the ’Narr’ (fool or jester), the Gschell is the carnival's most important figure.

The Gschell - Rottweil's friendliest character is not spooky at all. Image: DPA

The Gschell’s expressionless wooden mask is supposed to be friendly and welcoming, but its dark, black eyes certainly didn’t make me feel at home, nor did it’s long, blank, botoxed forehead. 

Before you see the Gschell you’ll definitely hear it; the Gschell carries with it a coat of bells which it rings from morning to night. The Gschell’s bells jostle with the fool's call to provide a continuing soundtrack for the festival.

Other figures are the Schantle (representing a distinguished gent), the Guller (fertility) and Bettelnarr (benevolence). 

No fake costumes

Like Lederhosen in Bavaria during Oktoberfest, it is possible to buy cheap versions of the traditional carnival costumes just for the festival. And much like Lederhosen in Bavaria during Oktoberfest, this is something you should never, ever do. 

In the German tradition of wooden children’s toys and the Flaschenpfand system, cheap, throw-away costumes are not welcome at Fasnet. 

The Jack with Feathers jumps using his cane while the distinguished Schantle - complete with Biedermeier epoche- watches on. Image: DPA

The authentic wooden masks are carefully carved and cost upwards of €1000. The masks are handed down through generations - as are the costumes themselves. 

While it is possible to buy cheaper, throwaway versions in the side streets and in the kiosks, our bed and breakfast host informs me that they’re bad luck. And if you’re spotted wearing one by a member of the RFA, bad luck might be the least of your worries. 

RFA: Rottweil Fools Association

While from an outsider perspective the carnival in Rottweil might seem like a celebration of all things silly, foolish and light, the authorities in charge take carnival celebrations very seriously. 

The Rottweil Fools Association - yes, that’s their real name - run a tight ship on carnival celebrations, keeping tabs on everything from costumes to the movements that the characters are allowed to make.

Their parent organisation is the Vereinigung Schwäbisch-Alemannischer Narrenzünfte - otherwise known as the Association of Swabian Alemannic Fools Guilds - which oversees 68 regional fools associations who ensure that festival season goes according to plan. 

As we said above, they take foolishness very seriously. 

An older local informed me that the reason that children weren’t afraid of the masked fools - other than the promise of candy - was that they are each only allowed to make a carefully choreographed set of movements.

If they stray outside those movements, they too might expect a reprimand from a member of the RFA. 

Another line of defence in the arsenal of the RFA are the local ‘Abstauber’, or ‘dusters’.

Their work starts early in January as they go through the city to dust off all of the decorations ahead of the coming festival.

They’re also in action during peak festival times and will frequently come along to ‘dust off’ your mask and costume to make sure it looks the best.

But be warned, they treat cheap knock-offs as a personal insult, so if you’re wearing a five euro plastic fool’s mask, the real joke is on you - and it might be best to hide your shame. 

Rottweil

While the small town might not be familiar to most outside the region, you might have heard of Rottweil without knowing it. 

The Rottweiler breed of dog originated in Rottweil. Originally bred as the Rottweiler Metzgerhund (Rottweiler butchers’ dog), the strong, obedient dog was used to pull carts of meat to market. As motorised transport put the loyal Rottweilers out of work - another victim of automation - the dogs became popular all over the world as pets. 

Rottweil is also the home of footballer Joshua Kimmich, now one of the first selected in the German national team and a potential future captain. Kimmich started his football career with Rottweil’s VfB Bösingen, before moving on to Bayern Munich via VfB Stuttgart. 

But throughout the region Rottweil is known mainly for the carnival, which fellow Baden-Württembergers regard as both the most traditional and the most frustrating in the region. 

While most of the festivities are over for another year, the first weekend of March will see the final celebration of the year - including a parade on Monday the 4th of March. Check with your local fools' association - or the Rottweil tourism authority - for specifics. 

 
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