Fastnacht first timer: Behind the scenes of Mainz’ famous carnival

Lyka Sethi, an American writer in Mainz, gives her first surprising impressions of Mainz' carnival, one of the oldest (and rowdiest) in Germany.

Fastnacht first timer: Behind the scenes of Mainz' famous carnival
Untraditional cyclists in Mainz' Rosenmontag parade. Photo: DPA

On the third evening of Fastnacht in Mainz, I mustered up the energy to leave my apartment and head into town. I had spent most of the day recovering from a brutal hangover after a night of debauchery.

Just two nights of celebration in, my voice was already hoarse and I wasn’t sure I could croak out the jovial greeting Helau! ever again.

Still, I dragged myself (and my husband) out in the name of cultural exploration. Passing Schillerplatz, home of the famous Carnival Fountain and the epicenter of the week’s festivities, we saw groups of rowdy young revellers dressed in animal jumpsuits.

The festival’s ubiquitous party culture was frankly getting a little overwhelming, but recalling the centuries of history behind Fastnacht and its label as the region’s “fifth season”, I was determined to experience some real tradition.

SEE ALSO: Inflated pigs bladders vs. jesters: The difference between Fastnacht and Carnival in Germany

A long tradition

Mainzer Fastnacht is one of the oldest and largest Carnival celebrations in Germany, but what truly differentiates it are its political underpinnings, from costumes designed to poke fun at Napoleon’s French soldiers to parade floats infused with political satire. Knowing the current climate of the EU, I was curious to see how this would take shape at Fastnacht 2019.

One of the many political floats in Mainz on Monday, provacatively depicting the abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. Photo: DPA 

Our ears perked at the sound of a nearby marching band and we beelined toward it. Sure enough, a Fastnacht club — its members dressed in the typical red, white, blue and yellow attire — was parading past the Mainz Cathedral.

We followed until we arrived at some kind of gathering. Conversing in broken German and English, we learned it was a celebration of the Mainzer Ranzengarde, the oldest Fastnacht club in town. Members socialized, drank Weinschorle (the Rhineland-Pfalz version of a wine spritzer), and ate cold cuts on bread as children sang and danced. My husband and I turned to each other, satisfied; we’d finally gotten a glimpse of the “real” Mainzer Fastnacht.

Fastnacht first-timer

I’ll be honest — as an American expat and Fastnacht first timer, I went into the holiday rather unprepared. I had heard and read about Fastnacht clubs and exclusive parties, televised events, an influx of visitors from out of town, political satire-infused parades and an enigmatic obsession with the number 11.

A marching band playing in the streets of Mainz on Monday. Photo: DPA

But the week before, I realized I hadn’t made plans or settled on a costume idea. (Luckily, budget costume retailers abound this time of year).

Until our chance encounter with the Ranzengarde, Fastnacht had seemed like an excuse for young people to party in uninspired costumes (see: animal onesies) and for older locals to indulge in a haze of colourful nostalgia. There were festive elements I appreciated, though.

The first day was the women’s carnival, and groups of girlfriends wearing matching witch costumes danced to live Schlager music alongside men with chopped neckties. I chuckled noticing the central statue of Johannes Gutenberg adorned with a fool’s hat; the attention to detail was fittingly on-the-nose.

A women's marching group struts down the street. Photo: Lyka Sethi

Unable to consume alcohol and heavy food all weekend without consequences, on day four I peeled out of bed and went to the gym. After a brief workout I found myself standing along the route of the Parade der Närrischen Garden, the Parade of the Foolish Guards.

Thousands of club members young and old marched, played music, danced and shouted Helau!. My husband and I happened to be standing by a local photographer who, in a blend of English and German, told us about each group that passed.

No one spared: A parade of politics

Our new friend led us back to the town centre to catch the Ausstellung der Motivwagen, a preview of floats that would be featured in the Rosenmontag parade on Fastnacht’s final day. These floats displayed masterfully crafted caricatures of politicians in cheeky vignettes; from Angela Merkel to Queen Elizabeth to Theresa May, no public figure was spared.

I would be remiss not to mention my favourite, which depicted Donald Trump as a bull passing gas onto a globe. It was a tad funny to see people unabashedly wearing politically incorrect costumes against the backdrop of these self-aware, inventive pieces of art.

Trump parading down the streets of Mainz. Photo: DPA

Rosenmontag, renowned as the highlight of Fastnacht, entails a lengthy procession of floats and people through the city. The parade began promptly at 11:11 AM per tradition, despite an unfortunate weather forecast.

SEE ALSO: Storms threaten Carnival celebrations across west Germany

Howling wind, sporadic rainfall and intermittent blue skies matched the day’s excitement. Children lined sidewalks, hoping to catch candy tossed from passing floats. A cacophony of competing sounds filled the air. Traditional Fastnacht floats complete with marching bands and confetti-shooting cannons contrasted those with themes like Star Wars and ABBA.

An intersection of old and new

Strolling home from a friend’s place, I let my mind wander. Bars filled up as people tired of standing out in the cold. Streets were littered with garbage, confetti floating on puddles of rainwater.

Savvy locals maneuvered the crowds, collecting bottles to exchange for cash. I watched as city workers stoically continued keeping things in order — true heroes! A seamstress worked away in her shop despite young party-goers poking fun through the storefront window.

I contemplated the marked absence of immigrant participation in such an outsider-friendly community: was this a matter of exclusion or cultural mismatch?

While I enjoyed the traditions of Fastnacht, ultimately I also appreciated the contemporary aspects, from the costumes and commentary to the intermingling of generations. Witnessing an intersection of old and new is what makes cultural experiences like this meaningful to me. I look forward to attending Fastnacht in a year, five years, maybe even ten, to observe what will change by then — and what won’t.

SEE ALSO: From Cologne to Cottbus: Where to celebrate Carnival in Germany

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Meet the man introducing internationals to German wine

Jérôme Hainz is dedicated to passing on his passion for wine, in the heart of Germany's largest producing region. The Local went on tour with him to discover just how diverse the country's wine landscape is.

Meet the man introducing internationals to German wine
Hainz showing off wines at RheinWeinWelt in Rüdesheim. Photo courtesty of Jérôme Hainz.

Only when living abroad did Mainz-born Jérôme Hainz develop a passion for one of Germany's highlights: wine.

In a Chinese language course in Beijing, he was assigned a presentation on one aspect of German culture.

“Everyone was expecting beer, pretzels and pork knuckles,” said Hainz, who dug deeper and was surprised – and simultaneously fascinated – with the world of German wine.

The Bundesrepublik may be known for its beer, but it’s also the eighth largest wine producer in the world with 13 different growing regions. Each is known for its own distinct wine, whether the Silvaner of Franken or Pinot Noir of Baden.

Map showing Germany's wine regions. Graph courtesy of Wines of Germany.

READ ALSO: 5 things you should really know about wine in Germany

Eager to show more foreigners just how special and diverse Germany’s wine culture is, Hainz founded wine tasting and touring company BottleStops in 2017. 

He guides both private and group tours in English to wineries and tasting rooms, whether well-known Weinstuben (taverns) in Mainz, or scenic gems tucked away in hard-to-reach villages.

“Wines from Germany express a very strong sense of origin, for me that's the basis of my Heimatliebe (love for one’s country)” he said, as our small group drove past hilly vineyards perched alongside the Rhine River in September.

Stretched across 26,800 hectares, the so-called Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine-producing region, and is particularly renowned for its Riesling. It’s here that Hainz guides the bulk of his tours, as well as in the nearby Rheingau and Mosel regions. 

“The valley of the Rhine River creates special conditions,” said Hainz. “You have the river at the bottom, shade of the forest at the top of the mountain, river that reflects light, a slope that collects warm sunlight.”






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Hainz taking a lunch break with a touring group earlier in October.

Germany’s wine capital

Since 2008, the Rheinhessen has belonged to the international network of “Great Wine Capitals”, which also counts the Napa Valley in California and Porto, Portugal among its members. 

But its regal reputation stretches back centuries: In the past, German wine was as well known – and expensive – as Bordeaux or Champagnes, said Hainz. “It’s fascinating to look at old, turn-of the 19th to the 20th century wine menus from the US, for example at the Waldorf Astoria. A lot of them came from Germany.”

It was commonly Jewish traders, many who lived in Mainz before World War II, who helped import it across the Atlantic, said Hainz. 

Wine growing throughout the area dates back hundreds of years, however, as we stopped by the Rheingau’s Kloster Eberbach, a former Cistercian monastery which cultivated vineyards for production as early as the twelfth century. 

“Wine was considered to be a commodity, and people drank it all the time,” said Hainz as we strolled through a dimly lit historic cellar, still stacked with wooden barrels. 

Wine: ‘Like raising children’

We also made some stops which gave insight into modern Mainz, such as FLIK, a Sekt (sparkling wine) manufacturer.






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Flik filling grape must. The juice coming just off the press, just starting its first fermentation.

Germans consume 400 million bottles of sparkling wine per year – about a quarter of the world’s production.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: Six reasons why Mainz is worth visiting this autumn

For Sekt made in the traditional method, the acidity of the base wine is higher than in normal wines, said owner and Winzer (wine maker) Rüdiger Flik, gesturing to a large metallic barrels with which he poured out samples.

Once the wine undergoes two fermentation processes, the sparkling wine needs to be stored for at least nine months.

The lees (or remainder of the yeast) are then removed in a process called disgorgement, in which a very small dose of sweetness may or may not be added – depending on the style that the Sekt manufacturer is intending.

“Many vintners talk about winemaking like raising children. You can only nudge vines in a certain way,” said Hainz as we later scooped up local Spundekäs cheese spread in pretzels at a Weinstuben in the centre of Mainz.

'Großes Gewächs'

We also made our way to St. Anthony’s, a biodynamic winery in Nierstein, Rhineland-Palatinate known for its vineyards being situated on a special 280 million year old red rock formation called the Roter Hang. Each grape, grown on a special red slate soil, is picked by hand, said tasting room manager Bärbel Scheibl.

Touring inside the cellars of St. Anthony's. Photo: Jérôme Hainz

This was followed by a stop at Weingüter Wegeler, which produces wine from vineyards almost directly at its doorstep in Oestrich, a small village along the Rhine. It also has several vintage wines in stock, such as the 1993 Winkel Jesuitengarten. 

As they age, whites typically get darker and reds become lighter, pointed out Hainz as we noted the colour change of the oldest wines. 

All of the wines belong to a so-called Großes Gewächs (or gG as it’s commonly written on bottles), Germany's highest quality wine certification. As we sipped one, so-called Kirchenfenster (literally church windows, or legs) formed on the side.

“Is this an indicator of the quality?”, I asked Hainz, reciting the one piece of knowledge I thought I had picked up from former trips through the vineyard-filled California countryside.

He paused, again surprising me with a fact I did not know. “The ‘Kirchenfenster' just indicate the viscosity of the liquid…but it offers little indication whether this is good or bad,” he said, picking up a glass of Riesling, and slowly swirling it around before taking a sip.

“The quality is defined by what you can smell and taste.”