I left Saarbrücken for Karneval in Köln on Sunday around 10:00, with the intention of returning Monday night. The train took me through a connection in Koblenz to Köln. The festivities had already started for a few guys in banana costumes, who were drinking and blasting Karneval music on the train. Köln is the center for the Karneval in Germany, kind of like New Orleans is the center for the similar holiday, Mardi Gras, in the US. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, or Karneval or anything like it before, and I am not a big drinker, but I wanted to experience a bit of this unique holiday.
I came in on Sunday and met up with some friends who were already there. We had just enough time to grab a late lunch and explore some of the beautiful sights of the city before dark, when we sat down with a glass of wine each at an outdoor patio restaurant. There was going to be a parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) so my friends were letting me stay at their AirBnB that night so that I could see the whole thing.
The parade was really something. Beer kegs lined the parade route, surrounded by clown-costumed families and friends, singing “Kölle Alaaf!” Bands, floats, cheerleaders, and standard bearers went by, each group dressed in their own colours. Many of the floats had some sort of political commentary, though I didn’t always follow it.
As the floats went by, children in animal costumes asked for sweets by yelling “kamelle.” Those in the parade threw candy and flowers in the general direction of the yelling revelers, and the people on the floats rained literal armfuls of candy down at us. These weren’t always small candy pieces either. Often, they were regular sized chocolate bars, and a couple times I even caught actual boxed candy.
My haul was as big as any Halloween haul I have had in the US as a child, and it included not only countless chocolates, wafers, gummies, suckers, and two boxed candies, but also five flowers (that I received by throwing kisses to the people on the floats), an orange, and a small sausage, of all things. The family next to me had three kids dressed up in matching dinosaur costumes, and their loot consisted of no less than five full cloth bags of candy!
Some four hours after the start of the parade, we decided to duck out for a late lunch. When we were done a couple of hours later, the parade was still going on, and people were getting progressively more drunk. I had to catch my train back to Koblenz and then Saarbrücken (SB) early that evening, so we went back to the apartment, I collected my things, and headed out soon after. It was 19:15 when I left to catch my 19:53 train.
That was when it all went to shit.
Since the rest of this post is depressing, I’ll intersperse it with nicer pictures of the Mosel river that I took on the way home (spoilers, I eventually did make it home), so I can feel less bad about the whole experience.
Because of the holiday, the Stadtbahn (light rail) in Köln was running entirely irregularly. They gave up on posting the times and just announced that the trains were coming as they could. What should have been a 15 minute ride transformed into a 40 minute slog, with the trains stopping two or three times between each stop, presumably due to people on the tracks or who knows what. I really thought I’d miss my train to Koblenz, but I ran and made it.
My train, however, was late too, and I had a connection to catch in Koblenz to SB. Five minutes transformed to 15 and then to 20. My layover in Koblenz was supposed to be only 20 minutes long so I thought I would miss my connection, but it turns out my next train was also late. I would have 4 minutes to change platforms. As the train came to a stop, me and a handful of others booked it underground towards the next platform. Our train was still there. We ran up to it and pressed the door open buttons; the doors didn’t open for us; the train pulled away. These regional trains usually come in, open their doors for about 30 seconds, and then leave, so it was no surprise.
So now I was in Koblenz and had to find a new connection to SB. I went to talk to the Reisezentrum (trip center). The lady there wrote me an ersatz ticket, putting her official stamp on a form that said that I could take the next train, and that I would get compensated for the delay. I would have another layover in the middle, this time of only 4 minutes (not really enough time to transfer trains, as I had just learned from my last attempt).
Still, I went back to the platforms and found my train. When it failed to leave more than 10 minutes after the scheduled time, it became quickly apparent that there was no point in staying on it, so I was already trying to get info from the train conductors in my broken German, and googling for new train times. By now it was around 22:00 and I had essentially missed all the connections to SB in other cities, so I needed to figure out a new plan, or else end up spending the night in a train station.
Me and a handful of others ended up getting off this train too. We all went back downstairs to talk to the Reisezentrum again. The lady I got this time was not very helpful. She tried to get me onto a train to Trier, where I would take a taxi for over and hour to SB. The idea was that Deutsche Bahn would reimburse me for those costs (i.e. I would have to pay for it myself first). The lady didn’t let me talk and clarify how exactly this would work. She just kept talking over me, saying that I should hurry up and catch “my” train to Trier. I declined, and told her I needed a ticket back to Köln, where my friend was still staying the night, thank goodness. She turned my ersatz ticket over, and wrote on it that I could take a train back to Köln, and stamped it.
I went back up to the platforms. The signs on platforms 2 and 3 kept switching info. The train back to Köln was supposed to come in to platform 3, but there was a train at platform 2 now and the sign and voice were saying this was the train to Köln. The train was just standing there. I asked a nearby employee if this was my train, but she didn’t know. She said her colleagues on the train believed it was meant to go elsewhere, but they also didn’t know. No one knew.
Eventually, that train took off to wherever it was going (not Köln I guess). At this point, I was getting pretty agitated. I went back downstairs to look at the boards, I went back upstairs to wait for the trains, I just sort of wandered around pointlessly.
Finally, an intercity (fast) train came into platform 3, but I couldn’t tell any longer if it was my train or not. I asked a nearby Deutsche Bahn (DB) employee, and showed her the paper the Reisezentrum person had written me. The employee asked me if my original ticket was intercity (IC) or regional (RE). I didn’t know how to answer correctly in German, because the first leg of the trip had been on an IC and the second was supposed to be on an RE. Another nearby employee got roped into our conversation, to look at my note. He said it shouldn’t matter, and I should get on the IC train. Unfortunately, by the time he said that, the doors of the IC train were closed, and I was left pressing the button ineffectively (for the second time that night) as the train slowly took off.
There was one more train coming through Koblenz towards Köln that night. One last, late night, ultra slow, regional (RE) train. It was meant to come around 22:30, but was coming 20 minutes late. 20 minutes became 40, but it did finally come around 11:10 or so, and I made it on.
It took 1.5 hours to get back to Köln, because the RE train stopped at every single tiny stop along the way. When I got to Köln, I found the light rail again, and headed back to exactly where I had left from around six hours earlier. Thank the stars my friends still had their AirBnB for one more night, so I had a place to sleep.
I left early the next morning, and went straight back to the Köln Hauptbahnhof (main station). I asked the Reisezentrum there about how I could get home now. They told me the upcoming schedule and assured me that the handwritten note the lady had given me the night before was sufficient to get me home. I got on the next train to Koblenz (again).
In Koblenz, my connection was a double train, where the two halves would split up in Trier, one going to SB and the other to Luxembourg. I asked three different people to make sure I was on the correct part, because I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. The train followed the picturesque Mosel River towards home, but I didn’t really breathe easy until we passed Trier and I knew for sure that I was headed the right way.
One stop before SB, the train got delayed again for another 30 minutes due to some issue on the tracks. When I finally got back to SB, I went to the Reisezentrum there to ask about compensation. It will take Deutsche Bahn two weeks to compensate me for my troubles, and the compensation will be just half the cost of my trip.
Lesson learned: don’t travel on Rosenmontag.