It's Carnival time! I know what you're thinking: we were promised the Rhine, and here we are in Rio! Or maybe it's Notting Hill? Well no, we would have to wait until August for the Notting Hill Carnival, whereas the Brazilian original is on right now. So who got it right? And is South America really the home of Carnival? Not if you live in Cologne or elsewhere along the Northern Rhine Valley its not (see, patience rewarded!) Rio can trace Carnival back to 1723, not quite as impressive as the Rhineland town of Speyer, which has written records of Karneval or Fasching dating back to 1296, whilst Cologne's Carnival of 1825 is considered the first ever worldwide parade. The Portuguese spelling is Carnaval, in Italian Carneval, and if we continue that theme we end up with carne vale, Latin for "farewell to meat". So London, you got it totally wrong, Carnival is the prelude to Lent, the final feast before giving up meat. Datewise, that is certainly so, but etymologists argue over the origin of the term. Let this biologist have a go! It is February on the Rhine, and I can vouch for temperatures being low and pastures bare. Winter has been long and hard, stocks of salt-meat are running low and to survive we have been killing off the occasional bullock or sheep (it is 1296, remember). Along comes a busybody who insists that we keep a few animals alive in the expectation of new growth of grass and the imminent patter of tiny hooves. "When will that be", we ask, "Um, probably a bit more than a month, maybe around 40 days?" "Fine", we say (he does have a point, after all), "but only if we can have a bit of a party first". The deal is done, Carnival is born! The modern Carnival has taken on different meanings, and in the Rhine we can see that political satire is definitely on the menu, and in some cases may be enough to put you off meat completely! "Typical" German food is full of meaty wursts, of course, although we were surprised to find that Frankfurt had none of the pølsevogn that we have come to love in Denmark. When we retire to Scotland we shall take one with us! America's "National Hot Dog and Sausage Council" (yes, there is one!) tells us that Hot Dogs hit Coney Island, USA and Copenhagen at around the turn of the 20th Century, 400 years after they were first on sale in Frankfurt. What about burgers? My favourite Frankfurt burger story has to be the Laughing Cow (die kuh die lacht) burger bar, whose suppliers "treat their animals...with the respect and care that they deserve". I hope so. Do Cows Laugh at Carnival? I tried hard to link cows with carnival, but failed. Perhaps others can help? Laughing Cows are usually associated with cheese rather than meat, but Rhineland does not appear to have any notable native cheeses. The traditional pub-snack Halve Hahn is famously not a half-chicken, but a half-roll with cheese. However, the cheese in question is Gouda, for good reason. Starting around 1100, Dutch bargemen plying their wares to Koblenz on the Rhine were apt to pay their tolls in cheese. The barges are still very much in evidence today, running day and night and often taking the family car along for the ride but only very occasionally (I imagine) the space shuttle! We stayed overnight in Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel intersect. Our hotel was in a very pretty square next to the Rathus (Town Hall). On the hour the collection of bells that adorned the church in the corner of the square chimed melodically. Alas!, closer inspection revealed that the bells were motionless and silent, the chimes were electronic! We also visited Bacharach, and can confirm that it is, indeed, one of the most beautiful small towns on the Rhine. Walking amongst the vines we were struck by two things; the incredible steepness of the slopes where the vines were growing (certainly there would be no mechanical cultivation here) and the amazing quietness of the place in February. We were a week too early! Rhine Karneval reaches its climax on Rosenmontag (Ash Monday, February 16th this year) and, whilst it might not be on quite the same scale as Rio, it is certainly frenetic enough to drown the noise of church bells and laughing cows!