Cradling mugs of ale and sporting goofy grins, the citizenry of Rottweil in southwestern Germany weave through the streets, planting kisses on one another’s cold cheeks and hooting in a cartoon falsetto, like crazed owls: “Hu-hu-hu! Hu-hu-hu!” I clutch a cup of steamy, sweet glüwein (mulled wine) and join the tradition, hu-hu-ing until I’m hoarse, relieved that, for the moment, my lousy German doesn’t matter.
I’m here for Narrensprung, or Fools’ Jump. In this storybook town at the edge of the Black Forest, Swabian rituals of Carnival have changed little over the centuries—handily holding their own against the commercial spectacles of big cities.
Founded by the Romans in 73 A.D. as a military outpost and trading center, Rottweil’s heritage shows in its tidy prosperity; ruins of temples and baths; and famous export and namesake, the Rottweiler, a sturdy canine descended from herding dogs bred by Roman cattle farmers. As the settlement evolved, so too did the role of Rottweilers, who became draft animals and butchers’ shop companions.
“Ich bin ein Rottweiler” is the bumpersticker of choice. Garlands of yellow and black, the official town colors, are draped across storefronts and lamposts. Lifesize plastic Rottweilers guard doors, plush toy Rotties stare from windows.
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Narrensprung’s pagan roots are augmented by Catholic pre-Lenten fervor. Winter and its cold spirits must be expelled, and so after a formal declaration, the icy cobbled streets fill with celebrants eager to witness a grand procession of narren, or “fools,” in kaleidoscopically colored costumes and hand-carved masks, most of which have been handed down through generations of families.
Each narren does his part: the Benner Rössle prance astride hobbyhorses; the Gschell toss candy and clank their bocce-ball-sized metal bells in a thumping rhythm. The Guller, a lone strutting rooster, represents fertility.
I’m temporarily blinded by a mass of stinky-sweet horsehair dangled across my face. Grunting lecherously, a Federahannes dusts my winter away with a long tufted pole. Just as suddenly, he balances on the pole and vaults above us all, feathered cape flying: a jumping fool.
There are Boxers, Beagles, Labs and Bernese Mountain Dogs among the spectators, but curiously, no Rottweilers. Outside the Konditorei (pastry shop), a clutch of revelers disguised as rabbits and frogs chat with a woman swathed in fox who’s tethered to a giant Standard Poodle.
“Where are the Rottweilers?” I chance asking this stranger.
We discover that we share the name Erika, and are immediately comfortable. Her English makes my German unnecessary, allowing us—encircled by a frenzy of hu-hu-ing—to talk. “Shouldn’t Rottweilers be part of Narrensprung? Can I meet one not made of plastic?” I ask.
Erika pauses, then leans toward me and whispers, “There are puppies.” Soon, I’m a passenger in her car, circling Rottweil’s outer reaches on a quest.
We find the house, festooned in yellow and black and with an etched profile of a Rottweiler on the door. Eminent breeder and trainer Bernhard Schwabe’s place is chockablock with Rottie statues and Carnival regalia, not to mention dogs. Two stately canines snooze by the fireplace; their eight fuzzy offspring, squirming under heat lamps, are already promised to families. One of the Rotties approaches and rests his blocky head in my lap.
Over coffee, Erika translates as Bernhard expounds about the history of Narrensprung, and his beloved dogs. He shows us his Federahannes mask, but seems most proud of a faded photo that captures him parading in a butcher’s costume, flanked by a Rottweiler pulling an antique cart of yellow flowers.
For this moment, issues of breed discrimination, overpopulation and rescue societies are a world away.
Back in town, Benner Rössle prance and crack their whips into the night as the ritual winds down. Masks are lowered and folks retreat to the warmth of the gasthaus (inn). The old magic must have worked, because spring arrived in the Black Forest soon afterward.