Do you have your copy of A Travel for Taste: Germany? It’s my collection of cultural stories and recipes from Germany, with an emphasis on traditional Bavarian cuisine. Even if you don’t cook, the stories are fascinating. Makes a great gift!
This post was originally published on July 22, 2012, and updated on June 23, 2020.
Last weekend I hopped another train for the 50-minute ride to nearby Coburg. I’d never been to Coburg before, but I knew it was famous for being a well-preserved medieval city.
However, the reason for my visit this time was not for sightseeing, but rather to check out the weird concept of a samba festival in Germany! In fact, Coburg hosts the largest samba festival outside of Brazil each year.
Now, I don’t know much about samba, really, except that it originated in Brazil. Think Rio at Carnival, with pulsing drum beats and feathery pageantry. I had seen a samba band here in Bamberg back in May and was enthralled, especially because the music I mostly hear around here is Blasmusick, or the oompah band. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a samba band, which tells you how much I know about samba.
But back to Coburg. The reason I went to the festival on Sunday instead of Saturday was on the advice of one of my students who lives there. He told me there was a big parade with all of the bands that day. So here I was.
I got off the train and had no idea really where I was going, but I knew Coburg wasn’t very big and I’d seen a map that told me the main festival areas weren’t far away. So I did what I always do: I followed the crowd.
Unlike America, where the samba festival signs and merch would start in the train station, Coburg confined its decorations to the festival platz proper. So, along the way I saw quiet, unadorned Coburg, if I could use that adjective.
The first evidence I saw of the samba festival was on this tower once I reached the town center, about a 15-minute walk from the station:
Then, a little ways farther, was a park where there was a samba band playing and people were enjoying beer and bratwurst under the trees:
This band was more or less typical of the samba bands, if you can use the word “typical”, i.e., three or four rows of drummers and people playing other percussion instruments with a highly energetic leader up front orchestrating the tempo. You’ll see many more of these later.
The nearby festival platz was fenced off, so I got my wristband in exchange for a cool ten Euros and ventured in. It had started to rain and nothing official had started yet, so there weren’t really many people there.
However, dozens of tents were set up selling not only food and drink but also clothes and tchatchkes from all over the world. Brazil was represented, of course, but also Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and other Central and South American countries.
I used the opportunity to buy a lovely cotton skirt made in India and a handmade wind-spinner mobile for my friend’s birthday present made in Tibet.
Fully one-third of the population of the festival grounds consisted of samba band members on their way to somewhere. Therefore, I got to see some of the outfits close up. For example:
I dig the giant corn cob! They were selling, um, corn – well, tortillas or tamales.
There was also a giant stage where they had been having concerts since Friday when the fest began. Later, of course, more were scheduled.
As I wandered through the tents and perused all the cool items, I happened to glance up and was astonished to see the Ehrenburg Palace! I knew the festival grounds were situated in front of the castle, but I was surprised to see such a huge structure looming behind the activities.
Here’s another shot of the fest platz to the left of the castle – you can see more tents and umbrellas on top of the castle walls in the background. In addition, there was another main festival location in the old town center on the market square.
My next taste of samba music was this group strolling by, I guess on their way to the parade point of origin. I’m telling you, if you haven’t experienced one of these groups close up, you just gotta make it a priority! It’s the most fun ever!
With my appetite for the music whetted, I made my way to the parade route and lucked into a spot next to the street where I could get some good shots. I was also very lucky in that the man standing next to me must have been the most enthusiastic samba fan in the world! He was about 70 years old and danced and chanted the whole time. Not only was his enthusiasm contagious, but the people in the parade interacted with him a lot, so they were looking in my direction for the photos I wanted!
Presently I began to hear drum beats in the near distance. Finally, the procession made its way around the corner down the street and came toward us. With a thumping, exciting accompaniment from a samba band just behind her, this young beauty led the parade:
She was accompanied by this girl – can you imagine dancing down the street for at least two hours in those shoes???
Sexy men were also represented:
These guys were part of a capoeira group. Capoeira is a form of martial art that originated among slaves in Brazil. If you’ve never seen it, click here for a good YouTube video of it. The video also shows what the samba bands sound like. This sport is so full of energy and looks really fun! And, yes, they DO all look like that! I knew a young Czech man when I taught in the Czech Republic who was into capoeira. He was a fellow teacher at my school. And, yeah, he was about that good-looking, too!
So, here are more shots from the parade. I wish I could convey the sounds and rhythmic movements to you. It was just incredible!
This was one of only two bands that had brass instruments in addition to the percussion.
Of course some bands were better than others. For example, this one just had that extra oomph! and gave a little show on their way by:
I love the beaded headdress that hides the face:
This band was really small, but they broke it down into a jam session right in front of me:
I saw this group again later on the way home. Their drums took up the whole end of the train!
This guy garnered lots of attention because of his dreads. He seemed to enjoy it!
I sensed more than heard a small commotion behind me on the sidewalk at one point. I turned to see a man vending pretzels. It reminded me I was in Germany, a fact which I’d almost forgotten!
This kid couldn’t help himself!
Perhaps the proudest member of the parade:
Perhaps the most authentic-looking members:
Bamberg’s home team representin’:
Near the end of this procession was this samba band composed mainly of rather somber Asian teens.
All in all, I think there were between 30 and 40 bands, and each one had a different sound. No wonder Paul Simon borrowed from them for his Rhythm of the Saints album back in the day. It’s such a fun, wonderful experience!
After the parade, I wandered around town for a little while, not least because I didn’t know exactly how to get back to the train station. I happened upon the market square, which was the other main venue for the festival. There were more tents, more concessions, another stage and more music.
All that drumming and standing on my feet for a few hours had taken its toll, so I rather reluctantly turned my steps toward the train station. Again, I was a little lost, but I wandered around until I started to see familiar landmarks.
Eventually I found the statin and became one of what seemed to be a thousand people waiting on my train. On the ride home I sat next to a very old man who I thought was texting on his cell phone. It turned out that he was reviewing videos he’d made of the parade that day.
He told me he’d been coming to the samba fest for 20 years. Interestingly, the videos were mostly of the scantily-clad women. And he complained that there were too many drums this year and that he wouldn’t be back. I’ll wager he says that every year!
At some point in the future, I will return to this city for sightseeing and a closer look at Coburg’s long history. But for this excursion, it was all about the beat!
Photo for No Apparent Reason: