Köln/Cologne

It was around noon when we got into Köln aka Cologne, and, incredibly enough, it was raining. (The above photo is not underexposed; that is how it looked, at about one in the afternoon.)

The train ride up from Trier was an unexpected joy. I had assumed the route would run along the Moselle valley, but instead it swung up through Bitburg and through the Eifel Mountains, and the scenery was nothing short of magnificent: steep rugged mountainsides, deep narrow valleys, occasional stretches of broad high meadows. Cattle grazed near the tracks, and sheep, the biggest sheep I'd ever seen, damn things like wooly mammoths...and now and then the train stopped at fascinating-looking little towns and it was all we could do not to jump off and go exploring.

I wish I could show some pictures, but I'd never had any luck in the past trying to take photos from moving trains, even with a real camera with a good high-speed shutter; and with this thing, I knew better than to try.

It wasn't raining, either, for most of the trip, and we were fool enough to get our hopes up; but just as we got into Köln the big gray drops started to hit the windows and we sighed and looked at each other and said bad words.

And it wasn't really bad as we left the train station; not a real toad-strangler rain, just a light steady drizzle that wasn't quite enough to justify putting on our cheap plastic ponchos. It was enough, though, to make us go ahead and take a room at the first hotel we tried. This was to prove a mistake, but later for that.

The rain had let up by the time we left the hotel, and we walked down to the riverbank and stood for a little while looking at the Rhine, watching the barges and the occasional sightseeing boat. Then we turned back to go see the cathedral.

Not that we hadn't already seen it. You can't really avoid seeing the cathedral in Köln; it dominates the skyline from a considerable distance. Certainly there's no missing it if you come in on the train, because it is literally next door to the train station. This creates a certain incogruous and ironic effect.

But then there are good enough reasons for the architectural clash. During World War II this city got a very thorough working-over by Allied bombers; not much was left standing - but the cathedral somehow escaped intact. (Religious people are free to postulate miraculous intervention, though it didn't save the city's many other old churches.) Postwar reconstruction apparently was pretty hasty, and without much thought to the overall effect; so you've got this splendid old medieval cathedral surrounded by a lot of butt-ugly or at least boring modern buildings.

But there's no denying it's an impressive building, taken on its own. I don't know that I'd call it beautiful, in the same class with Amiens or Notre Dame, but it's certainly a lot more attractive than that overdecorated monstrosity in Milan. And after all I've only seen it under poor-to-wretched lighting conditions; maybe on a sunny day it doesn't look so grim and forbidding.

The statuary had a kind of goofy style that I liked, anyway. This is the Archangel Michael, a favorite subject in medieval art. You can recognize him because he's slaying a dragon. You can tell him from St. George because St. George doesn't have wings.

It's sure as hell big, anyway. They didn't screw around when they went to build themselves a cathedral. Or Dom. Yes. Another one.

They were doing some work on it. That's pretty much a constant of sightseeing in Europe these days: any important old building you go to see, somebody's doing some work on it. I still say that's what they should have put on the new euro notes: a picture of a crane on one side, and on the other a cathedral obscured by scaffolding.

(Couldn't be much worse than what they did come up with. The euro was a fine idea and certainly did wonders to simplify travel in Europe - particularly since, at least in its first year, it was close enough to the dollar in value to make mental price conversions fast and painless - but the design of the new euro notes can most charitably be described as dumb.)

We walked around a bit, in a rather aimless way. No doubt Köln is a very interesting city, but we didn't know where to look or what to look for; and pretty soon it began to rain again.

But then it was getting on toward dinner time anyway - that was one thing we'd learned about Germany: even if the weather goes to hell, there's always food and it's always wonderful. There was a place I'd seen earlier in the afternoon, that looked promising; I led the way back there (impressing Phyllis no end, that I was able to find it again; impressed myself a little too) and we went inside.

It was a rather small place, not very well lit, with long plain wooden tables and benches, where people sat eating and drinking beer and laughing and talking. The walls were hung with a miscellany of odds and ends, mostly old military-looking headgear. The clientele seemed mostly to consist of very large individuals sporting impressive mustaches - and the men were even bigger. (Boom.) Now and then some people at a table in the rear burst into song.

"Toto," I said, "we're definitely not in Kansas any more."

Phyllis nodded. "Even for Germany, this is a very German place, isn't it?"

It was clearly a neighborhood sort of place, the customers mostly regulars; you can recognize that sort of atmosphere anywhere in the world. I wasn't at all sure we would be welcome. But then a very old, white-haired lady came over, smiling warmly, and led us to a table and handed us a menu; and a little while later we were tucking into some utterly wonderful food. (I had sauerbraten with dumplings; I think Phyllis had some kind of schnitzel.)

"If we stayed in this country very long," Phyllis said, "our hearts would explode."

By the time we walked back to the hotel we were feeling pretty damn good - for the first time I understood the word gemütlich in its full, and I do mean full, meaning - and never mind the rain. Unfortunately the feeling didn't last very long. The room was entirely too damn cold, and no way to turn the heat up; and when I went down to ask for heat, the fat little man at the desk was no help at all.

"Se temperature iss set for 21 degreess," he informed me, with an expression and intonation that said that here was a reasonable man being tried to the limits of his patience by the outrageous demands of stupid people. This proved to be his default attitude.

I went back upstairs and huddled under the single thin, totally inadequate comforter and said harsh things about Mine Host. In the morning he continued to act like an asshole; at breakfast an Englishman at the next table asked to have his coffee after, rather than with, the meager "Continental" breakfast, and was told severely that this was out of the question. In all the time we were in Germany, this was the only encounter we had with the stereotypical rude, arrogant, rules-are-rules German. If you are ever in Köln/Cologne, I strongly recommend that you avoid the Hotel Berg; it could be quite a nice little place, but the management has a definite attitude problem.

Otherwise, we had enjoyed our brief visit to Germany, and - somewhat to our surprise - taken a real liking to the people. (And I know, damn it, but that was a long time ago and the overwhelming majority of present-day Germans mostly weren't even born yet, or were little kids; and except for a very small group of fascist shitheads - such as can be found in any country, including the US - they've rejected and condemned the crimes of the past, and so it's unfair as hell to hold it against them now. Guilt is not an inheritable property, even if practically everyone east of Trieste thinks it is.)

Time to head back. We walked down to the station and got our tickets for Brussels.

NEXT: BRUSSELS AGAIN

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