Having traveled to Deutschland in past years, and having already toured Berlin just a few weeks prior, our reasoning for re-visiting western Germany was simple - to visit family during the holiday season.
We left our boutique hotel and bused our way to Amsterdam's Central Station. Luckily we left ourselves plenty of time because our intended departure wasn't running during the winter season. Fortunately Europe's train network is quite extensive and efficient so it wasn't difficult to select an alternative route that was leaving immediately.
The change of schedule, and lack of a mobile phone, made our pickup at the Koln Hauptbahnhof a little confusing but we eventually connected with Ralf's sister Simone and her boyfriend Rene. We stored our bags in their car and quickly made our way to the neighbouring, and extremely busy, Koln Christmas Market (have we mentioned these before?).
We met up with Simone and Rene's close friends, Frank and Claudia, and braved our way through the overwhelming night-time crowds. First on the agenda was a mug of hot Gluhwein, a necessary step in the German Christmas Market experience.
The evening later shifted to the popular Fruh Brewery, an iconic brewery located in the centre of the city within a stone's throw of the prominent Kolner Dom. The traditional brewery serves up the local 'Kolsch' style of beer that is distinctive to the Cologne area. In fact, we're told that the name 'Kolsch' is actually protected by law so only beer brewed within the region can use the name - similar to Champagne in France.
The Fruh Brewery is a unique establishment located in an enormous stone building that has several levels and rooms. The waiters, called Kobes, serve the brew in a 0.2 litre thin cylindrical glass that is known as a "Kolsch-Stange".
As well as tasty beer and good company, the evening at the Fruh Brewery also re-introduced Cameron to Schweinshaxe (roasted pork knuckle). He was looking forward to sampling the succulent German cuisine since his last trip to Germany.
For those who don't know, envision a massive piece of delicious salty pork meat right on a bone. There should be a photo in the Cologne album. Needless to say, the vegetarian in Nicole decided to pass on this savory treat.
It has been especially great traveling through Europe because we've been able to stay with friends and family along the way. It's one thing to drop into a tourist information site, pick up a map and some brochures and start exploring. It's an entirely different experience to have local people show us the best places and educate us on the country's culture and heritage.
Being on the road for 11 months has proven to be draining at times. Spending time with family recharged us and helped us feel somewhat normal again. As much as we love the adventure of exploring, it's sometimes nice to not have to research where to sleep or how to get from A to B on a foreign transportation network.
During our stay, we made a trip to the small town of Seigburg and visited yet another Christmas market. But this outdoor market was different from the others. It creates a medieval setting and uses limited electricity, giving visitors a feel for what Christmas would have been like 400 years ago. The market had blacksmiths pounding red hot steel, food vendors cooking over open flames, craftsmen making wooden toys and merchants selling handmade candles. It even had actors dressed up in medieval attire that wandered through the crowds and stayed in character. It was a neat way to spend an afternoon during the holiday season.
Although we spent a good chunk of time relaxing by the wood-burning fireplace and playing cribbage, we still managed to squeeze in quite a bit of exploring during our five days in Cologne and its surrounding area.
We were actually staying in Wessling, a suburb located between Cologne and Bonn, so we actually didn't spend too much time in big city. Cologne is Germany's 4th largest city and is said to be one of the country's oldest cities dating back to 38BC. The city is split by the River Rhine, one of Europe's most famous rivers, and is home to the towering Kolner Dom.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Germany's best known monuments, the gothic cathedral is Cologne's undisputed tourist highlight. It also makes our shortlist of most impressive structures in Europe.
The Dom was once considered the world's tallest structure (from 1880-84) and it surprisingly survived WWII intact even though most of the surrounding city was flattened.
We were told that the top of the Roman Catholic Cathedral gave incredible city views so we decided to climb up one of the steep spirals to see for ourselves. The tight, claustrophobic staircase was barely big enough for two people, making things interesting when we passed others on their decent. It didn't take long to get dizzy and out of breath as we climbed up and around the windy steps.
It was well worth the effort though. The unobstructed views were stunning and the building's intricate detail is remarkable. Once at the top, you are actually outside and are able to circle the spire. At that height, and with the cold winds, one can't help but feel a little vertigo.
In light of being well behind in our blog updates, we'll spare you the minor details of the rest of our sightseeing. The photo albums paint a much better picture anyways. Although for some reason we forgot to take photos of our bowling evening with Simone and Rene and their close friends.
The next part of our German tour was to head south to the Reil, a small village located on the banks of the Mosel River, to visit the other part of the family contingent. We parted ways with Simone and Rene knowing that we'd see them in a few days.
Our train departed from Bonn, Germany's old capital before it moved to Berlin after the reunification of East and West Germany. The day's travel would require us to transfer trains in Koblenz, a city known for its strategic position as the point where the Mosel River meets the Rhine River.
We decided to skip our immediate transfer and catch a late afternoon train from Koblenz to Reil. Cameron had made a similar trip from Bonn to Reil ten years ago and remembered that Koblenz was a picturesque city worth an afternoon visit. So that's what we did. We locked up our luggage at the central train station and spent the day wandering through the city and along both the Mosel and the Rhine rivers.
It was a wise decision and we were glad that we made the detour.
December 17th, 2009