|Old town Cologne and the Rhine River, seen from the cathedral|
And yet I felt like I was wasting a huge opportunity in not making a weekend trip out of, say, Germany or the Netherlands, since I was already on that side of the Atlantic and only had to worry about resisting the siren song of budget airlines—instead of a wallet-emptying trans-Atlantic flight.
It was Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, that would drag me out of my comfortable southern European routine and force me to re-acquaint myself with a little thing called Culture Shock. It would be a wild ride full of ups and downs, but I don’t regret it at all.
Up: Santiago’s direct flights to Frankfurt
|All roads lead to Santiago!|
Down: Santiago’s midnight arrival in FrankfurtThere was little drawing me to Frankfurt proper, only cities like Aachen, Bonn, Cologne, and Düsseldorf, so my first challenge was dealing with how to get from the second-tier, middle-of-nowhere Frankfurt-Hahn airport to a place I actually wanted to be, like Cologne. Unfortunately, the flight from Santiago would land in Germany at 11 at night, making it almost impossible to catch some combination of shuttles, buses, and trains to Cologne at such a late hour.
Up: An excuse to hang out in MadridBut I had already committed myself to seeing Germany before moving back to Texas, so I wasn’t about to just dump this trip in the trash can. Fortunately Ryanair also flies between Madrid and Cologne, and I wasn’t opposed to sitting back and relaxing on a 5-hour train ride to get to the Spanish capital, so I decided to make the most of things and book-end my time in Germany with daytrips and tapas nights in Madrid. By day, I checked off Alcalá de Henares, El Escorial, and the Valley of the Fallen, and by night, Madrid Food Tours took me to some of the most authentic and tasty restaurants in the historic core.
Down: Flight delayed by five hours
|Alter Markt square|
Up: Flight actually took offA few hours in, a Ryanair representative began passing out sheets of paper with our EU rights as airline passengers on them, ultimately giving away 5€ food vouchers for the delay *whomp whomp*. A plane did arrive in the end, but as we were lining up to board the plane, this mysterious woman appeared out of nowhere and started handing out business cards for Reclamador.es—a company that argues on your behalf with airlines, banks, and telephone companies to get you your refunds…for a fee, of course. I thought it was super sketchy but thought it couldn’t hurt to try once I was back home. Six months later I was 150€ richer!
Down: Flight landed at 2:30am
|Cologne skyline from across the Rhine River|
Up: Meeting fellow Americans staying at the same hostelBut as luck would have it, I met Livia and Taylor—two Americans who were language assistants in Spain like me and also staying at the same hostel. We all hit it off pretty fast and enjoyed having someone else to complain to in English since our seatmates were all Germans and Spaniards.
Down: Sleeping on the floor in the Köln Bonn AirportAfter deciding against taking the 3am train into the city, we found a quiet area near the airport’s check-in desks to camp out in…and almost got run over by the floor cleaner machine once. In spite of the floodlights and half-hourly announcements, I still managed to get a solid hour of two of sleep using my peacoat and backpack as a pillow.
Up: German trains
It wasn’t long before we would transfer to the Stadtbahn, Cologne’s light rail system, and found our way to Richard-Wagner-Straße (“Richard Wagner Street”)…how very German.
Down: Cold, windy, rainy weatherComing from warm, sunny Madrid I was not prepared for what a Northern European early spring is actually like: cold, rainy, overcast, and windy. It may as well have been the depths of winter, but then again I’m a wussy Texan unaccustomed to the cold. This miserable weather put a real damper on my whole time in Germany as I was continually worrying about getting rained on or having to tote an umbrella around with me everywhere.
Up: The best hostel I have ever stayed at
|Berliner jelly donuts|
Each of the hostel’s rooms were uniquely designed around a specific theme; I got put in the “circus” room which was weird but I walked past a private room while it was being cleaned and it had a spaceship theme! The cubbie-hole-style hostel bunkbeds were full-size, had their own charging stations and reading lights, and had heavy, light-blocking curtains.
Down: Accidentally sleeping away half the dayOnce I had gotten all settled in, I couldn’t resist lying down for just a little bit, since, after all, when do you get a full-size bed to yourself in a hostel? Of course, we all know what “resting your eyes” really means…falling asleep for a 4-hour nap. When I woke up around noon I freaked out because not only had I lost my first night in Cologne, I also wasted away half of one of the few remaining days I had left! Still, I smiled to myself because I had just had one of the best naps of my life…and in a hostel, to boot.
Up: Marveling at the glorious cathedral
This grandiose construction was intended to be a worthy house for the Dreikönigsschrein, a dazzling golden reliquary that holds what is believed to be the bodies of the Three Wise Men. Now remember, holy relics in the Middles Ages were a Very Big Deal. For example, when King Louis IX of France obtained Jesus’ supposed Crown of Thorns, he had the Sainte-Chapelle constructed in Paris to house it, a glorious hall of stained glass. Something very similar happened here in Cologne, which became a major pilgrimage center hundreds of years ago. The remains of the Magi were especially significant because in the Christian tradition they were the first to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
|Too tall to fit in one frame|
Down: Getting hailed onWalking from the hostel to the cathedral I felt like I might very well be joining those Three Kings in eternal repose as the rain showers quickly devolved into a hailstorm. You know, just the warm welcome I was expecting my first day in Germany. The following day, they had to shut down the plaza in front of the cathedral because intense winds from a storm had created the danger of stones falling off of the church!
Up: Enjoying a simple milchkaffee + sandwich lunchBefore I explored the cathedral I dipped in to a nearby Kamps franchise café-bakery for a mustard-heavy sandwich and a milchkaffee, basically a latte. I felt very German asking for a “milk-coffee”…in German.
Down: Feeling helpless without polite words to use in GermanThat’s not to say I could speak German by any means. Yes, I crammed numbers and conversational words before I came, and I already knew how to pronounce most any word because of my background in linguistics (#NerdAlert), but at most restaurants I simply felt helpless because I had literally no idea what kind of polite words I was supposed to say for things like “I would like,” “Can you get me…” or “It was really delicious!” I felt like I couldn’t say anything at all but I didn’t want to be the Ugly American, either, and just revert to English.
Up: Romanesque churches
|The Church of St. Maria im Kapitol|
Down: 95% of the city was bombed out in World War II
And whenever I entered a Romanesque church, I couldn’t help but grieve for the cultural treasures that were lost in the war, as almost all of the twelve churches were utterly destroyed in the bombardment. Yes, they have been excellently rebuilt and restored to what they would have looked like in medieval times—but freshly-cut stone and squeaky-clean ceilings are no match for the rich character and patina a church gains over almost a thousand years of weekly worship.
Up: Successfully tipping German-styleMy first full night *ahem* in Cologne I stopped off for dinner at Brauhaus Sion, a famous but touristy establishment in the old town. The bill came up to 13,30€ and I wanted to leave a 1,70€ tip, so I put into practice what I had read before arrival and handed my waiter a 20€ note and directly asked for 5€ back in change. It’s the little things like this—the small cultural cues—that make you feel like you’re getting to know a place, even if you’re only there for a few days.
Down: German food is bland
|Dinner at Brauhaus Sion|
Up: German breakfasts are lovelyBut German cuisine redeemed itself at breakfast the next day. I ran into Livia and Taylor at the hostel’s dining room and we chatted about mishaps and museums over a glorious spread of warm bread buns, real butter, cheeses, various cold cuts, preserves, Nutella, cool cucumbers, fruit…and coffee, tea, and O.J., of course. Coming from Spain, where breakfast is usually limited to a sugary pastry, toast with grated tomato, or fried churros, I welcomed this variety of healthy, filling options to begin the day with.
Have you ever been on a trip that was a huge disaster? How did you manage to salvage things? Share your experiences in the comments section down below!
For more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.