Kicking It In Köln - Part 1

Never heard of Köln?  It's only Germany's fourth-largest city.  This is one of the few major cities in Germany, along with München (Munich) whose actual name in German is very different than the name you probably know the city by - Cologne.  "Köln" with the unique umlaut "O" sound is quite difficult for non-Germans to pronounce correctly.  "Kueln" said with pursed lips for the vowel part comes close, but I'm assured by German friends that I'm still not saying it correctly. 

The park along the Rhine, with the Hohenzollern bridge in the background.
Somewhat strangely, Köln is a tourist hub, despite having only one year-round claim to fame - it's massive cathedral  Germany's largest and also it's most visited tourist attraction, period.  Köln's other major attraction is it's Karneval, which is basically German Mardi Gras celebrated before the start of Lent towards the end of winter. Köln has the strange distinction of being a heavily visited city that largely lacks in touristic charm and attractions, more a function of it's convenient location as a transit hub.  Most visitors are day-trippers, stopped over on their way somewhere else, or convention traffic.

Our reasons for visiting were different.  My husband is a big fan of the Oakland, California based hip-hop group "The Coup" and Köln was their only German tour date.  Since we'd never made it all the way up there, we decided it was a great opportunity to visit a city we'd meant to get around to seeing and hadn't yet.  Besides, I'm a certified old cathedral nut, so I had to make the pilgrimage. 

After the comfy two-hour ICE train ride, crossing the Rhine over the Hohenzollern bridge, which is the most traversed train bridge in the world, we arrived early afternoon on a gorgeous sunny spring day.  The weather in Stuttgart hadn't been nearly as nice, so the clear blue skies and t-shirt weather certainly gave Köln a bit of a sparkle.  

That said, it was very clear we weren't in Swabia anymore.  The public transit system there is a bit bonkers, with outdated U-Bahn trains and largely non-functional ticket machines.  The Rhineish cuisine is so different from what I'm used to that I largely couldn't decipher any menu that was off the tourist track. Köln was bombed heavily during WWII, but unlike many cities in Germany, it was largely rebuilt in the style of the times, so the city features a lot of fairly unpleasant modern architecture from the 1950s through the '80s, with very few buildings even in the historic center of town being rebuilt in the old style.  Stuttgart also gets a bad rap for this, but aesthetically Stuttgart is far lovelier than Köln.  And then there's the issue of the tiny beers - even though Kölners are famously proud of their light, hoppy lager style of brew, referred to as Kölsch, they come in tiny glasses that fit only 0.2 liters of the delicious brew.  In theory, brusque but efficient Kölnish waiters are supposed to refill these small glasses constantly, without asking - you place your coaster on top of your glass to signal you don't want another - but in reality the waiters were taciturn but not particularly fast when it came to refilling your beer.  Running out of beer and having to wait isn't usually a problem in a country where often the standard size is a half-liter.

Those quibbles aside, the sun was shining, the Rhine was sparkling, and the beer was refreshing, all of which gave Köln a lovely air, at least on this particular weekend.