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  The public transit system there is a bit bonkers, with outdated U-Bahn trains and largely non-functional ticket machines.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.  

Trip Report: Strasbourg

I am a terrible blogger.  Of this there is no doubt.  Since our last trip report, we've been to three major French cities and one German one, and there's always stuff we're checking out locally.  We're busy, but I have no excuses!  So let's just get on to the pictures.

Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, which is famous for it's own cultural sensibility and regional cuisine.  Having been controlled both by France and by Germany throughout it's tumultuous history, what remains is a unique character that's neither specifically French or German but obviously has elements you can identify from both.

Situated on the Ill river, just across the border from Germany, Strasbourg is a convenient 100 minute jaunt from Stuttgart on a high-speed TGV train.  This was our first time taking a TGV train and it was a pretty pleasant experience, even if the magenta, orange, and purple color scheme seems a bit jarring.  We arrived mid-morning and were able to check into our hotel, located right across from the train station, roughly a 15 minute walk to the old town.

One constant I've observed for cities in Germany and France so far is that the old town is always where the cool European-lookin' stuff is that us American tourists crave so much.  But Strasbourg is really set apart in just how very medieval it is.  Narrow cobblestone streets wind through ancient homes and quaint storefronts.  It's ridiculously romantic, without seeming precious or cutesy.

Undoubtedly, the focal point of the old town is the Notre Dame cathedral.  Yep, they've got a Notre Dame too!  Turns out a lot of churches use the same names.  And honestly, now that I've seen the famous one in Paris, I have to say that the Strasbourg cathedral is actually the more impressive.  I can't convey how breathtaking it is and I'm afraid my pictures don't do it justice.

One of the coolest things about Notre Dame is the glorious rust color the local sandstone gives the structure.  This is even more amazing in the late afternoon, when the setting sun illuminates the west facade to the point where it almost seems to glow.  I won't go on too much about the technical details or the history: what's important to know is that it's one of the finest examples of high gothic architecture and for a time was the tallest building in the world.  Thanks, Wikipedia!  For those who don't know, the Gothic style, which came about in the Middle Ages, is essentially reminiscent of the thin spires and "airyness" that you can see in this photo, as contrasted to the previous style, Romanesque, which was far more massive and "blocky".  (I should've paid more attention in art history class, ja?)  Needless to say, Gothic is my favorite style, due to the stylish intricacy that is typical.  Notre Dame in particular is decorated with a stunning amount of statuary and bas-relief depicting in many cases some of the weirder and more gruesome aspects of the Bible.  It's hard to get bored looking at this building.

This is an example from the west door frame.  Those scary-lookin' ladies represent virtues and the pitiful creatures they're spearing are vices.  Above them are scenes of martyrdom.

The inside is really cool too, with towering stained-glass windows and loads of cool features that I don't know that much about.  Nor did any of my flash-less interior photos turn out very well.  It's worth reading about the crazy astronomical clock inside.

You can also climb to the top of the cathedral, although they don't tell you uh, how far up it is.  Let's just say that had I known in advance I probably wouldn't have done it.  Endless spiral staircase from hell.  But the view from the top was more than worth it.  Even if it made me feel kind of sick.  Honestly I could just go on about the cathedral all day, it's just that amazing.  And adjacent to the cathedral is a building that houses a lot of the original statuary, which is even more impressive up close.

But it wasn't all old statues (the one to the right is from the 14th century though - doesn't that just blow your mind?) and God stuff.  Strasbourg has a vibrant food culture that highlights one of my favorite ingredients of all time: foie gras.  I'm not going to get into the ethical issues in much detail, except to say that anyone who judges me for eating foie gras while eating factory-farmed meat (i.e. 95% of the meat available in the U.S.) can kiss my ass.  It's doesn't matter, anyway, because the hand-wringing about the supposed brutality of foie gras production - made by fattening the livers of geese and ducks, sometimes via a short force-feeding process - is really only a big deal in liberal cities in San Francisco and Seattle.  Nobody in Alsace seemed vaguely aware that this delicacy inspires heated protest in some parts of the States.

I got my proper gorging on my beloved liver at the famous restaurant Chez Yvonne.  It was a pricey lunch, relatively speaking, but man oh man was it worth it.  Chris had some sort of organ meat dish, but I went for an all-foie gras plate, which included 5 different preparations, all equally delicious and way too rich.  Even though it was only an appetizer I could barely finish it.  It was also served with a very surprising and light Alsace version of sauerkraut.  Alsace is also known for it's Rieslings and Gewurztraminer wines, which we certainly indulged in.  The setting was super traditional and rustic, complete with photos of all the various politicians and celebrities who frequent what is apparently a Strasbourg institution.

We had so much amazing food, and honestly I didn't take notes at the time so it's hard to remember.  Fantastic crepes served by a surly chef across from Notre Dame.  Warm roasted chesnuts from a stereotypically French and flirty vendor in the square.  An innovative, if not particularly memorable 3-course meal at Goh Restaurant.  And pictured, a delightful and amazingly cheap meal of flammkuchen/tart flambe which is essentially a savory, crispy pizza, traditionally made with ham and local cheese.  We enjoyed it at Académie de la Bière, which has over 70 beers and ciders on tap, many of them Belgian. While I do appreciate the quality of German beer, getting a large variety of types to choose from is not particularly easy to do in Stuttgart, which made La Académie a wonderful and very atmospheric stop.


There is, of course, more to Strasbourg than the cathedral and food, but our quick trip was just an overnight one, so we didn't have time to do much more than stroll around the old town.  But we were certainly enthralled with this often overlooked city and can't wait to return.  We have lots more pictures up here, so be sure and check them out!