Our second trip, was to Köln, Germany or Cologne as it is generally pronounced in English. This was a last minute trip for us and we really lucked out using priceline.com to book our hotel. Yes, priceline works in Europe. We got an amazing room in the middle of Cologne for $45 that had a normal room rate of 90 Euro. I don’t think I even need to convert that for you to know how awesome of a deal it was. So we hopped in our car and headed the 2 hours north, using less than a tank of gas for the entire trip (also a big plus!).
Cologne was one of the hardest hit areas in the bombing raids during WWII so the city is an interesting mix of old and new. Along the Rhine River, which splits Cologne in half, there are brand new, very modern buildings. The biggest part of the Cologne skyline however, is also the oldest, the Kölner Dom Cathedral. It was built between 1248 and 1880 and though it suffered damage during the war, is standing in nearly the same condition as when construction finished in 1880. Not only is this cathedral massive, beautiful, and old (all the best things about Cathedrals) but it contains 2 different museums inside as well as an opportunity to climb 509 steps to the top of the bell tower for a view you just can’t beat.
The Dom is the home of the Shrine of the Three Magi which is a reliquary (a shrine that generally contains some physical remains of saints such as bones or clothing) that is believed to contain the bones of the Magi. There is also a room filled with other reliquaries such as nails from the cross that St. Peter was cruicified on, and bone shards from a variety of saints. You can also go into the cathedral vaults and see vestaments, chalices, jewelery, crosses, and all sorts of things used during mass throughout the time that the Dom has been in existence. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures of any of the things in the museums but here are my favorites in and around the cathedral. Both museums are included in one price, and if you go when the bell tower is open, you can get admission to all three at a lower price.
The tower closes early, so we climbed the tower the morning of our second day in Cologne, all 509 steps up and ten back down. It is a narrow spiral staircase for about 475 steps which makes it pretty interesting when people are trying to go up and down at the same time. It’s a good time to practice saying “Entschuldigung” or “I’m sorry/excuse me” in German. The travel guide books I have all suggested you stop and look at the bell, but it was locked up behind a door about half way up. On our way down it was ringing and not only was it loud but you could also feel the vibrations through the wall and steel door.
The spectacular views at the top made it all worth it, even on a hazy day like what we had. The churches below are the St. Gereon church (from the 4th century) and the Gross St. Martin (completed 1240).
Germany is often thought of as a country of hard choices…. BMW or Mercedes? Schnitzel or Bratwurst? Wine or beer? In Cologne, the answer to the last question is almost always beer, and to be specific, Kölsch. Kölsch is the type of beer brewed only in Cologne. It is served in thin glasses that hold .2L of beer and the servers bring out the glasses on round serving platters by the dozen. My husband and I decided to do an impromptu “pub crawl” and try as many varieties of Kölsch as we could get our hands on. Most of the brands of beer are all brewed in the basements of the brauhaus (brew house) sporting their name. It is a light tasting beer without much of an aftertaste, and definitely no bitterness. It was during this pub crawl that we decided to keep a coaster from all of the brauhauses we visited throughout Germany and write the date we ate and drank there. By the end of our 3 years we should have a great art/conversation piece to remember our time here.
Our favorites? Päffgen and Früh Kolsch. Those were also the places we had the most fun meeting locals and just enjoying the nightlife of Cologne. The Früh am Dom is a great restaurant in the shadow of the Dom that had great beer and a very affordable breakfast.
Probably the most interesting stop in our trip to Cologne was to the EL-DE Haus. It was the former headquarters of the Gestapo in Cologne and housed a prison in its basement. Today it is a museum documenting the Nazis in Cologne before, during, and after WWII. It took about 3 hours to complete the audio tour, but it was worth it! The displays are all in German, and since we don’t read German, it was a great help to have someone telling us all about it in English. My husband and I were both shocked and in awe about how little we knew about what happened in and around Germany during that time. What we learn in history class in the states is only a small, small fraction of the horrible things that were done. For example, we were shocked to find out that thousands of people were involuntarily sterilized for a variety of reasons including living alternate lifestyles (maybe they were gay, maybe they were just a free spirit) or mental retardation or any level of insanity. These sterilizations weren’t just for adults either, many children were also sterilized. There was also one of the biggest short stay concentration camps on the other side of the Rhine. Thousands of Roma were sent there to await trains to the larger and more deadly concentration camps.
The basement was extraordinarily preserved. While the prisoners were kept in their cells, often up to 30 in a 5x10 ft cell, they wrote on the walls. Some of the writings attempted to give inspiration to those that would follow, some were long letters to love ones, and some were just tally marks to keep track of the days and weeks that passed. It was said that the prisoners were allowed to go the shower/toilette room once per day and were otherwise given a bucket in the corner to use. The smell was so terrible that people on the street above could smell it. Many of these prisoners were killed by hanging in the courtyard of the haus. They would kill up to 10 at a time with a specially designed portable gallows that could be assembled and removed as needed. The crimes these people committed were the things you would expect, going against the Gestapo, helping others escape, etc.
I am a firm believer in learning from the past so that we can all have a better future. This day was a big lesson in the past and how important it is to protect people from this happening again.
Cologne is a great city! Most everything is in walking distance, and when you are tired of walking, taxies are not hard to find. There are about 10 other museums that we didn’t get to see. Lots of art museums, a museum about the history of chocolate, and a museum dedicated to Olympic sports in Europe, just to name a few. There are also several more churches that we saw but didn’t tour (such as the two above). We fit it a lot into two days, but to really see Cologne in all its glory I think you need at least 3 or 4. Since there are so many tourist attractions, many things in Cologne are open on Sunday, including museums and the Cathedral.
Finally, here are some of my favorite pictures of people and things around town while we were exploring.