Cologne? They Should Rename it Chocolate…

After three and a half days in Berlin, I was off to Cologne, which my father enjoyed pronouncing in German (“kern”-or something like that). He was also pretty excited about the train we would take there. I believe it was the bullet-style train that is popular in Europe and Asia. We departed from Berlin’s Hauptbanhof after having coffee with an American friend of my father’s who is living in Berlin. The station was immense and modern, housing clothing stores, convenience stores and restaurants. Our train was comfortable, that’s pretty much all I can remember as I went to sleep not long after we left Berlin. Napping became a familiar theme on this trip, but my poor, overworked body needed the rest. The ride was restful and uneventful, though I’m sure my dad would have enjoyed some conversation-but maybe he fell asleep too. We arrived in Cologne, to a smaller, but just as modern station as Berlin’s. Cologne’s Dom (cathedral) greeted me as we emerged from the station. It shares a large plaza with the train station and several hotels. Cathedrals are my bread and butter. I’m not crazy about castles, but Gothic architecture makes me swoon. We settled into our hotel, which was my favorite of the three we stayed in over 8 days. Clean and modern is the way to make me happy, although I have decided on my next visit to stick with the American hotels. I need predictability in where I bed down. The hotel had a nice bar where I had a Jack and Coke. Our hotel in Berlin didn’t even have a bar, which dashed my hopes of chatting with guests. Our first tourist activity was a bus tour. Jet lag had me tightly in its grip; walking the equivalent of a few Chicago-style blocks had me beat. We saw the original roman walls of Cologne, busy boulevards lined with shops and restaurants, which included a Mexican restaurant. That’s one thing I would not try in Germany, Mexican food. It couldn’t possibly taste good, could it? The cathedral was open to everyone and it is IMMENSE. It masters the darkness and gloominess of Gothic times perfectly. So much so, it made the light if a cloudy day as intense of direct sunlight. I explored some nooks and crannies and donated two American dollars to light a candle in the memory of some loved ones.

The Cathedral just after a little rain.
The Cathedral just after a little rain.

Off we went to lunch, and afterwards, the highlight of Cologne, the Chocolate Museum, or the Schokoladen Museum. The museum appeared to be built on some fortress-looking barge on the Rhine, accessible by a small footbridge. We walked on a scenic path between the Alstadt (old-town) and the Rhine. It is safe to say that most Alstadts in Germany and Europe are replicas, the originals having been bombed during World War II. The museum’s architecture was quite schizophrenic; consisting of a small, yellow-brick structure that must have been a castle or fortress in a past life, attached to an all-glass portion. Upon entering, you receive a piece of Lindt chocolate with a line drawing of the cathedral on the wrapper. I was impressed with the detail of the exhibits.The exhibit begins with the cocoa plant and its cultivation. Exhibits show where the plant is found around the world and its place as a commodity. Room after room told the story of how civilizations used the plant and its products, as well as the vessels used to consume it from. Europeans drank chocolate from fine, decorated china while central and south American tribes consumed theirs from pottery made from readily available clay. Shall I call it the money shot? Yeah, why not. As you walk into the glass-walled part of the museum, you pass a glass-enclosed assembly line. The chocolate you received at the door is made in-house. But centered at the end of the room, overlooking the Rhine is an over-sized replica of a cocoa plant. Underneath it is bowl of silky, melted chocolate. An employee dips wafers into it and passes them out to visitors. I made three trips, perfecting my “danke” pronunciation.

Warm, molten chocolate is waiting...
Warm, molten chocolate is waiting…

I would highly recommend Cologne, and I need to make another trip there as well. My visit was fairly short and I did not see the the main shopping area or sample any memorable cuisine. I did eat Italian, but I don’t have a clue if it was pasta or a panini. Another reason to get over to Cologne, especially if you are a Chicagoan, is that you can take a direct flight from Chicago to Dusseldorf, which is only thirty minutes away. Berlin was quite awesome, but you have to get there by way of Newark, Madrid, London or Istanbul.

Impressions of Berlin

I am going to try to document my Spring trip to Germany again. I tried in July, but I put myself to sleep while writing the post. This time, I will focus on impressions. Since I was in Berlin the longest of the three cities I visited, I obviously have more to remark upon, so here goes:

Whimsical and suspicious...
Radio tower, whimsical and suspicious…

Berlin is pretty big, most of our visit was limited to a central, but large area stretching from Ku’Damm (think the Mag Mile, but more relaxed and park-like) east to Alexanderplatz, in the former East Berlin and home to the Death Star(actually a radio tower). The city was very clean, with the exception of one area, but I will get to that later. Graffiti is pretty common in the city, that’s sooo 80’s to me, but I have been told it is seen as artistic expression than a nuisance.

Shop.Eat.Repeat.
Shop.Eat.Repeat.

The S-Bahn, which is an elevated train line with stops at Ku’Damm, the Hauptbanhof-central rail station, Friedrichstrasse, Hackescher Hofe and Alexanderplatz. The cars are clean, I didn’t see any crazy people (yay! they stayed in Chicago!) and you an even bring your pet dog on with you. I hardly noticed any pee-smell in the subway, which is a wonderful break form the smack-you-in the-face smell you get in Chicago. Rail stations here, and probably in the rest of Europe are really neighborhood anchors. You can bank, shop and eat at the large stations here. They are so much more functional, making Union Station in Chicago look like someone’s red-headed stepchild who gets no love or visitors.

More than trains at the Hauptbanhopf
More than trains at the Hauptbanhof

As for the exception to the general cleanliness in Berlin-we visited Kreuzberg, which is just south of the Brandenberg Gate area. Imagine climbing subway stairs and seeing the backs of police officers greeting you. If I were travelling alone, I may have turned around and got back on  the train or demanded the people I was there to visit come and get me from the safer bowels of the U-Bahn (subway). Thankfully I wasn’t alone, so my father and I soldiered on and pretended we weren’t walking through a protest. The area was fairly dingy and old. The main street, Oranienstrasse went underneath a large apartment complex which was many years overdue for a power washing, if you ask me. We kept walking, past stores I would describe as “janky”, but also mixed in with trendy cafes, sushi spots and young, happy caucasians, so I was put at ease greatly. However, the fascination with graffiti must stop. The entire doors to apartment buildings, which are built up to the sidewalk without setbacks are covered in it.

I have not addressed the food here, I had to silence my foodie side while writing this post. There is so much bread and coffee to be found, it’s silly, but I resisted the bread for the most part. Coffee was different; I had it all the time, mainly because the temperature was ten degrees colder than the week before when I was packing. Dunkin Donuts is popular, with even more colorful icings that what we have in America, but I may have had a donut once there. I had coffee a few times, and guess what, I actually saw a lady cleaning off a table in one!

Street food is popular in some areas. Currywurst is a sausage covered in a ketchup-py sauce with curry powder mixed in and served with fries-hold the mayo, yecchh! Doner Kebabs are popular. They are similar to Gyros here. But I don;t know how to pronounce Doner; see, the “o” has umlauts over it, so do I say “dinner”, or “durner”? somebody tell me. I did not consume any McDonald’s whatsoever during my trip, and I wear that with a badge of honor. I only had Burger King because I realized late into the evening that I had not eaten enough. KFC was in many places, but I didn’t fly for nine hours just to eat at the Colonel’s.

I was in London ten years ago, and it hardly felt foreign to me, so I expected with the language barrier in Germany things would feel a bit different. Not so, however. This world has gotten so small, and half of German words have their English counterpart contained within them. The people there are just as diverse as in a large American city and so many people spoke English, but I asked in German first. I was so comfortable in Berlin, I can see myself going there alone if I needed to.

Next post, Cologne and Frankfurt. Stay Tuned!