Seldom am I tempted to travel long distances purely for food. There are of course exceptions, like the legendary Mrs Macs meat pie from Western Australia which, purely for the pastry and gravy alone, I might actually consider walking over hot coals and simultaneously sacrificing small woodland creatures, but as a general rule I try and avoid lengthy trips solely for culinary purposes. Taking this latter point into consideration, you may then understand my mild confusion as to why, on a wet, Friday evening whilst whizzing down the Cologne bound Autobahn at a velocity previously unknown to this Scotsman at ground level, I find myself feeling strangely excited at the prospect of my impending Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee & cake) weekend in a friends cosy, familial abode somewhere in the depths of Rhineland-Palatinate.
I must at this point confess that, if you were to put a map of Germany in front of me right now, my fingers would scan searchingly across the it, much in the same manner as a blind man reading brail, and would likely never find the said Bundesland of Rhineland-Palatinate. In fact, unless a city is on the coast or near the edge of the country, it will probably elude the geography department of my goldfish like memory for all eternity. This is unfortunately the same with most other populous nations boasting a hectic central core. England for example is jam-packed with industrious communities at its heart and yet, were I to try and pick out Birmingham or Leeds it would be like Stevie Wonder playing pin the tail on the donkey. But I diverge…
Of course the coffee and cake aren’t my only reasons for heading into the German heartland, the opportunity to visit Cologne and take in the visual splendour of Germany’s countryside are also important, but the sweet homemade delicacies which had been promised in advance definitely hold a lofty position on my list of expectations for the weekend.
After six hours of Autobahn driving we pull up outside my friend’s home in the town of Brachbach. I stumble out of the car and attempt to make use of my sleeping legs. It’s almost 2am and, despite being a novice with German culture, I’m pretty sure that it’s too late for my first slice of sugary sweetness. We head inside, are greeted by the parents and immediately offered some refreshments and sustenance in the form of coffee and cake. A smile starts to creep across my face, I love these people already. Just as my head starts to nod and my belly rumble, my ears catch wind of my fellow weary travellers saying “nein danke...” Unfortunately the curse of coming from a culture which classes having a biscuit with your tea as mildly excessive means that, despite hankering for cake, if nobody else is having some then I can’t either. A British mental barrier that I will sadly never overcome and no amount of counselling can help. As such, an hour later I find myself tucked up in bed with beer in my belly and cakes drifting into my dreams.
The next morning we all take up residence at the dining table for a big German breakfast of meat, cheese, dark weighty bread and gallons of coffee before making our way to the station for the Cologne train. I spend the hour long journey watching the landscape roll by through a dirty, rain-drop smeared window. It’s a bleak, grey day outside and the generous lathering of industry in this part of Germany combines with the weather to create a dull depressive atmosphere. However the downbeat feeling is soon swept aside and replaced by an excited state of anticipation as we enter the city. Never in my life have my nostrils been so open in expectation when stepping off a train. As the place which it’s name to macho perfume, I have, for years, believed that Cologne must be a musky but pleasant smelling metropolis. And as such, during the languorous meander from the platform to the central plaza outside the station my nose is pointed skywards and my nostrils to the fore as I waft Cologne in, so to speak.
My sniffing is soon halted by the sight of Cologne’s hefty gothic cathedral parked right outside the station. The main square surrounding this impressive, twin-towered piece of religious brickwork looks like it has been designed with a concrete football pitch in mind. Such is the contrast between the two that the cathedral looks slightly out of place and ill-fitting, despite of course being more visually appealing. We head inside to see if the innards are as impressive. After passing through the large arched doorway we’re immediately confronted by a sea of camera-happy tourists shuffling over every imaginable square foot of the open space. I spy a corner with a table of tea-tree candles flickering happily beneath some sculpted religious scenes and I involuntarily shuffle over and start taking pictures. Normally when I’m surrounded by tourists going trigger happy with their umpteen mega pixels I can’t bear the thought of taking my camera out and being one of the crowd but for some reason this moment is different. Maybe subconsciously I feel the need to be part of a bigger entity whilst in a religious building and, as I’d rather read a Lonely Planet than a Bible, I subsequently open my arms and camera lens to the tourist brethren.
We soon move onto a communal pilgrimage of sorts, marching upwards in a spiralling fashion, our aim being the top of the cathedrals towers. The staircase boasts over 500 steps, all of which lead you in a never ending clockwise twirling ascent. They’re the kind of stairs where if you were to take the roof off the cathedral and look down, you’d be faced with a large concrete washing machine with people inside on a very slow and tightly packed spin. Upon emerging from the cycle at the top, not only are you greeted by some impressive, heaven bound spires but also a generous helping of wire mesh hindering every possible view point. This leaves me slightly unnerved as, in my mind, there are only two possible reasons why the wire is there. Either the cathedral is a popular spot for suicide cases looking for an adrenalin rush before a squishy end or the birds of Cologne are very possessive of their airspace and the pilgrims need to be protected.
Now, if I were to lose my lust for life and thus see no future, I don’t think I’d put myself through a rigorous 500 step, spinning workout before leaping off a tower to meet my maker. I haven’t given suicide much thought but I imagine if I had to then I’d go for a much easier way that doesn’t leave a stain on the pavement. And so with this in mind I’m grateful for wire mesh, despite it hindering an otherwise clear view down towards the Rhine and central Cologne, for I do not wish to have my eyes pecked out by a demonic crow.
After 10 minutes of wandering around the top and reading the graffiti etched onto the historic walls we make for the stairs again. Going down is far more interesting than the upward slog as not only do you have the benefit of the wider side of the triangular, “wedge of cake style” stairs, complete with a banister and little windows, but also you get to watch others struggling whilst going up. About two thirds of the way down we pass an Indian family and for one of the uncles it was clearly a little too claustrophobic. He had stopped dead in his ascent and clung to the wall much in the same manner as a 3rd class passenger to a lifeboat on the titanic. He doesn't look as if he's going anywhere in a hurry and so I refrain from telling him about the remaining 300 steps.
We stumble dizzily onto the streets outside the cathedral and weave our way down towards the Rhine. The sky is still hanging low like a grey blanket over the city and it makes the Rhine look suspiciously murky and unappealing. The tourist ferries are, however, still doing a bustling trade and the bars and restaurants near the river front are packed with happy, contented folks. There’s a weird feeling of seasonal confusion as the summer joggers bounce along the riverside promenade but in amongst the bars there is a Christmassy twinkle to the lights and the sense of an approaching winter as some outdoor drinkers sport scarves and various other winter regalia.
We walk along the water front before meandering into the old town and enjoying the sudden transformation in architecture. Such was the destruction of many German cities during the war, Cologne included, that in the post-war reconstruction period, architects who seemed to be primarily inspired by shoeboxes and concrete, were given free reign to design a new city. And so it is that when you suddenly find yourself in a world of cobbled streets and narrow lanes away from the modern Cologne of grey, square boxes it’s a highly unexpected pleasure. I find a beer museum on a side street but decide not to go in for fear of spending the entire day there. Instead I content myself with a quick photograph before continuing the exploration of the old world. We wander up a small narrow lane and step out into a large rectangular square the size of a football pitch. It’s surrounded on all four sides with bars and restaurants and when faced with such a plethora of establishments boasting beer taps, it’s difficult to say no. A small but refreshing Kölsch beer is soon quaffed and a plan of action is hatched involving a tour of the main shopping street, followed by a consolidation of drinking activity in the Cölner Hofbräu.
We subsequently do our best to enjoy a relaxing amble down Cologne’s main shopping thoroughfare but the density of shoppers means that it feels more like dodgeball than a leisurely stroll. By the time we reach the end of the street I’m more than happy to dive into the aforementioned beer house. As I step through the front door I have a strange sense of having been here before. However it’s not until we’ve ordered a round of beers from the particularly smarmy waiter that I realise this place is exactly like a small version of Munich’s legendary kitsch Hofbräu Haus, except here there are no buxom waitresses or lederhosen clad oompah band.
Another distinct difference being that in Bavaria a litre of beer will lighten your pocket to the tune of €7 whilst in this particular establishment you are bestowed a mere 200ml’s for €3. Now, maths is most definitely not my forte but when it comes to beer related numericals I know when I’m being had. However love, money and logic do not always mix well and as such I find myself ordering a second with a view to possibly stealing a glass. The waiter, a perfect example of arrogance personified, seems to be able to read my thoughts on this small matter of theft and he eyes me cautiously for the remainder of my patronage. He flicks a quick smirk as we leave and I instantly regret not smearing the table with mustard and accidentally spilling the salt and pepper.
Despite the unique brand of service in the bräuhaus, we’re in a happy, buoyant mood as we hop down the steps next to the cathedral and make our way over the plaza del concrete and on into central station. A quick scan of the departures board reveals that we are an hour too early and so we retreat back to the steps by the cathedral and join the youth of Cologne lazing outside in the weak autumnal sunshine. The hour soon passes and I’m slightly amazed at how quickly it disappears. Sitting on your backside doing nothing for 60 minutes should, by definition be boring. But when confronted with a large area packed with people happily minding their own business and shuffling from one unknown destination to the next, it takes on a zoo like quality. I had even started to think about information boards for some of the more permanent members of the exhibition. Nothing too fancy, maybe just a brief definition of the word “emo” or perhaps the daily habits and routines of an average tramp. It could be Cologne’s newest tourist attraction with guides and an interactive corner where you can prod at a drunken hobo. The kids will love it…
However I’m soon whisked away from my grand venture by one of Deutsche-Bahn’s double-decker trains and left to ponder what could have been. The landscape outside is slowly being covered by a veil of darkness and by the time we reach my friends house in Brachbach there is a definite chill in the air. His house looks warm and inviting from outside and as we step through the front door into a sea of warmth I hear those beautiful words, “Kaffee und Kuchen?”