Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cologne: all in sight of the Dom

Our drive to London was surprisingly painless. We had plenty of time to relax in St. Pancras Station before our train to Brussels, and then comfortably made our connection to Cologne. After a warm welcome at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, we made our way to the Christmas market in the shadow of the 'Dom' -- Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom.

What an amazing market! We started with these slab o' ham sandwiches that were so good, quickly followed by glühwein; our first of many that evening. After a once-over of the stalls, we made our way to the famous Früh am Dom, just beyond. We weren't standing at the tables outside for more than a moment, wondering what to do, when a man in a blue vest came by with this caddy of 0.2 L glasses of beautifully clear, Früh Kolsch. Fruity, with a nutty finish -- and served by gravity, out of huge barrels -- in a word, delish!

Back at the market, more glühwein found its way to our mugs, and then there was tasty pomme frites, followed by the best crepes Tea's ever had! (And, as she says, she's had some crepes in her life.) These came with a healthy helping of Nutella, and I could tell she was on cloud nine.

Sunday, December 12

We started the day with a lie-in, safe in the knowledge that we'd still easily make the Excelsior's breakfast, on 'til 11 a.m. and very high calibre. Then it was out for a walk along the Rhine. Walking over the Hohenzollern bridge was a bit moving, if I'm honest: the impressive current under us, so many symbols of commitment locked to the railing beside us, built to a tangible energy in the air.

Our first pub of the day was Brauhaus zur Malzmühle, a brewpub in the style of the Hofbrauhaus (is the way I think of them, it being my first) and beautifully decorated for the season. Warmed by some fantastic goulash and their Kolsch, we made our way to the old town market, Alter Markt/Altstadt. "Hyper German" is the phrase that popped from my mouth, surrounded by those familiar stalls, but also under the gaze of gnomes, a bonneted matron's music box filling my ears, quickly followed by the squeals of delighted children as the tune reached its crescendo.

At times I was aware that I had the biggest grin just plastered on. The celebration was so infectious. Every stall held fresh memories from Tea's childhood. Afternoon became evening, and we made our way to another pub on the list, Pfaffen brewpub. Our beer guide commented on the beautiful stained glass above its doorway; combined with the extraordinary wood carvings along much of its interior, it was a lovely, if cosy, spot to spend a few hours.

When our waiter found out we were from Canada, his face lit up, "Ah, I've been there! Toronto! Beautiful city! I was on a very famous street..." His brow knit as he struggled to draw out the name. By this time, another waiter, the self-proclaimed "Psycho" -- little wonder why we aren't supposed to pick our own nicknames; you get a room of Mr. Blacks -- has joined in the conversation, proclaiming that more Macedonians live in Toronto than do at 'home'. "Danforth!" saved us from committing either way to this proclamation.

We'd been noticing how wet and bedraggled many of the newcomers appeared; luckily the next pub on our list was just a few doors down. The party was in full swing in the Brauhaus Sünner im Walfisch, with an L-shaped table across from us sharing what we soon found out was a five-litre tower of Sünner Kolsch. On the dubious logic that you can wait some time for refills of those tiny 0.2 L glasses, we quickly found ourselves in the shadow of our very own three-litre tower of Cologne's nectar.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is where the evening begins to take on a sort of glowing haze. Full of delicious pork, potatoes and Kolsch -- although, not the whole three litres, I hasten to add: no, we shared some with the others at our table, and received many thanks and shots of some sort in return -- we made our way, first, to the so-called medieval market, where we enjoyed more glühwein from heavily cowled folk in the light of open flames, and then to the Christmas market on a boat moored in the Rhine, not far from the Hohenzollern bridge. We had our portraits done there, Tea undoubtedly drumming up more business for the artist, such was her enthusiasm for the enterprise.


Thankfully, the day started very peacefully, the hotel now well below capacity. After breakfast, we made our way to the first of the two remaining Christmas markets -- if you haven't been counting, that's six in walking distance of our hotel and the Dom! -- Cologne's oldest, in Neumarkt. The weather had been steadily improving over the weekend, and we enjoyed the sunny breaks sipping glühwein and munching on kartoffelplätzchen (fried potato cakes).

Then it was off to the Christmas market on Rudolfplatz, in the shadow of the Hahnentorburg, one of the original twelve gates in the medieval city walls of Cologne. Our first stop was for more mulled wine, of course. Something I've failed to mention is that you're typically drinking out of mugs that are unique to that market; you pay a deposit and can then go from stall to stall, refilling as required. However, most markets won't accept mugs from other markets, which was fine with us: we had quite a collection by this point. The Rudolfplatz market's mugs were especially neat because two of them, side by side, formed a miniature replica of the Hahnentorburg.

After a bit of shopping -- Tea added to her Christmas village, and we picked up biscuits for the work crowd -- we stopped at another brewpub on the list, Päffgen Brauhaus, for an early supper. Again, I just love the feel of these places: the smell of the... unfinished pine, I suppose, of the tables, and then the deep, rich wood of the booths and panelling; this brauhaus had some fabulous stained glass as well; and it's rare that you aren't sitting near a group of older men, swapping stories or debating as they've done many times before, over a good many Kolsch. Oh, and to give you an idea of how easy that is, the waiter just keeps coming with those 0.2 L glasses, marking a stroke for each new arrival on your beermat; put your beermat on top of your glass when you're done, and he or she will tally it up. Easy-peasy!

A kip at the hotel was then in order, and as we got ready to head out again that evening, a beautiful, light snow started to fall. I don't think it could've felt more Christmas-y, as we again walked the Alter Markt and the am Kölner Dom. The crowds had hardly dipped from the weekend, and no one seemed to mind the snow -- for my Canadian readers, that may sound strange, but trust me, there are certain folks (not naming names or... nationalities) that just seem to carry on as always, shivering and muttering in their trainers and light coats, hoping this strange white stuff will simply go away.

In addition to sampling many of the old standbys, Tea also tried some käsespätzle, which looked amazing and put the biggest smile on her face.


Since our hotel was right beside the train station, and the train to Brussels didn't leave 'til 3 p.m., we still had lots of time to wander Cologne, even after our lie-in. We decided to forego the hotel breakfast for slab o' ham sandwiches, pomme frites and crepes (marmalade in mine) -- ah, there's a start to your day!

We toured the Dom and its crypt -- all free! -- and then relaxed in the Gaffel am Dom brewhouse with a few Kolsch before grabbing our bags and heading to the station. We had talked about leaving earlier and spending some time in Brussels, but decided to leave that for another trip.

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

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