After years of trying, we finally made it to Germany. This time we went by train the whole way, which actually took about the same time as it would have done to fly, by the time you allow for check-ins and suchlike. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It should have taken the same amount of time, but on the way there we had an unexpected stop….
The day started early – a 5am alarm – so that we got to the train station for a 6am train to London. No problems there, we rolled into Paddington with plenty of time to spare and caught the tube across to St Pancras, which looks fantastic after its recent renovations. A quick bite to eat in a disgustingly overpriced cafe and we checked in for Eurostar. It’s quite weird going through passport control and not getting on a plane afterward. Eurostar is pretty plush, the train runs really quietly and is very comfortable, but going through the channel tunnel is quite an anticlimax. In fact on the way there I didn’t even realise we’d gone through until I noticed cars driving on the other side of the road. We rolled into Brussells in the early evening with about fifty minutes to spare, and it’s a good job too, because Brussells Midi is a massive, massive train station. After a lot of confusion and running around we finally got on the DB ICE, a high speed international service to Germany. I thought Eurostar was nice, but it’s got nothing on the ICE. That train is more like first class on an airplane, wood paneling everywhere, private booths with curved glass doors, hi-tech displays. Unfortunately the luxury didn’t last long.
About twenty minutes out of Brussells there was a big thump noise under the train and it immediately braked to a halt. Noone seemed to know what was going on, but I could see the train staff outside with torches, and about quarter of an hour later the police arrived. After an hour and a half a small train straight out of the 1970s pulled up alongside and we have a very pidgin English announcement explaining that we had to transfer. It turns out that someone (possibly a passenger) had decided to go under the train while it was doing about 120mph. Not the most pleasant end, or the best way to start a holiday. Several small Belgian railways later, a bus to Aachen, and a further train we arrived in Cologne, four hours later than intended. Boy was it worth the wait. This was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of the station.
The Dom (cathedral) in Cologne is famous, and rightly so. It’s an absolute ziggurat of a building. It took over six-hundred years to finish and the only way to get a sense of scale is to stand next to it. There’s not a square inch of the building – inside or out – that isn’t covered in carvings or decorations of some kind. Here are a few pictures to get the idea.
The Dom also contains a large gold shrine which is said to contain the bones of the three Magi from the story of Christmas. It was opened in the 19th century and actually contains bones and clothing dated at about 2,000 years old.
The main reason we were in the city in the first place was for the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets). Europe does these markets better than anywhere else, and Cologne’s are regarded as some of the best, and I can see why now. There are seven main markets, I managed to get to six of them, including a middle-ages one (which is directly outside of the chocolate museum! A beautiful bow-fronted glass building with some amazing chocolate inside). For the first few days we didn’t actually buy very much at all, mostly just gluhwein to collect the mugs, a LOT of rostbratwusrt and pretzels, and being in Cologne, plenty of Kolsch. Kolsch is the local beer which can only be brewed within the city, and they drink it like it was water out there.
It’s a beautiful city during the day, modern, busy, but in no way too hassled or hurried. It’s like having all the best bits of somewhere like London, but just winding it down a bit. At night is when it comes alove though, and that’s when it starts to look really pretty, especially at this time of year.
It was such a nice break and I was able to test out my German (which is actually pretty good!), relax and soak up the festive atmosphere. It also helped me to not freak out about my Dan grading, a grading I had to take the day after I got back. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for a relaxing break, some good shopping (although some of the markets are really overpriced for tourists), and a lot of really interesting architecture. Aside from the Dom itself there are a lot of Roman churches, a castle, and a full roman excavation going on in the middle of the town. The train rides back were much, much better, far smoother and very efficient. Even including a break for an hour and a half in Paddington, it was still only 11 hours door-to-door.