If you remember what was going on last time (which seeing as it's been a little more than a year since my post in this series on 2018 West European travel you probably don't), I had just arrived at a sudden and startling realization.
I had forgotten that Saturday was a day, and had no plans and no reservations. Everything that could be booked for one night in the country of Belgium (on a sunny weekend in the middle of August) was booked.
And that's why I ended up spending the day in Köln, a place between other places I was visiting anyway.
What can I say about Köln?
First of all, it's home to a monstrously glorious cathedral, the Kölner Dom. It was originally constructed in medieval times, and augmented in the 1800s. For almost a century, it was the tallest cathedral in the world, and it is beautiful and worth a visit.
Moreover, it's right next to the train station, so if you're say, changing trains in Köln (mayhaps on your way between Berlin and Aachen or Brussels) you can easily pop over and admire it. And, you can hop on your next train satisfied with the knowledge that you have seen the city's best and brightest attraction.
Before I left Aachen, I had asked the contractors for travel recommendations for my unexpected extra few days of European travel. JTP, a friend I had met for lunch, gave some rather unusual recommendations (one of which we'll explore together... next time.)
JTP used to live in Köln, and appreciated that most of the city was not overrun by tourists. Unlike, Prague, he explained, most of the city is ugly, and as a result, it's a pleasant place to live. But maybe not the most pleasant to visit...
And, when we say that Köln is less beautiful than Prague, what we mean is that it did not fare well during the Second World War. The Allies dropped about 45 thousand tons worth of explosives onto it, destroying about 60% of the city's total area. When the city was rebuilt, much of it was done in concrete.
And yet, when I got off the train for my unplanned stopover, the small historic center near the Cathedral, its few picturesque buildings, and concrete edifices were swelling with tourists. I guess the Nespresso machine shop and overpriced restaurants speak to someone. But, not me.
Nearby, the Rhine river bisects the city. Its banks are lined with industrial buildings, and its route filled with cruise ships. I'm certain that the Cathedral is a nice stop for many a Rhine cruise. I'm less certain about the rest of the city.
I spent the morning as a tourist, popping back into that most famous of Cathedrals. Impressive, but still somehow a place where I felt a connection less so than the cathedral of Aachen.
I hit up the art museum. Foggy memories of shoving my backpack in a locker, the better to be relieved of weight. No memories of anything else.
Honest to god, I ate at one of the tourist restaurants in the tourist square, enjoying a local Kölsch beer and tourist sausage whilst fanning away flies, and later not enjoying the difficulty of flagging someone down so I could get a bill and get out of there.
After meandering through the city center, for a while longer, maybe even stopping at a small, historic chapel, I decided I was through with tourism for the day.
Köln is a large city, and most of its vastness and history are unseen by visitors, skipped over. Much of its history has passed through the years, not noticed, not highlighted, not remembered.
One of my favorite bands, Can, was formed here decades past. Psychedelic experimentation, tape machines, freeform jams.
I saw no signs of anything that would inspire musicians to forge a middle path between Stockhausen and funky grooves, but maybe I wasn't looking in the right place.
In some modern neighborhood, I visited a hipster restaurant for dinner. A place with rotating chefs. A place with "pop-up" in the description.
Flavors of marinated beef, quinoa, and an orange viscous sauce, coupled with a dark craft beer more flavorful than the Kölsch. Apparently, it was Chilean.
Afterwards, I stopped by a park that was located on the remains of a medieval fortress.
In the middle of mostly-crumbled ancient walls, stood a chain link contraption, designed for children to climb.
I climbed it to the top, and declared victory.
Afterwards, the sun set and I slinked home to a hostel bed.
I would return to the United States in less than 48 hours...
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