Cologne. Firstly, the station is enormous. The first thing we saw was the cathedral, and regardless of what you think of the Catholic church it is monumentally impressive. Put on your walking shoes as between the main churches, the old town, Hohen-Zollern bridge, and if you’re there at Christmas the dozen or so Christmas markets (there is a cute little train cart running between the 4 main ones) you’re in for a lot of walking as it covers a pretty big area.
Our hotel was located conveniently, just on the other side of the station from the Cathedral (I have to say the station itself is a work of architectural art, so be prepared to look up from both inside and out and admire the stunning roofline) however the attendant who checked us in was unfortunately incompetent. When we arrived, aside from being unable to point out our location on a map, she’d accidentally given my father a smoking room instead of the non smoking he had booked, then when she moved him it appears she had updated their spreadsheet to say /I/ moved instead (yes, their booking system is a spreadsheet). We’d been told we could leave the keys, which were on insanely heavy metal keychains, at the desk when we went out as it was manned 24 hours. When we returned to collect the keys, the new girl on nightshift, not knowing what had gone down before, had just checked in another guest and given him the key to my room, which had all my belongings in it! Luckily we got back just minutes after this happened and were able to sort it out promptly but it was an alarming start to our stay in Cologne.
The Cologne cathedral boasts the widest facade of any church in Europe and is 157 metres tall. It took over 600 years to finally complete it, and I wonder if it could have been done with the technology at the time of it’s conception. Certainly the architect dreamt it but it was extraordinarily ambitious. Don’t expect any information about all this on the way in though (at least not in English – that we could find).
The Christmas Market beside the cathedral was likewise a far cry from the small one we found in Dusseldorf. It was enormous, with about 4 lanes of stalls arranged around a central Christmas tree with a stage at its base. In addition to the sausage and rosti stalls we came across numerous Gluhwein stands, burgers, baked fish, spatzle, strudel, small cakes, crepes, candied apples and more. Where the Dusseldorf market had a sort of children’s Gingerbread village theme, the Cathedral market had signature peaked rec tents festooned with lights. This was the market I had heard of, but little did I know there are numerous markets in Cologne – we ended up discovering 5 (the 4 main ones and a smaller one beside the Cathedral market which was themed like a rather kitsch holy crib).
I think my favourite was the Old Town Market, which is actually 2 market areas connected by the Antique Alley which also hosts the least religious-arty-style crib (nativity scene) we saw, with figures carved from 250kg logs. It seems there is some sort of crib trail available with each destination hosting its own – I was quite amused by the little policeman in the Cathedral crib wearing ye old safety vest. The Old Town market is styled like Bavarian chalets with timber cottages and a cosy rustic feel. It has a small ice skating rink and an activity that looked something like ice lawn bowls using heavy pawn shaped weights.
We had our first (but not last!) Gluhwein and realised that not only was there a crib trail through the city, but all the markets had their own cute little Gluhwein mugs and these seemed to be collectables. At the Old Town market, which seems to be generally gnome themed, the mugs had a series of different gnome characters with their own stories. Needless to say I pretty much ran towards the stall than I saw displaying a sign for Raclette – the half wheels of cheese were set up on a convenient rotating device that swaps them under an element – and so began my European quest for All The Cheese.
At the main souvenir shop in front of the cathedral I was excited to find my first penny press machine – I started collecting these in the US in 2008 and always forget about them, then get excited when I rediscover it in some other part of the world, although there certainly seem to be more of them in America.