Cologne at Christmas Time. So much to do and see that it deserves at least two blog posts. Thank you to everyone that made it through Part One – the gnomes, the views, the bottomless beer, the irish pub, the late night kebab, the insomnia…
We are not refreshed. In the slightest. Mr Fletche is now starting to feel a scratchy throat and a blocked nose. I am in the full throes of whatever evil strain of bug has come away with me. But are we going to let it stop us? Are we heck. I mainline lozenges like they’re tic-tacs and pile on all my clothes (even though it’s not cold). Let our second day in Cologne commence.
First on today’s plan is a free walking tour. This is always one of my favourite ways to explore a new city, and we’ve been on great tours in Budapest, Copenhagen and Vienna. It’s a simple concept. A local shows a tour group around the city on foot, and then said tour group tip generously at the end. Our guide is Philip and he is informative, engaging and able to keep our unruly group together in busy crowds, which is a talent in itself. We make our way to the starting point on the fringes of the city centre, via a stop for coffee at the train station. I fail to secure the lid on my coffee, and wonder why I am dribbling it down my scarf.
We learn about why people from Cologne are not your stereotypical Germans. In fact, they pride themselves on being quite the opposite. We learn all about St Ursula and her eleven virgins who mysteriously became 11,000 virgins. How Cologne likes to be a world record holder, no matter how obscure the record. That Kölner Dom has its own house number (should you ever want to send it a postcode). How an artist from Cologne has gone on to spray-paint bananas at art sites around the globe (we even have one here in Birmingham!). And why what happens at Carnival stays at Carnival. We gladly tip Philip handsomely at the end for an entertaining few hours.
We’re smack bang in the middle of brauhas central when we finish our tour. Handily, just minutes from our hotel. Which is much more pleasant in the daytime. We decide to visit Brauhas Sion for lunch – liquid and otherwise – mainly because I like their blue and silver themed christmas tree outside. As expected on a Saturday afternoon it’s pretty busy and noisy inside but the waiters do everything they can to get people seated as quickly as possible. We share our table with a trio of Japanese men. They take more photos of their food than I do. The food is authentic and hearty, Kölsch is served, and the service is a little chaotic but its fun to eat in a classic Brauhaus. Definitely not one for a romantic intimate meal for two though.
Appetite sated, Google Map in hand, we head off to explore the remaining four Cologne Christmas Markets. For those not caught up with part one, we’d visited the Old Market at Alter Market/Heumarket, the Harbour Christmas Market and (briefly) the Cathedral Xmas Market on Day One. We head through the busy pedestrianised shopping street Gürzenichstraße, onto Schildergasse, past familiar names such as H&M, Zara and a Primark with a big ice cream cone sticking out of it’s roof. We skirt past the Angel’s Christmas Market on Neumarkt, and continue heading out to Stadtgarten. Yes, it would have been quicker and less effort to catch the tram. But what’s a city break without adding on unnecessary steps?
Mr Fletche doubts I know where I’m going (as usual) but in a roundabout way we end up at Stadtgarten. The Christmas market here is surrounded by a small park which refuses to be festive and insists on remaining autumnal. I run amongst the fallen leaves like a child and insist on having my photo taken throwing leaves in the air. Mr Fletche indulges me. He may be a photographer but he’s not an Instagram husband so this is the best we get.
Tired of playing with leaves, we head to the market itself. With strings of lights hanging from the trees, this one is more rustic and romantic, with a fairytale forest feel about it. It also specialises in more organic food and drink, and unique handmade goods. The gluhwein here seems to be particularly potent.
We wind our way back into the city via Christmas Markets 5, 6 and 7. Number 5 is Nikolausdorf at Rudolfplatz in the shadow of the 13th century city gate Hahnentorburg. It’s designed with the theme of St Nicholas’ Village, and features stalls nestling under half-timbered houses and garland-festooned windows. There’s even a singing moose. Although whether he has his own Twitter profile like the Birmingham singing moose remains to be seen. From old-fashioned and medieval, it’s pop art, neon and candy penises at Christmas Market No 6. Cologne has one of the largest LGBT+ communities in Germany, and “Heavenue” celebrates that whilst opening its arms to all. You can certainly pick up some unique christmas decorations here that you certainly won’t find at the other markets.
Finally, we head back to Neumarkt, and the city’s oldest Christmas market, Markt der Engel. Angels dressed in white wander around, sprinkling glitter and good cheer over visitors. There’s a traditional carousel, and shimmering stars hang from the trees. Although there are familiar goods and produce that we see time and time again, I love how each market has it’s own theme, and you can always find items that are specific to just one or two markets. We head back to the hotel for a while after putting a fair few steps on the clock.
A quick glimpse out of our window reveals Christmas in Heumarkt in full swing. There appear to be hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder, moving as one swaying mass to and from the bar. We decide to give this one a miss and take a walk along the promenade. There are notably less people down by the river. We head down to Hohenzollernbrücke, and then do an about face and head back towards the Harbour Christmas Market. This has won us over as our favourite. Not least because we’re able to find a comfortable spot to stand. We work our way through a gluhwein, then I opt for the hot cider/gin combo. Twice. Mr Fletche goes off in search of food and returns with currywurst, garlic mushrooms and chips. Probably my favourite meal of the holiday. And that includes last night’s kebab.
It’s been another noisy night. This time though, we are prepared and go to sleep with “English Rain” on our headphones once more. Meaning we are slightly more refreshed for our final morning. But not much. Both of us now look like we’d like nothing more than a day on a sofa with a tissue in one hand and a Lemsip in the other. But we still have one last morning to explore.
We complete our morning coffee and pastry ritual. Except I have tea, forget it’s Earl Grey, add milk and can’t drink more than a mouthful. Should have stuck to coffee. The plan this morning is grab some Christmas market pics in the relative tranquility of the day. As much as I like the hustle and bustle, it’s so much nicer to be able to wander round at our leisure, being able to approach the stalls and not get in anyone’s way whilst taking photos. I also buy the obligatory Christmas decoration. It’s less tacky than my usual choices. Ma and Pa Lee get one too.
We head back to check out, although we leave our bags in storage for a couple of hours. “How was your stay?” the man on reception asks. “Noisy” I say. He shakes his head sympathetically. He is not the man I need to discuss better soundproofing with I feel.
We head back through to the Cathedral Christmas Market. There’s a choir just starting, so we grab a heiße Schokolade and soak up the festive vibes. Oddly, they appear to be singing mainly Beatles numbers. We’re in the neighbourhood, so it only seems right to pop in to the magnificent cathedral. This is the kind of cathedral I love. Wide and open, with high vaulted ceilings and gorgeous stained glass windows sending pops of colour sprawling across the floor. The Three Wise Men certainly have a pretty splendid resting place. (Yet another quirky Cologne fact, the relics were allegedly “borrowed” from the Italians back in the 9th century, and never given back!). We light a candle, remembering the sad loss of my mother in law Judy earlier this year.
The sun is over the yardarm, so we have a final gluhwein from the stand outside Früh am Dom before searching out lunch to set us up for our journey back to Dusseldorf and onwards to Birmingham. I’ve been eyeing up the fleischspeiss – essentially half a metre of flame-grilled meat on a stick. Be careful not to have someone’s eye out when you’re gnawing at one end. And I can’t leave without a knoblauchbrot, deep fried garlic bread slathered in ham and cheese.
As we head for the station, we reflect on our time in Cologne. I love the city – the architecture, the quirkiness, the vibe. The Christmas Markets, although like our very own German Market here in Birmingham they’re best avoided on a weekend evening. The kölsch, and the brauhaus culture. I haven’t loved being in the middle of nightlife central. And I haven’t loved schlepping around Cologne with a snotty nose, sore throat and hacking cough. But that’s not Cologne’s fault. We’ll definitely be back – all those outdoor terraces are just calling for a summertime visit!