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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Köln

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We dragged the kids out of Phantasialand with enough time to make a couple of dents in our itinerary before heading to our Airbnb in Köln. This was important because we were now sure of having enough time to visit Cochem en route to Koblenz. Our first stop was half an hour away at Schloss Drachenburg. This castle is often dismissed as a fraud by connoisseurs of classic German architecture because it was built in the late 19th century by the son of a bar owner who amassed the fortune in financial markets and then purchased his title of nobility. The building combines a variety of styles in an effort to replicate the majesty of the medieval and Renaissance castles of the Rhine Valley, but is considered by many to have no architectural merit of its own. The castle passed through a succession of owners, some of whom furnished it with phony historical artifacts that remain inside. The castle is now owned by the state which maintains it as a museum. Since we aren't particularly sophisticated in matters of art or architecture nor sticklers for authenticity, Drachenburg's questionable provenance was less important to us than its renowned beauty. The castle sits halfway up a tall hill called Drachenfels, German for dragon's rock, due to local legend that it is the site were the dragon Fafnir was killed by Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied. We chose to drive rather than taking the cog railway from the small town of Königswinter at the base of the hill, only to find that the parking lot was almost as far away from our destination as the train station. Our long walk was finally rewarded by the sight of a truly beautiful stone castle that looked perfectly authentic to my untrained eye. If one day I came into more money than I knew what to do with I imagine that Drachenfels is very much like the castle I would build for my family.

The interior of the castle seemed very similar to others we had visited but there was a pleasant array of spiral staircases and terraces that were open for exploration. From the highest levels there were excellent views over the town and the Rhine Valley. If we had taken the railway we could have continued upward to the ruined castle at the top of Drachenfels for even better views but by this time our stomachs had begun growling and we decided to proceed onward to dinner.

There are several small towns on the Rhine famous for their well-preserved historic centers. The closest one to Drachenfels was Linz Am Rhein so we decided to have dinner there before finding our Airbnb in Köln. It was interesting to see the sharp demarcation between the drab, utilitarian modern section and the idyllic old town. The cobblestone squares were lined with classic German half-timbered houses in pristine condition. We seemed to be the only gawkers in the streets despite it being a warm and clear summer evening. There were just a few clusters of people hanging around in the outdoor cafes who could have been locals.

Despite the absence of tourists we had surprising difficulty locating a restaurant. We bypassed the bland cafes in the main square but the targets we had selected were either closed or had ceased to exist when we arrived at the address. We braved an underpass to reach a large brauhaus on the river that informed us they couldn't take us despite appearing to be half empty. Back in the old town we came across a small traditional German restaurant we hadn't noticed before that was completely empty but open for business. Once inside Am Strünzerbrunnen we had the undivided attention of the owner as we studied the menu with the assistance of my online German dictionary. There was a wide selection of different meats which were expertly prepared with light creamy sauces generously laden with chanterelle mushrooms. As happens so often when we leave our dining plans to chance, a series of disappointments culminated in one of our better meals of the trip.

Our Airbnb in Köln was an apartment whose host owned a Ukrainian restaurant on the ground floor. I'd decided to reserve accommodations with air conditioning for the last two weeks of the trip in case of a July heat wave but due to the limited selection we had to compromise on other features. We had no off street parking and when we arrived in the late evening cars were packed tightly along the sides of the narrow streets. I was prepared to search for a subterranean garage but Mei Ling convinced me to duck into an outdoor lot where we found exactly one open spot and discovered happily that it was municipal parking.

In the morning we braved grey skies and a stuttering drizzle at the daily market at Wilhelmplatz in the northern suburb of Nippes. It was a utilitarian market with low priced produce for locals but not much in the way of things to be eaten right away. We found a Turkish restaurant on the square that was open for breakfast and ordered a substantial amount of food, in contrast to the other patrons who were having coffee and perhaps a pastry. I'm sure an American family consuming a massive breakfast wasn't a common sight at that place and one of the other customers came over to our table to check us out. He was from Turkey and we discussed my strong interest in visiting the country for awhile. He told us there was a large Turkish community in Köln and gave us some tips on neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Turkish restaurants and stores.

After breakfast it began to rain harder. We drove by the neighborhood the guy from the restaurant had recommended but it didn't seem that interesting to walk around in especially considering the weather so we proceeded onward to a garage downtown. We emerged very close to the chocolate museum, a place I had noted on my research but had no intention of visiting since I considered it to be a tourist trap. As we walked by I felt a few drops of drizzle again and made the impulsive decision to cross the short bridge to the attractive building in the Rhine harbor. The museum was founded by a German chocolatier named Hans Imhoff but is now operated in coordination with the Swiss company Lindt. It was a pleasant enough place to spend a couple of hours with some free samples and a few games for the kids but I preferred our chocolate-making experience in Nicaragua.

Once we left the skies had cleared a little and I felt more comfortable wandering the streets. Köln didn't have much of an old town largely because much of the historic neighborhood was destroyed during World War II. There were some attractive cobblestone streets and older buildings but nothing with a medieval or Renaissance era feel. My favorite edifice was the Romanesque Great St. Martin Church with its four lofty towers.

Although most of the historic area was fairly empty that changed as we approached the most popular attraction in the city and possibly the whole country of Germany, the Kölner Dom. Construction of this Gothic cathedral began in medieval times but was not completed until the late nineteenth century, after which it was the tallest building in the world for ten years. The Dom was the only place we saw in Köln that fit the description of a typical tourist attraction, and it seemed like every tourist in the city was collected around it. It is a massive building topped with a forest of Gothic spires, made even more formidable by its location in the center of an open square with no other tall buildings to distract from it. The other feature of the Dom that stands out right away is that the entire building is unevenly discolored with varying quantities of black grime. This is the result of environmental pollutants that adhere to the sandstone and the reaction of sulphuric acid in rain with the calcium carbonate in the stone. It would be completely impossible to remove this black patina from the entire cathedral but the building is in a constant state of piecemeal restoration and the stone is gradually being replaced with material of lower limestone content. Having recently seen the golden cathedral at Metz and so many other exquisite churches on our travels it was difficult not to be distracted by the grubby exterior of the Dom.

We continued our walk north of the cathedral but found ourselves in a rather boring shopping district so we doubled back to our car. I was glad we'd killed some time in the museum because it was mid afternoon and I had very little left on the itinerary. I felt a pang of guilt for having pried the kids away from Phantasialand early the previous day, because we would have had plenty of time to drive out of town to see Drachenburg Castle this afternoon. There was an interesting beach club with an artificial lake called Blackfoot Beach just north of the city but that was out of the question due to the weather. We drove all the way to the station of the Seilbahn, the cable car that crosses the Rhine, just to find out it was closed due to high winds. We then proceeded to the Stadtgarten, one of the few beer gardens in Köln. The tables in the beer garden itself were bare and empty, probably because of the weather, so we sat indoors. The menu looked good so we ordered some dishes even though I had planned for us to have dinner at an evening market. I asked our pleasant waitress if they had altbier, a dark beer I had enjoyed on our last stop, and she laughed and asked me if I thought I was still in Düsseldorf. It would seem that beer is a very local phenomenon in Germany.

Even though we had eaten we proceeded to the Thursday evening market at the Rudolfplatz. We had to park a few blocks away which caused us to walk through a very energetic and hip neighborhood with a lot of boutiques and street sculptures. The lack of parking had led some shoppers to find very creative solutions.

I wasn't counting on finding the Meet and Eat market where we expected it but it was there and even better than I had expected. It was almost all food trucks but very high quality and with a lot more seating than there had been at the evening markets in Brussels. I was kicking myself for having wasted our empty stomachs with a boring dinner at Stadtgarten, but we still found enough room to enjoy a few snacks and a couple of glasses of wine while absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of the gathering.

Our visit to Köln was almost over and we still hadn't explored the neighborhood of Severins around our Airbnb. This was another busy area filled with restaurants and bars. We had noticed an interesting structure close to our apartment that looked like a small castle. When we took a closer look we realized it was one of the surviving gates of the old city walls which have mostly been destroyed. Four of these gates remain, one of which we had practically ignored earlier at Rudolfplatz.

Oddly enough our appetites had returned by this point and we soon discovered a Turkish barbecue restaurant with a quite appetizing selection of meats. We created a beautiful sampler of their specialties along with a pile of barbecued chilis that were so spicy that even Mei Ling couldn't finish them. Exhausted, we returned to the Airbnb for our final night in the city.

In the morning we visited the Apostelnmarkt not far from Rudolfplatz. This Friday morning market in the shadow of the Romanesque St. Aposteln church specializes in gourmet foods. The kiosks looked more like miniature stores in contrast to the haphazard plastic crate tables and tattered canopies of Wilhelmplatz, but we couldn't see any real difference in the quality of the produce. There were delicatessens with ready to eat food here so we were able to satisfy our breakfast needs before continuing our journey south through the Rhine Valley.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:30 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family cologne family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog drachenburg linz_am_rhein stadtgarten

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