My family is primarily of German descent. My grandmother, or Oma, was born in Cologne, Köln, auf Deutsch. When my sister moved to Germany several years ago and I was still living in France, we decided to make my first German trip to our Oma’s hometown.
We did two very important things upon arrival, number one was of course going to see the Cathedral. This catherdral is still the tallest two-spired in Europe, which means, you can see it from quite a few places in town. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was evening when we arrived, and already night by the time we got to the Cathedral. Although it is illuminated, it is still quite ominous and dark at night, against the night sky. It is located on a nice square in the center of Cologne, and of course, there is a delicious German Brewery located right on the square, Gaffel am Dom.
If you know me, you know I love an adult beverage. I’m all for brewery tours, wine tastings, and taking shots of a regional alcohol. Tourism and drinking is ideal in my book. I have told the story of dining at Gaffel many times, behind many bars I’ve worked at, because it combines so many wonderful things into one solid experience.
First, as soon as we sat down, the waiter arrived and offered us drinks. I was already ecstatic at his promptness, because I had just come from France, where you have to wave anyone down to order, get another round, or get your check. What is there to drink when you are in Köln, but Kölsch. Kölsch beer is a pilsner, due to the use of the malt with the same name. Almost all of our cheap American beers, like Miller, Bud, Coors are based on this original. In Germany, there are a lot more rules to making beer, and perhaps you have already heard of the Reinheitsgebot, a German law originally dating from the 16th century that states only malt, hops, yeast, and water can make beer. Kölsch is served in a “Stange” glass, which is just under seven ounces of beer. The waiter was carrying a circular sort of basket, a kranz or wreath, which held about ten of these glasses at a time. He threw two coasters on the table, took two full beers out of his wreath, and marked a dash on each on of our coasters. My sister explained, that is how he will keep track of how many we drink. When your glass is empty, he just replaces it with another beer, and makes another mark. He stops when you cover your empty glass with your coaster. GENIUS.
Second, the food. While this might not be a perk for many people, German food is what I grew up on in Pennsylvania. I get excited when I see sauerkraut on a menu, potatoes come with every single option, and most of the options are different kinds of pork. My sister assured me that I would be happy with the “Hämmchen”-Eisbein mit Kartoffelpüree und Sauerkraut (Ham hock, or pork knuckle, with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut). The ham was as big as my head, and the beer plentiful, we were off to a good start.
Almost every German restaurant I’ve been in, I’ve left sad, but only because I don’t often know if and when I’ll ever return to try the rest of the stuff on the menu. I’m also a bit sad because there aren’t enough German restaurants in Pennsylvania Dutch country (don’t worry, we’ll get to the PA Dutch and German in Pennsylvania on another post).
The rest of the trip, I remember mostly facing my fears, the one specifically about heights. It turns out you can climb up to an observation deck inside of one of the spires of the cathedral, so in the morning, we set off to do just that. There are 533 stone steps up, which really wasn’t so bad. It is once you get to the top, and the last few sets of stairs to the metal observation deck, are also metal grates, that you can see through. You can see right out the stairs, right out the spire, and hundreds of feet below and for miles around. I was sweating in my palms, but I was here to get some pictures with my sister!
We also went for a long walk in a park across the river, and ended up far away and exhausted. There was a gondola located at the far end of the park, that seemed to take us right back into the center of town. I still think my sister plans to torture me sometimes, and this was an extremely special occasion. This is one of the longest gondola rides there is, and the longer they are, the more the gondola bobs up and down. Also, there were no encasing windows, no seat belts, or safety precautions as far as I could see. As we crossed over the Rhine, I tried to figure out how I would land in the water in an emergency so that I wouldn’t break my neck. Looking up this gondola for this article, I discovered all my fears were confirmed, as in 2017, people got stuck on this gondola for hours and needed to be rescued!
Cologne is also the first place I had a Döner kebab. Now, a kebab in France is garbage. I used to explain it like this: as the Turkish brought their kebab from the East, Westward into Europe, people stopped all along the way to set up their new lives. I believe the first people who stopped, knew how to make the kebab with all the accoutrements, the further they got from Turkey, the less they knew, and the less toppings the Kebab you would have. That is why in France you get the kebab shaved meat, bread, sauce, and you are lucky if you get a tomato or lettuce. One of the sauces offered with the French Kebab is sauce americain, which we clearly don’t have in America, and it is just ketchup and mayo mixed together. Now, a real Döner kebab is shaved meat, bread, and a whole salad bar of delicious items to put on it. I usually just ask for everything.
There a lot more fun things to do in Cologne besides eat and drink. I say, why choose between sight seeing and drinking local beverages, when you can do both? This last photo is taken in front of the medieval city gates of Cologne. It is impressive that it is still standing, after the city was almost completely destroyed by bombing in World War II. And as you can see, we are enjoying our beverages on the street, because we can.