And so (rather belatedly) to our magical trip to Cologne. What a whirlwind of festive cheer it was!
Ever since our few idyllic days spent in Germany with my ‘German Mum’ Annemarie en route to Bulgaria, we’ve been meaning to go back to the Fatherland. So when the opportunity for a short visit arose this year, we grabbed it with both hands, especially as it was perfect timing for the Christmas markets.
It wasn’t the simplest of journeys: we travelled for 18 hours each way (on nearly every form of transport available) giving us just 48 hours in the city. This didn’t hold us back though, as we packed in a tour around the Chocolate Museum where conveyor belts full of Lindt chocolates whizzed tantalisingly past our eyes, popped into a mustard museum, admired the huge Gothic Dom, splashed ourselves decadently in 4711 Eau de Cologne which runs constantly from a tap in the shop and tucked into traditional Reibkuchen washed down with a few locally brewed Kölsch beers.
We also got around five of the seven themed Christmas markets dotted around the city, having been particularly taken by the one set in the Middle Ages. The temperature was a good few degrees below that in Bulgaria, so the Glühwein provided a welcome glow! What struck us in particular was that each of the little huts from which the craftspeople sold their wares was a very sturdy construction. In many cases, these temporary stalls were more solid than many of the buildings in Bulgaria.
It slowly dawned on us during our stay that there is a richness in the west that really hasn’t got as far as the Black Sea coast where we live. We must have looked a picture as we wandered around department stores in absolute awe of the sheer variety of choice of everything available.
The hotel breakfast was a prime example. After the much-needed sleep after our epic journey, we staggered bleary-eyed down to the ‘buffet’ where we stayed for about two hours…well who wouldn’t? There were 28 different sorts of bread available, anything you can think of to put on it, with plentiful choice of each jam, marmalade, honey, cheese, cold meats; the usual bacon, egg, sausage but with the added delights of meatballs, chicken wings, frankfurters, salmon and herring – you could even slice your own ham from the bone to have with olives and pickled veg; followed by eight types of yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit, dried fruit, a staggering 17 different types of juice, 5 different waters (really), long, short, frothy or skinny coffee and every tea you can imagine.
The piece de resistance for us though was the chocolate fountain, which of course no breakfast is complete without…I am still kicking myself that I didn’t just run my coffee cup under it!
We relaxed one evening after finding a fairly lively pub, which turned out to be showing football. Not to worry, it didn’t seem too aggressive. Half way down our second beer I mentioned how well groomed everyone looked. And wasn’t it surprising that there weren’t more ladies around these stylish young men. Third beer: oh! that was a very ….lingering celebration of the last goal.
And that is when we realised quite how long we have been away from a society that doesn’t frown on same-sex couples, despite a well-built transvestite gypsy topping the charts here on a regular basis.
Cologne – as with all rich cities – has its darker side. On the first day there seemed to be Big Issue ‘salesmen’ on every corner; and how about this for a 21st century beggar: “Can you spare any batteries for my MP3 player?” For some reason, it was more difficult to find them the next day. We had over-zealously bought a pack of six beers for the hotel room, and yet with one hour before we had to set off for the airport, we still had four! Rather than leave the hotel with the minibar in credit, we decided to spread some Christmas cheer…
….and after haring around a lot of the packed shopping area, weaving through the multitude of rich Christmas shoppers with the clock dangerously ticking towards departure time, we finally found a little man who was so overwhelmed by our little gift, all he could say in gratitude (in English) was: “I love you!”
So we left The West with all its glitter and glamour to cozy up in our little village house complete with wood-burning stove, to enjoy our very own run up to Christmas surrounded by chatty neighbours, sparsely stocked shops and home-made gifts.