Shortly after getting settled into Toronto and my job at Autodesk, I went on a glorious weekend trip with Rob to Köln, Germany. He had found some cheap airline tickets connecting in New York, so we decided to go for it. We left early on a Friday morning and returned late the following Monday. It was my first time in Europe and was super fun!
Köln -- December 2006
Germany rocked!! I had a great time and the two full days we spent in the city were enough to do most of the things we wanted to. If I had been backpacking through Europe I probably wouldn't have spent much longer there, so I think it worked out quite well.
We flew from Toronto to New York (Newark-Liberty Airport) on Friday the 8th, arriving around 11:00am. The flight was pretty quick but the last 15 minutes were very turbulent and most people on the plane were feeling pretty sick. Everyone cheered when we landed mostly because the plane had finally stopped trying to make us vomit.
Rob and I quickly got off the plane and caught a commuter train that took us right into midtown Manhatten, a few blocks from Times Square. We walked up to Times Square and wandered around a bit taking pictures and acting like tourists. We found a really huge Toys 'R Us which had a bunch of cool Lego sculptures and other fun toys. After ogling the Nintendo Wii's for a bit we left and started trying to find some lunch. We eventually settled on a random cafe on some side street somewhere that had some really good pizza. Absolutely loaded with toppings. It was excellent and super cheap, so I think it was something that wasn't meant for tourists. Score!
After lunch we headed to the Empire State building to go up and enjoy the view. Unfortunately, the line was gigantic and we didn't have enough time to wait around for 1.5 hours if we wanted to catch our flight. We decided to get an express pass (more than double standard admission) which was totally the right thing to do. The pass let you skip all the lines. All you had to do was tell the staff you wanted one and they immediately escorted you to the front of the ticket buying line, then to the front of the elevator line, and after the ride up, to the front of the upper elevator line. On the way down you got to get on the elevator right away too. The building gives a great view of the city, but it was really cold that day, the wind was awful and we had to keep going in and out of the gift shop to keep warm. Pretty amusing.
Once we finished with the Empire State building we got some snacks from a Walgreens and then took the train back to the airport to catch the overnight flight to Germany. The flight was not bad but I had a hard time sleeping and the food they gave us was pretty terrible. Anyway, we arrived in Germany at 8:30am local time and I had managed to sleep maybe 2 hours after running around New York the previous day.
We collected our baggage in Germany and then caught a commuter train into Cologne. The train was really convenient because the station we got off at was right in front of our hostel. Unfortunately it was too early to get our rooms, so we dumped our baggage in the baggage room, brushed our teeth, and headed into the city.
Cologne is a really nice city, and the weekend we went it was full of tourists from around Germany enjoying the Christmas markets. We spent most of Saturday looking through the many markets and seeing the city. After a quick breakfast of croissants and cappuccinos we went to our first market and got some steaming mugs of gluhwein, a hot red wine based beverage. Quite strong but very warming. Maybe not the best choice for a morning beverage, but it came in a cool mug that I kept. We also got some some lard-fried potato pancakes (mmm...lard). The markets were just full of Christmas things and gifts for anyone. It was neat to see some of the German stuff that I have seen with through my dad's family but no where else in Canada. We also went to a gigantic music store called Saturn where Rob picked up some random europop. We did 4 markets that morning and then headed back to the hostel to claim our room and shower and take a break.
The hostel was really big, and clearly catered to large groups, so it wasn't the greatest for meeting random people (the common room was uninviting). But it was very clean and nice and cheap. We each paid about 23 euros per night, which included breakfast the next day. Our room had 3 bunk beds in it (so it slept 6 people) as well as a locker for each person and a bathroom with a (crappy European) shower. Everything was spotless and the beds were pretty comfy. Our roommates were nice (although different each night). They included people from Brazil, Japan, Spain, Germany and unidentified (some people we never met due to conflicting sleeping hours). I would definitely do the hostel thing again in the future. Hotels are so expensive and you're never there anyway.
After resting for a while, we went back out and hit up the Chocolate Museum. It was hilarious. It was a very serious look at the history, production and distribution of chocolate. It was way too serious to not laugh at so we had a great time. It also had a functioning chocolate factory that you could walk through and sample the end product. Tasty! The best part was the huge gift shop (all chocolate) where I picked up most of the presents I brought back for people.
After the museum we wandered around looking for somewhere nice to eat supper (unsuccessfully, due to the crowds) and we ended up just getting Currywurst from a market. Currywurst is quite popular in Germany and consists of a traditional sausage sliced up and coated in a sauce made from ketchup and curry powder. It was much tastier than it sounds and it came with the traditional European side of fries and mayonnaise. It was a great meal. Also, in our wanderings we stumbled across a fantastic shop of very authentic cuckoo clocks and pyramids (spinny Christmas candle holder things). The stuff in there was awesome (and awesomely expensive), and I'm so glad I saw it.
After supper we decided that our energy had run out so we went back to the hostel. I checked my email at a terminal and then we sat around for a while in the common area drinking some beer we got from the front desk. It was pretty amusing because we were able to watch at least three large groups of German tourists (young ones) leave the hostel in various costumes (one group was all orange short skirts and tight white tops, guys and girls). Lots of drinking involved of course. After finishing our beers we went up to our room and met our roommates for the evening. After talking for a bit we finally went to sleep after many long hours of running around.
The next day we got up, had some sweet hostel style breakfast and then headed out to see as much as we could. We had hoped to go clothes shopping, but made the mistake of assuming that the shops would be open on Sunday. Fortunately there was still plenty to do in town. We spent a bunch of time at the Kolner Dom, which is a giant Catholic cathedral at the centre of town. First we went up a 500 step spiral staircase to the top of one of the spires and got a good view of the city. Then later we did a tour of the main building and got to see and hear a lot about the history. The purpose of the cathedral was to be a point of pilgrimage to see the remains of the three wise men, which were brought to the city about 1000 years ago. We got to see the gilded box (huge) containing the remains as well as hundreds of other ancient relics that are still in active use at the cathedral. The place was like a museum the stuff was so old, but it was all being used so that was pretty neat. The stained glass was also astounding, some of it more than 500 years old.
We hit up a couple more markets that day, including one on a boat, and we also went ice skating at an outdoor rink. We then managed to get a nice meal at a fancy Czech restaurant which we followed up with beers at a bar around the corner. The bar was really fun, because they were playing happy German club music and there was a group of people in Santa hats all singing along. Quite amusing, and just fun to sit and enjoy it. Back at the hostel we sat in the common area for a bit drinking beers with one of our roommates for the evening. He was friendly and had travelled to Canada in the past so it was neat to chat with him about home. We went back up to the room and chatted with another roommate for a while and then went to bed.
The next day we got up at 6am and went out to catch our train back to the airport. We actually almost missed it, because they changed the schedules while we were there, which meant that the time we had looked up on Friday had become invalid. Fortunately we just caught the train and we easily got through security and onto the plane back home. The flight back was even longer due to wind or something, but it was smooth so there were no problems. I even managed to sleep a little. We had the perfect amount of time to connect in New York and then we were back to Toronto and I went to bed.
It was a great trip and I'm totally glad I went. Here are some pictures: