A Travellerspoint blog

February 2015

The fifth season begins

"Cologne is a feeling"

semi-overcast 10 °C

The first leg of the journey to Cologne - a train to Hamburg - involves a short sea crossing where the entire train is loaded onto a ferry. The train passengers all have to disembark for the duration of the crossing. I'm staggered by the hordes of people who flock to the restaurant - why would anyone want to pay through the nose for inferior food in a soulless plastic canteen crammed with dozens of other travellers? The crossing is only 45 minutes long so it's not as if starvation can be imminent. A shouting crowd of gypsies surrounds the currency exchange booth for most of the voyage, another situation that confuses me as the exchange rates offered are nothing special. I visit the deck at regular intervals - for whatever reason, I worry more about boat trips than any other mode of transport and being on deck seems to offer the best shot at survival if anything goes wrong.

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I change at Hamburg and the train for the second half of the journey runs late, depositing me in Cologne in the evening. It's the 11th of November, or the 11th of the 11th, and earlier today - at 11:11AM to be precise - the Cologne Carnival season began. The festivities are already in full swing and I exit the train station with the towering spires of Cologne Cathedral above me and thousands of revellers decked in fancy dress around me.

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I'll only be in Cologne for a few days and the main reason for me being here is as much because it's a convenient place to break up the journey home as anything else. When I booked my trains a couple of months ago, I had absolutely no idea that I'd be arriving at the start of Carnival, and it was only when I found that hotel availability was low and the few choices very expensive that it dawned on me that I hadn't timed things well. Thus I have ended up paying more for my Cologne accommodation per night than either Stockholm or Copenhagen and the hotel, though possessing no major flaws, is vastly overpriced even for its central location.

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It's been a long day on the trains and I'm tempted by bed, but I figure that I should have a brief wander around the city centre to check out the atmosphere first. The booze has clearly been flowing. Though the carnival season may have begun today, it will be suspended through Advent and the Christmas period and not really start again in earnest until January, so there is an imperative to begin with a bang, as the next couple of months will be low key. Drunken people stagger along the streets, discarded bottles, cups, and glasses being crunched underfoot. Music blares out of pubs that are so full that there are queues outside to get in. Drummers and trumpeters hold their own impromptu concert in one of the squares.

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There's an old fairy tale about Cologne in which a race of gnomes used to do all of the city's work during the night so that the human inhabitants could laze around during the day. This continued until one night a tailor's wife scattered peas over the floor of the shop, in the hope that the gnomes would fall on them and she might be able to see one. This, of course, just cheesed off the gnomes, who disappeared and were never seen again. This tale is commemorated by a fountain in the city centre. And when I walk through the city centre the morning after the start of Carnival, I'm impressed by how the modern day gnomes, aka the city's street-cleaners, have already been doing sterling work. The rubbish from the night before has been substantially cleared up and the pavements all hosed down, and it's only here and there that lakes of garbage can still be found.

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At the heart of Cologne, and dominating the skyline to the extent that it can be used as a reference point wherever you are in the city, is its cathedral or, in German, Dom. Though Cologne suffered dreadful bombing damage during WWII, the cathedral was spared by bomber pilots because it was such a good landmark to aid their navigation. It is a truly astounding construction, being the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and possessing the largest facade of any church in the world - it's Germany's most visited building. The exterior is amazing, with gargoyles and statues in abundance, particularly around the entrances, and the two towers rise to vertiginous heights. I'm a big fan of York Minster and not just because I lived in York for several years, but from the outside I would say that Cologne Cathedral is a more impressive structure, even though it's filthy compared to the Minster.

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The interior is dominated by the various stained-glass windows, the oldest dating from about 1260AD (only 12 years after the foundation stone was laid), the most recent a decidedly modern offering from 2007 that resembles randomly coloured pixels and won't be to everyone's tastes. Behind the altar is a gilded sarcophagus supposedly containing the bones of the Three Wise Men - the original purpose of the cathedral was to house these relics. Not that there's any need to introduce an element of competition, but if the exterior of Cologne Cathedral surpasses that of the Minster, those positions are reversed when it comes to the interiors. Both buildings are worth going out of your way to see, though.

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The cathedral isn't the only religious construction of interest in Cologne - there are 12 Romanesque churches dotted around the city, the oldest dating from the late 4th century and most of them founded before 1000AD. The largest, St Maria im Kapitol, is perhaps the most interesting, though my visit there is greatly enhanced by the long conversation that I have with the chatty guardian. Now long retired from a career in the wallpaper industry, he reminisces fondly about his time in Oldham after the war, learning about English techniques in his particular domain. He gives me a tour of the church, pointing out the wooden door dating from 1065 that takes two people two weeks to clean each year. He thinks that Cologne as a city is in a bit of a trough at the moment, certainly when compared with places like Hamburg, but he seems inordinately happy to have the chance to practice his English. I'm amazed when I finally leave to see that we've been talking for the best part of an hour and a half. In fact I have more interesting interactions with local people in Cologne in three days than I managed in two weeks in Stockholm and Copenhagen - I'm not sure whether that speaks more about the relative sociability of the people in those cities, or that maybe I'm enjoying Cologne so much that I come across as more approachable.

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By a happy coincidence, Cologne possesses another of the few cat cafes in Europe - Cafe Schnurrke (schnurren means to purr). It's the smallest of the cafes that I've visited and, even though I pop in a couple of times, I only see two of the four cats in residence. They plod around showing little interest in the customers, but they'll submit to being stroked. The compactness of the room seems to force everyone into speaking in hushed tones and, with only a handful of other customers, the atmosphere is lacking. One of the waitresses tells me that the place is usually heaving at weekends, which I take as a positive sign for the future of the cafe, though I would have to say that it's the least exciting of the three that I've visited. A common theme of all three has been a similar demographic - predominantly women and groups of women, with a smattering of mixed-sex groups. I don't think I've seen any guys or groups of guys - except me.

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The lack of custom in Cafe Schnurrke though is by no means replicated elsewhere in the city. The evenings especially are very busy in the centre - I have a list of three recommended Japanese restaurants and I'm never able to get into any of them because there are literally no tables spare. I end up giving most of my dinner custom to a Chinese restaurant by the name of Big China, and it is there that I have my first taste of the local Kölsch beer.

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The furthest I venture from the city centre is to Melaten Cemetery, just to the west but still easily accessible on foot. It's generally quite restrained and in that sense not dissimilar to the cemeteries I visited in Stockholm and Copenhagen, but there are also several more florid and ornamental gravestones. In particular, I encounter a number of excellent angel sculptures. My eyebrows are raised by a grave dedicated to the King Size Dick family but further research indicates that this is the stage name of a German singer (Dick meaning fat in German and hence less alarming than it appears in English). There's also the strange image of a Grim Reaper - the only one that I see in the entire cemetery - being part of the same grave as a frog sculpture reclining on a stone. The best I can piece together from the web is that the parents of the young boy commemorated by the frog paid to have that added to the plot that already contained the Grim Reaper sculpture.

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One of Cologne's most famous exports is eau de cologne, a phrase that is now used in a more generic sense but which originated from a product created by a Cologne perfumier named Farina. That product is now called 4711 Eau de Cologne, referring to the street number of Farina's factory. The reason why Farina, an Italian, living in Cologne, a German city, gave the scent a French name was because at the time French was the language of high society. 4711 Eau de Cologne possesses a mild lemony smell and is cheap as scents go but, as a signature memento of the city, the 4711 Eau de Cologne shops do a constant trade. I buy a couple of small bottles and the saleswoman stresses that it's not a perfume and more just a refresher.

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The Rhine cuts through the middle of Cologne, with the city centre on the west bank. I make one trip to the east bank, crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge and its chain-link fence densely packed with love locks. The view back across to the cathedral is pleasing, especially as the day moves towards sunset. The sheer size of the cathedral's towers never fails to impress.

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In the north of the city I find a sculpture park and some Botanical Gardens which enable some pleasant strolling. Like in Stockholm and Copenhagen, overpasses and underpasses seem to be pretty much non-existent here, so if you want to cross the road then you have to wait at a crossing. So it's nice to find these green areas in which you can walk without those constant pauses.

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Throughout the city I see preparations for the Christmas markets, popular events for both locals and tourists, and I'm a little saddened that I'll miss them by a few days. I've really enjoyed Cologne and it's whetted my appetite for seeing more of Germany. I only speak very basic German but that hasn't been an issue, with almost everyone I've interacted with being able to speak at least some English. On my last night, I see a large Christmas tree being put up in the square next to the cathedral and it's a reminder that when I reach home it will only be a matter of weeks before Christmas is upon us.

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It's another day of travel to reach home, first an ICE train to Brussels, then the Eurostar to London, and finally a Grand Central to Northallerton. There's so much junk in my postbox that I can't even unlock it without pulling stuff out backwards through the slot, and I have to wonder why the deliverer of the free local rag thought that they had done the right thing by cramming their paper into the postbox instead of just leaving it on top. But I then realise that being irritated by this is a sign that I'm not glad to be home, which is itself a sign that I've enjoyed my time away. And that, strangely, makes me happy.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Cologne that is too dull to put in here - I'll add a link to my other blog when I have detailed it there.]

[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]

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Posted by mohn 11:59 Archived in Germany Tagged germany europe köln cologne deutschland Comments (0)

Probably the best capital in Scandinavia

Possibly the best cat cafe in Europe

semi-overcast 8 °C

Copenhagen is a straightforward journey from Stockholm, just five hours on a comfortable train with free wifi. It's an overcast day and the countryside we pass through doesn't engage my attention, to the point where I have to battle to not fall asleep. Things liven up slightly when we trundle onto the Øresund Bridge that crosses the strait separating Malmö and Copenhagen, but even there the pervasive cloud and a calm sea lack much in the way of excitement.

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The weather is crisp so I decide to walk from the railway station to my hotel. This stroll reveals that Copenhagen is even more full of rabid cyclists than Stockholm was, and here amongst the biking hordes can also be seen baby carriers and goods compartments. Apparently more than a third of the residents of the capital cycle to their place of work or study, a figure I don't find hard to believe. Once again, as a pedestrian I feel in a distinct endangered minority.

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My hotel is rather grander than I was expecting, despite being the same price as my Stockholm residence, but the money seems to be going on the impressive lobby and besuited reception staff rather than the tired decor of the room. It's in a good location though, and not just because there's a Tesla showroom nearby. Copenhagen turns out to be as walkable as Stockholm but it's still handy to be close to a subway station.

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I'm glad that I can mainly use just my own two feet, because the public transport system looks excessively complicated - you have to count zones and county boundaries in order to determine what kind of ticket you need. I save myself some mental straining by only using public transport on days when I know I'll be doing enough travelling to justify a twenty-four hour ticket covering all zones. The trains have plenty of dedicated bike racks and no-one treats bikes as a pain in the neck - contrast that with the looks you'll get if you try to get on a commuter train with a bike in the UK. The system seems to run on an honour basis but, on the one journey I take where there is a ticket check, no-one is found wanting. (Which reminds me that the metro in Stockholm is not run on an honour system - at one station I'd seen a guy vault the barrier to get in for free, and the chap in the ticket booth just looked at him open-mouthed.) If you so wish, you can sit at the front of the metro trains here and watch the tunnel go by. I also find a company offering Segway sightseeing tours of Copenhagen but such things seem to be a sight in themselves, which goes against my general travel policy of trying to keep a low profile.

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Copenhagen boasts one of the few cat cafes in Europe, Cafe Miao, and having visited a similar establishment in Vienna last year I am eager to see what a Danish version looks like. The set-up is not much different, with the main cafe consisting of a large area where customers can order food and drink and have the opportunity to interact with the cats. There's assorted feline memorabilia and some climbing apparatus, as well as a cats-only area where the animals can get away from the humans. However several of the cats here are inquisitive and will happily initiate contact with their two-legged visitors, which was not the case in Vienna at all. In fact the tabby, Tiger, is so intrigued by my stir-fried vegetables that he constantly tries to get onto my table, from which I have to regularly evict him. The white cat, Snehvide (Snow White), is a new arrival to the cafe and, though friendly to me, isn't yet on amicable terms with the other cats. My favourite is Guffe, a sleepy ginger who seems to get most of the attention from other customers. I return to the cafe several times, noting that its clientele is predominantly twentysomething Danish women.

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I find Copenhagen to have rather more of interest to me than Stockholm, even though one of its most famous tourist sights, the Tivoli Gardens, is closed, and another, the Little Mermaid statue, seems like a triumph of hype over substance. The statue is small, barely four feet tall, and rather plainly sculpted yet it attracts busloads of visitors. I see it for the first time by night, a surreal experience because a canoe safari is there at the same time and their bobbing head-torches provide the illumination. Frankly, the Gefionspringvandet fountain nearby is considerably more interesting.

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I spend most of my time plodding the capital's streets, even though there's a similar shortage of sunlight as there was in Stockholm. My hotel is in the Indre By, or Inner City, neighbourhood. The City Hall features some statues of what I can only assume are mythological creatures, but I don't know what the story behind them is.

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The Stock Exchange building has an excellent spire consisting of four intertwined dragons' tails.

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I read that the Order of the Elephant is Denmark's highest chivalric order, and around the capital can be found elephant emblems.

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I admire Rosenborg Castle, built in the Renaissance style, from the outside, and have a pleasant amble through the pretty, neighbouring Kongs Have (King's Garden), containing a statue of one of Denmark's most famous sons, Hans Christian Andersen.

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The district of Christianshavn contains Vor Frelsers Kirke, a church with an astounding spiral staircase that runs outside the steeple. It's a highly distinctive look but, with my dodgy head for heights, I'm not tempted to climb up.

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Nearby is Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood that is famous for its cannabis trade. There's a counter-culture feel that reminds me very much of Nimbin.

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Nyhavn is another of Copenhagen's most famous sights, colourful buildings on either side of an inlet in which a number of sailing ships are moored. It's very scenic and also a particularly touristy area in the evening. At 10AM one Saturday morning, I hear music still pumping out of the Hong Kong club, one of the tracks somewhat incongruously being a-Ha's Cry Wolf. A few patrons stagger out into the morning air. There's a depiction of Nyhavn in a window of the Lego store, Lego being one of Denmark's most successful exports.

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There are several enticing day trips available outside of Copenhagen and I take one to Hillerød, a small town to the north which is the home of Frederiksborg Castle, a stunning Renaissance building situated on a lake. I take the audio tour for the interior, which is the first audio tour I've ever done using an iPod Nano. The room numbering is somewhat bizarre, in that the number above a door indicates the room that you're currently in rather than the room you're about to go in to, but there is so much to see that you would need a couple of hours or more to really do the interior justice. The chapel in particular is a riot, with shields and cloths and paintings and stained glass and carvings all over the place. It certainly helps that I've picked the sunniest day yet of my trip, and the natural light inside is most welcome. Much of the interior is not original, having been recreated after a fire in 1859, but that does not detract from the splendour of the luxurious fittings. I notice that paintings of the Danish royal family from a couple of hundred years ago all seem to portray them with very large eyes - I don't know if this is a stylistic quirk or an anatomically correct representation.

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I've had so little sun on this holiday so far that I don't dare linger inside the castle as much as I might have liked. There are some extensive gardens and a deer park adjoining the castle, and I hasten out to see them while the going is still good. The water features aren't working in the gardens but I can still appreciate the details, such as the bushes grown to outline the shape of a crown. Unfortunately the sun decides that it's had enough, and I begin to regret not seeing the grounds first instead of the interior. However the deer park is still highly enjoyable, not because of the deer (of which I see none) but because of the colourful autumn foliage.

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Returning to Copenhagen, I stop off in the district of Bispebjerg to see the eye-catching concrete Gothic church Grundtvigs Kirke. Its plain interior only serves to emphasise the soaring vaults. Outside, birds wheel about its towers and in the setting sun its silhouette reminds me of an Indian temple.

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Following my usual MO, I also visit Assistens Cemetery in the Nørrebro district. There's little fuss and adornment about most of the gravestones but the cemetery doesn't feel like merely a place in which to bury the dead. People sit around chatting on benches and joggers crunch along the tree-lined paths - apparently it's a popular sunbathing venue in summer. There are a number of luminaries buried here, including Hans Christian Andersen and Niels Bohr, though there are umpteen signs for the former and not a sausage for the latter (though the owl on Bohr's funeral monument is distinctive). I see FRED written on quite a few graves but it's not a name, just the Danish word for "peace".

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Another pleasant place to potter around is Frederiksberg Park, a mixture of trees, open spaces, and the ubiquitous joggers. I also see a group of hardcore athletes doing hill sprints near the park's palace, their exertions in stark contrast to the families wandering along with young children in strollers.

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If it's possible, it seems as though the English language is even more a part of life in Copenhagen than it was in Stockholm. I see and hear English everywhere, with its usage in signs and shop names widespread - I encounter a burger joint called "Hot Buns", and find a bar with the slogan "You shake ass, we shake cocktails". It must be a bit of a nightmare for immigrants to either Sweden or Denmark, to have to learn not one but two languages, and it's not as if either Swedish or Danish is particularly close to English. A small illustration of this Sweden/Denmark/England connection comes in the form of Kenneth Branagh, who I see on Copenhagen's main shopping street, filming an episode of the (originally Swedish) TV series Wallander.

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I'm no more tempted by bar hopping in Copenhagen than I was in Stockholm, but I do attempt to briefly take the temperature of the city on its main nights out. Friday night is ludicrously busy everywhere, and even at 9PM there are plenty of "refreshed" punters out and about. Saturday night is conspicuously less hectic, and in fact even during the daytime there aren't as many people around.

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Foodwise, Danes are also keen on meatballs, here called frikadeller. I pop down the road from my hotel to Cafe St Petersborg to sample them, and note a few differences in the presentation - here they come with boiled potatoes, which beats pureed mash when it comes to mopping up stray gravy, and red cabbage is served instead of lingonberries. The serving size is also rather larger than in Stockholm. Though Denmark seems generally even more expensive than Sweden, this is perhaps the best value for money meal I have in either country.

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My time in Copenhagen draws to a close all too quickly, and I'm left with the feeling that perhaps I should have taken a day or two from my Stockholm itinerary and reallocated them to here. However that would have flown against the general Internet consensus of the relative levels of interestingness of the two cities, so I don't think I could have known in advance that I would feel this way. I've liked Copenhagen a lot, despite its expense and crazy cyclists. But it's now time to head for Germany.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Copenhagen that is too dull to put in here - I'll add a link to my other blog when I have detailed it there.]

[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]

Posted by mohn 04:08 Archived in Denmark Tagged europe denmark copenhagen scandinavia Comments (0)

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