Cologne in a day

Germany is wonderfully centrally located in Europe. One of my travel strategies this year is visiting the major Germany city closest to the border of the country I’m on my way to. For my current Belgium and Holland trip, that’s Cologne (or Köln, in German). I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s not a pretty city. 90% of it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, so the Altstadt is essentially non-existent. But there are a lot of interesting things in the city, and I could easily have filled several more days with sightseeing. I was unfortunately there on a Monday, so most museums were closed. If I go back, I’d love to visit the National Socialism Documentation Center, the Ludwig Museum, and of course the Chocolate Museum. I’d also like to see the botanical gardens and the Melaten Cemetery.

That said, I don’t have any regrets about how I spent what little time I had in the city. I got in Sunday evening, so I quickly dropped off my luggage and queued for student tickets to a play. This wasn’t just any play; it was the first-ever stage version of the famous 1920s German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (No, I haven’t seen it either.) The theatre company employed a lip-reader to transcribe what dialogue s/he could, then built a script around that. The result was extraordinarily strange. Its monochrome sets recalled its black-and-white origins. It seemed uncertain what balance to strike between talking and silence—the main character (Cesare) often told stories as expressive dances. It was decidedly non-naturalistic, with exaggerated movements and extreme make-up. It was intentionally alienating, with video close-ups of actors’ faces offering alternative reactions to onstage events. A heavy metal band provided sound effects and filled in the transitions. I’m glad I saw it, because I felt like it taught me a lot about German expressionism, a movement I previously knew nothing about. It lacked the emotional punch of the best psychological horror, but it definitely had suspense. The actors executed the strange style well. I don’t feel qualified to review it more than that, because I suspect much of the interest of the production lies in its imitation versus innovation of the original source material. I’ll need to watch the film before I can form an opinion on that score.

On Monday morning, I met a fellow opera singer and software engineer (a relatively unusual combination) who lives in Cologne for breakfast. (We met on Twitter, of course.) He suggested the fabulous French patisserie Epi, where we feasted on croissants and freshly baked bread with jam and honey. We mostly talked shop (about singing), but I haven’t done that in a while, so it was fun! I wandered a bit and took a walking tour of the city, then visited the famous Dome and climbed the 509 steps to the top. It was definitely worth it for the views of the Rhine. Vicky (my traveling companion in Bratislava and Budapest) lives in the nearby city of Koblenz, so she joined me for the rest afternoon. Because we are both small children at heart (you may have gathered that from our enthusiasm about the playground we found in Bratislava), we went paddle-boating on the lake in the Volksgarten. Then it was off to the Farina Museum, where we discovered the history of the original eau de Cologne. (My take-away: Basically everyone important—Goethe, Mozart, Oscar Wilde, Napoleon, Beethoven, Voltaire, Sissi, Princess Di, and many, many others—used Farina’s cologne.) We finished the day by eating Cologne’s best ice cream (at Schmitz, where the salted caramel flavor, at least, lived up to the place’s reputation) and having Flammkuchen (including flaming Flammkuchen!) for both dinner and dessert at the very cozy wine bar Wackes.

I wish I could have had more time, but my travel schedule didn’t allow it this trip. I left for Brussels at the crack of dawn on Tuesday. There, I quickly made up for my lack of museum-going in Cologne. But that is a subject for another blog post.