On August 13, we visited our first city in Germany, and the following day we sailed down castle row on the Rhine. To visit the German city of Cologne, we got our first taste of a more extended excursion from our river cruise boat. The boat dropped us off north of Cologne to take fancy double-decker tour buses into the city while the boat sailed up the river to catch up to us later.The city of Cologne dates back to the Roman Empire, and it is one of the largest cities in Germany today. Tourists can visit museums with Roman ruins, but the main attraction today is the huge Gothic cathedral in the center of town, the Dom, which was probably built on top of a Roman temple. Construction on the cathedral started in 1268, and it continued in an off and on fashion for 600 years, paid for largely with the sale of Catholic grants of forgiveness for sins called indulgences.
As a center of industry, Cologne was one of the cities heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II. Something like 90% of the city was destroyed. The good news is that the cathedral, which was too valuable as a landmark that could be used by bomber pilots to target the rest of the city, was not destroyed (although it was hit 14 times). The bad news, in addition to the widespread destruction, was that much of the city was rebuilt in the cheap styles of the 1950’s and 60’s, before Germany’s “economic miracle.”Our tour moved at a stately pace, in part because most of the people on our tour were old enough that they had to be given a heads up if we were walking onto a cobblestone street. There were many, many breaks, and every break would end with both an apology that the break had to end and reassurances that another break would come soon. The numerous breaks gave me a chance to take a study Cologne, and I found that:
- There are beer bars everywhere (and even a beer museum). Entrepreneurs in Cologne have clearly come to the conclusion that a wide array of Cologne-style beer (kolsch) would have to be a major draw since the 1950’s and 60’s architecture would not be a magnet for tourists.
- I remember reading in a fairly recent tour book that people who dress in the casual, American style would stand out in Europe because Europeans dress more formally. This just isn’t the case in the big cities. Spotting Americans in Europe is extremely difficult because so many Europeans, especially those who are young, not only dress in the American style but wear American t-shirts. Laura and I saw Europeans who exhibited the same bad taste as many Americans in wearing University of Michigan and Virginia Tech shirts. And there was an entire galaxy of Europeans wearing shirts from the city of San Francisco, as if they all knew that this was one place in America they could visit while maintaining the European habit of it using air conditioning.
- We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Cologne, so this is just a snap reaction, but the city seemed much less interesting than most of the other places we visited. There are nice museums, and the beer and food scene is great, but I can easily think of a dozen cities in the U.S. and Europe that I would visit before Cologne.
The city straddles the Rhine, making it easy to go back to the ship to grab our free cruise lunch and then come back to see the interior of the Cathedral, which had been closed for mass earlier.
Cologne does have a number of well regarded museums, and since Laura wasn’t feeling well and returned to the cruise ship for a nap, I would not be constrained by her dislike of museums. I had narrowed the choices down to a museum on the Nazi Gestapo and one of the leading modern art, the Museum Ludwig.
There are so many awesome cathedrals in Europe that it actually takes an act of will to appreciate them all. Walking into the Dom, my inclination was to look around and think, “Yep, it’s a Gothic cathedral alright.” Most of the cathedral was built in preindustrial times, and I tried to keep that in mind as I walked around. Not only would building towers out of giant rock blocks without industrial machinery have been brutal, but the lack of modern technology in those days would have made walking out of the woods and seeing a towering cathedral would have been awe-inspiring for a German peasant, in much the same way that seeing the copy of the Eiffel Tower at Kings Dominion in Virginia must be for residents of Doswell.
The exhibits at the Museum Ludwig were very cool (especially the post-WWI German art), but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that the museum attendants were overly militant in much the same way as, well, Nazis would be. Maybe I had a clueless American look to me, because museum employees seemed to follow me everywhere. Granted, in a modern art museum the museum officials must have their fair share of difficulties with people who think that, say, a sculpture comprised of piles of books was actually an information kiosk inviting them to read those books, but it is a bit unnerving to always have museum officials looking over your shoulder. So in a bit of irony, I skipped the Nazi museum in Cologne and got to see Nazis anyway.
I made it back to the boat to hear a German professor talk about “Germany Today.” It’s interesting just how committed Germany has become recently to attracting immigrants, especially given Germany’s interwar history. Two themes described by the speaker, which we would see illustrated repeatedly as we traveled through the Rhine region, were the history of conflict between Germany and France and the commitment among Germans and French, particularly those who are younger, to moving past antagonistic nationalism.
After dinner we got to see Cologne at night as part of a beer sampling excursion, and it is definitely a city to be experienced after dark.
Many German cities have local beer styles that are only produced authentically in that city, and the specialty in Cologne is a beer style called Kolsch. While there are other beer styles I prefer, I did like all of the beers we had In the Cologne pubs. And I respect the German commitment to only using certain ingredients in beers and only brewing certain styles in given cities, especially since some American brewers seem to use whatever ingredients have been sitting in the refrigerator too long, throwing things into beer like the extra habanero pepper that’s been lying around and the raspberry jam that no one will eat.
The next day was Castle Day. The plan was to start by touring Marksburg Castle and then sail down a stretch of the Rhine where we would see castle after castle. But first it was time to do some laundry in the sink. We were running low on socks and overreacted by washing 500% more socks than we would need for the rest of the trip. Marksburg Castle was one of the very few castles in Europe left more or less intact from the Middle Ages.
The castle is located on the top of a hill, and since many of the other people on our cruise are older, we got a warning from our tour director that went something like this: “There is some unpleasant news that I am duty-bound to pass along. To reach the castle, we must walk, and as we walk we will, unfortunately, encounter a hill. I wish it were otherwise, but we must face the facts – there is an incline in the road, and that incline will lie between us and our destination.” When Laura and I take high school students on tours, we just don’t get the same kinds of alerts about road gradients.This particular castle was able to withstand several sieges. Surprisingly, this was not due to the hill we had been warned about; instead, things like “multiple gates”and “thick walls” were responsible. While castles were great for defense, especially before the development of gunpowder artillery, they were actually not great places to live. Solid stone walls area great conductors of heat and cold, making the castles uncomfortably hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. Plus, there was that godawful hill to walk up and down every time you wanted to leave and come back. Castle water was not particularly sanitary, and the workaround for people in the castle was to drink lots and lots of weak wine. Below, you can see the toilet, which was basically just a hole through an overhang in the castle. Not only did the door to the toilet not lock from the inside, but this spot was considered a target for attackers. Clearly, this would have negatively impacted any toilet users with shy bladders. On the plus side, this was a rare free public toilet in Europe. The castle also had a nice exhibit that traced the development of armor through European history.
This is going to sound like crazy talk, but there was a time when France was actually the superpower of Europe. In this bizarro world, it was the French who repeatedly invaded German territory, and this French juggernaut could only be stopped by alliances of the other strong countries in Europe. As a result of French aggression, the castle tour went something like this:
- This castle was destroyed by the armies of Louis XIV
- Swedish troops financed by the French during the 30 Years’ War destroyed this castle
- Troops garrisoned at the castle successfully defended it against the French. Then the French returned in greater numbers and destroyed the castle. So close.In addition to castles, we were treated to a German trailer park!