The train shudders as it crosses the bridge to Cologne. Barges and cruise ships pass below on the Rhine. Cologne straddles the river for miles; a million plus citizens call it home.
Koeln Hauptbahnhof is one of Germany's major train stations, its tracks spreading like spaghetti underneath a giant glass roof. I'm lost in a sea of people "” 280,000 travelers squeeze through here daily. The aroma of fresh bread and smoked meats greet me; restaurants sell ethnic food;, pubs serve beer and for one in need of American fare, there is a McDonald's.
I push through the glass doors, walk outside, and hold my breath. No matter how often I have been here, the sight of the Dom is overwhelming. More than a thousand years old, Cologne's gothic cathedral commands the sky to my left. It fills it, a massive structure too large to capture in photos up close. I climb the stairs to the Domplatte, the plaza, a concrete expanse that makes the Dom stand out even more, humble in its flatness against the 500-feet high structure, the world's third tallest church. Even in peaceful weather, it is a windy place. On the west side, two steeples stretch into the sky, a silhouette that can be seen for miles.
I enter the Dom through a side door and am immediately swallowed by its immensity. Inside, it feels larger still. People mingle and I smell incense. A pastor's voice echoes the Lord's Prayer as my eyes adjust to the gloom. Pillars the width of a minibus form the arched support system of the ceiling.
Magnificent stained glass windows depict scenes from the Bible. I skip the English speaking tour offered twice daily and the 533-stair climb to the top of the south tower, which unfolds the city below like a blanket.
Instead, I head for Hohestrasse, Cologne's pedestrian-only shopping Mecca. Colorful pizza breads, fragrant sandwich rolls with salami and Gouda cheese, nougat pretzels and rhubarb streusel cake press against glass displays. To my left, people crowd around the entrance of Frueh, one of Cologne's oldest breweries. It is early but not too early for Germans to drink the local Koelsch, a light and hoppy beer, that KÃ¶bes, the blue-aproned bartenders, serve in "” by U.S. standards "” tiny, cylindrically shaped glasses. Its catacomb restaurant is touristy but worth a visit.
I remember with fondness a New Year's Day long ago when, slightly groggy from the previous night's celebration, I ordered hot chocolate here. The KÃ¶bes loudly mocked me so everybody could hear and said it was not on the menu. A steaming cup of cocoa appeared nonetheless. He had gone to the cafÃ© next door to get it for me. That is part of the light-hearted culture of the Koelner. Their dialect sounds a bit like singing, softer and more melodic than High German.
At the end of Hohestrasse, Kaufhof, the second largest department store in Germany, offers everything from gourmet food to designer clothing and house wares. I turn onto Schildergasse, the other major pedestrian-only shopping street. Between giant storefronts I find my destination, a tiny shop selling the best French fries in the world. For four dollars I get a paper cone overflowing with golden, crisp fries, ketchup and mayonnaise piled on top. I stand and eat, not caring that my hands are greasy and I am consuming a thousand calories. People rush by, their German voices familiar yet strange. It is still the
Cologne I remember, vibrant and exciting, my second home for five years while I studied at the university. I am glad I came.
After finishing a Master's degree in marketing at the University of Cologne, Germany, Annette moved to the U.S. to pursue a career in communication and finance. For five years she worked as a professional writer and account executive at the largest PR and advertising firm in Indiana. To follow her passions of travel and fiction writing, she recently accepted a part-time position at Indiana University. She completed her first historical novel about two children growing up in Germany during WWII and is writing a second. Annette is a U.S.-German citizen and lives with her husband and adopted mutt, Mocha, in Bloomington.