‘Cologne is a feeling’ – that’s the slogan the German tourist board use to advertise the city, but when I first arrived there, the main things I was feeling were very lost and conspicuously foreign.
A year studying German hadn’t prepared me for Cologne. Any hopes of seamlessly fitting into the city, regaling newfound German friends with my knowledge of Kafka and near-flawless use of the subjunctive were quickly dashed by the fact that Germany, in real life, is fairly daunting. The mere task of navigating the public transport system provided me with several traumatic experiences (or detours to take in more of the sights of Cologne, depending on how you look at it), and each day seemed to bring a new battle through a world of rules and bureaucracy. It’s easy to see why they’re the strongest European economy – the Germans have a love for order that verges on obsession; they revel in punctuality, frown upon crossing the road when the red man is showing, and stay on the ‘correct’ side of pedestrianised streets.
Initial worries weren’t allayed by the somewhat bland sight of the city itself. Having heard rave reviews about the Cathedral, I headed there first. And to be fair, as Germany’s most visited landmark, it is a remarkable sight, with spires that almost put those in Oxford to shame. But after being suitably impressed, I was faced with the question: now what? The city centre is lacking in inspiring architecture; the majority of buildings which surround the Cathedral are concrete blocks, built for function rather than style (although don’t make the mistake of commenting on this to a local– you will quickly be reminded that it was a beautiful city until the British bombed it in the war, and that’s probably not a conversation you want to get drawn into).
Despite this however, there is plenty of culture tucked away once you know where to look. The Altstadt by the Rhine is beautiful when the sun shines, and the Hohenzollern Bridge was one of my favourite parts of the city – covered in thousands of padlocks inscribed with couples’ names, it stands as a symbol for lasting love. On my third day I saw a newlywed couple, the bride still in her white dress, throwing the key to their padlock into the river. There are also plenty of museums to look around, in particular the National Socialist Documentation Centre, located in an old Gestapo HQ and prison, and is now dedicated to commemorating the victims of the Nazis and exploring the history of the Party; you can walk around the former cells and see the names, calendars and even poetry scratched into the walls, a reminder of Cologne’s gruesome past.
A more cheerful way to explore the city’s cultural heritage is through the local beer – this is Germany, after all. Served in small, thin glasses, continually refilled by the waiters, Kölsch is best enjoyed in one of the many Brauhäuser or breweries, which are cosy and reassuringly reminiscent of British pubs.
But although there is plenty of culture to explore in Cologne, what struck me most about the city was the atmosphere and openness of the people themselves; it was so easy to strike up conversation with the locals, who were more than happy to talk about Cologne. It is famed for its laidback residents, said to be far friendlier and more open than their counterparts in other regions – admittedly, this is largely said by the residents themselves, but I found it to ring true. It is this tolerance which also makes the city a Mecca for the gay community, and is the reason it hosts one of Europe’s largest Pride festivals, Christopher Street Day, every July. This was definitely one of the more memorable moments of my trip, watching the brightly coloured floats go past, full of people in extravagant costumes laughing and dancing, undeterred by the rain pouring down around them.
As you would expect from Germany’s fourth largest city, Cologne has a vibrant nightlife. In Germany, the weekend starts on Thursday night and, with most clubs staying open until 5am and trams running all through the night, there’s no reason to stay in. For better value and a more ‘German’ experience, we preferred to avoid the tourist-dominated Altstadt and instead headed to the student districts of Zülpicher Strasse or Brüsseler Platz, where you can find plenty of student clubs, as well as unique bars which German friends introduced me to, such as Das Wohngemeinschaft, a bar and hostel kitted out in the style of a 70s student flat, complete with a campervan inside, or Sky Beach, located on the roof of a car park and set out like an actual beach (with deckchairs and real sand – amazing!) from which you have a great view over the city. As an added bonus, the majority of Germans I met had a refreshing lack of English self-consciousness and reserve, despite a seemingly universal inability to dance, so it’s the perfect time to lose your own inhibitions and relax as you enjoy classics by the Backstreet Boys and Westlife, both of which are inexplicably popular here.
Something that struck me was that in Cologne there was almost always something going on. Whilst I was there I saw the annual Kölner Lichter, a festival of music and fireworks on the Rhine. There were also films being shown in the Open Air Kino throughout the summer, and once the sun came out towards the end of my month there, we spent every evening out on the parks and beaches overlooking the Rhine. The city really comes together to enjoy these events, with strangers sharing blankets, food and a unique experience.
It’s clichéd, but I felt I finally understood the slogan ‘Cologne is a feeling’ – it is a city where, somewhere amongst the mix of industrial skyscrapers, Roman ruins and museums, and lively clubbing scene, you can really feel you belong. It’s easy to see why everyone I met was so proud of Cologne, and I can’t wait to return.