Friday, May 09, 2008

keulen, koeln, cologne

april 30 is queen's day here in holland, the biggest party day of the year. last year for queen's day we spent it with friends in both utrecht and den bosch. (to learn more about how the tradition began and how people spend the holiday, click here.) so, being the experienced expats that we are, we remembered that the holiday usually involves lots of heavy drinking, loud music, and partying outside in the beautiful weather. and since we live in the middle of town (you can't get much more downtown than our house), we knew gracie probably wouldn't get much sleep if we stuck around. so, we did what a lot of dutch people actually do on queen's day, and we went to germany to get some peace and quiet!

ever since we found out that we were moving to the eastern part of the netherlands, adam has been nagging me to get to cologne, germany, which is only a few short hours by train. (aka "keulen" in dutch and "koeln" in german.) so what better time to see the city than in late april, before the big tourism season hits here in europe, and while gracie is still small enough for us to tote around easily?

we had to catch three trains to get there, but the best train of all was the deutschebahn from arnhem to cologne. because it was a long-distance train (running from amsterdam to frankfurt), you needed reservations for the train, or somehow find an empty seat, which wouldn't be easy. nearly everyone on the train had giant bags, and everyone was trying to get to their assigned seat, and the aisles are small and people are crawling over each other and pushing past each other and it was just crowded and annoying. we didn't have a reservation (we didn't know that it was recommended), so i stayed back in an open section on the train and stood with the stroller while gracie chilled out (thank goodness she was in a good mood!) and adam maneuvered his way through to find us a couple of seats for the 2-hour ride. but while he was away, a deutschebahn employee came by, saw me with my stroller, and asked me if i had a reservation for a seat. when i replied no, she said, "then you may sit in here," and magically opened a door to a PRIVATE CABIN that is just special for mothers with small children! i was all, "wow! really?!" i couldn't believe our good luck! the room was big enough for all three of us, plus our stroller and all our bags, so we spread out and fed her and burped her and napped her all in peace and quiet and privacy! obviously a great feature for us, but also for the other passengers on the train because then they don't have to listen to a crying baby during their trip! the room didn't cost us anything extra, which was a bonus. we knew to ask for it for our return trip, and again we were graciously ushered into our special fancy schmancy room. this kid is our first-class ticket anywhere! sweet!

so we got to cologne in the early afternoon and went straight to our hotel, a 4-star place that we totally splurged on with a gorgeous breakfast and a swimming pool! (a rare find in europe.) since this was gracie's first time in a hotel, we thought it would be best for us to spend an hour or so just unwinding, letting her play with some of the toys we brought along, and taking it easy for a bit. after we relaxed for a while we repacked a few things and headed out to see the city. first stop, koelner dom, a massive cathedral that took over 600 years to build. it all began in the 12th century when the church somehow got their hands on the relics of the three wise men (that's what that picture is, with the gold reliquary behind the bars), and realized that such an acquisition would attract christian pilgrims from around the world, so a big church building would need to be built. and it just kinda went from there. i think for a while construction would stop, sometimes for decades at a time, because of lack of funding or lack of interest. or maybe they were just tired, cuz this thing is HUGE. no matter where we stood in the city, it was impossible to get the entire building in the camera's viewfinder. seriously impressive.

we also explored the old city ("alte stadt"), which was beautifully and deliberately reconstructed to look like how it looked before WWII. (much of the city of cologne was bombed, but the cathedral was left unscathed.) the brightly-colored buildings really attracted gracie's attention. she liked the fountains, seeing the big, wide, river rhine, and especially all the bumps we'd go over in her stroller as we rolled over the uneven cobbled streets. we liked to spend our time here, drinking the local "koelsch" beer (pronounced kinda like "kultch") in the alter markt (old market), eating turkish food and people watching. on the last day we were in town, it was a national holiday. 1 may is labor day, so a lot of people had the day off. there was a little marching band that would wander through the city, playing songs that a lot of the germans knew and would sing along to. lots of people were out also in the alter markt, also drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine. it was a lot of fun to feel like a part of this party, and to be in the midst of all these gregarious germans, swilling their local brew and listening to live music.

and of course, one can't go to cologne without visiting the chocolate museum! (or, as it's alternatively called, "the mmmmmmmmmuseum.") the building was constructed on a peninsula sticking out into the river rhine, and offered pretty views of the river and barges floating past. we weren't able to stay long because it was towards the end of the day and gracie was starting to fade on us, but while we were there we got to see a chocolate factory in the works and sample the chocolate they were making, and also saw a little tropical rainforest garden within the museum, where we saw a mango tree and a cocoa tree.

in the evenings, we would go back to our hotel and relax, and let gracie sprawl out on the floor to play and kick and laugh. after enough of this, we would all put on our swimsuits and head down to the pool. actually, we hung out in the jacuzzi. the water was about as warm as a warm bathtub (not hot, just warm), and was a small enough space that we could easily pass her back and forth between us. the pool was cooler in temperature, and the first night we went down there there was actually a water aerobics class full of old german ladies exercising in the pool. (the pool was part of a fitness center that the hotel shared with another hotel in the same building.) gracie had never been swimming before, and wasn't quite sure what to think of it, but like most things she does, she did great! at first she kinda' got all wide-eyed and started breathing a little faster, but after a while she calmed down. mostly she just looked. just noticed, took it all in with all of her senses, and took a lot of mental notes about this experience, trying to decide if she liked it or not. we were so proud of her. after swimming, we ordered room service (i don't think i've ever ordered room service before!) and let her sleep in her hotel crib while we watched german game shows. it was so fun!

one day we went on a bus tour through the city. it was just us and another german family, and the driver who spoke very little english but was very friendly and helpful. the tour was recorded on a tape, and was in various languages so we could understand what was going on. mostly we tooled around the cathedral for about 30 minutes at least (a significant amount of time because it was only a 90 minute tour), since that's really where most of the pretty architecture and history of the city was located. we did see some old roman towers that were about 2000 years old, and we also stopped at a botanical garden by the zoo. the bus driver said that it was his break time now, so that we should all get off for a few minutes and look at the pretty flowers while he had a cigarette. so we crossed the street and took a couple of pictures of this pretty park. gracie wasn't happy with it, though, because the sound and movement of the bus had lulled her to sleep, so when we got off and started quietly walking around, she woke up. you can see her screaming in this picture :-) . we also saw a cool building which survived the war. it was the old armory or something, and was from the 16th century.

on our last day there, adam climbed to the top of the cathedral to get a better look of the city, which was disappointingly modern and sprawling. i guess that's what happens when so much of it is destroyed in a war. gracie and i sat outside the train station and drank tea, and looked at the cathedral and people watched, while we waited for her daddy to descend. then we went to the alter markt for some beer and food, and then we hit the road to come home again.

a few hours later, we're back at home, with just enough time to put gracie in her pajamas and put her to bed. it's so cool that we can just go to germany -- you know, just cuz it's THERE. it's like taking a road trip up to fort collins or going to vail for a couple of days. it's just so EASY! i'm so grateful for these experiences that we have, and i'm really glad that i'm able to get out and TRAVEL again after spending so much time either being pregnant or having a fragile little newborn on my hands!


teresa said...

i love this story and i am also so grateful for your amazing opportunities to TRAVEL!!!!

Heidi (Graczyk) Damm said...

thanks for this entry - you bring back great memories of my time in Cologne (when I went on a choir trip after 1st year at CSB/SJU) - what an impressive church, eh? And the chocolate museum - I forgot about that!!!! What fun...glad to hear about (and see) all the wonderful places you're traveling to! ENJOY!!!