Postcards from Cologne

Since we had a car, we optimized for choosing hotels with a parking lot, which usually means a ways from the city center. Advertising their weakest point, the one in Cologne was named “Centro Ayun”.

Centro Ayun is spotty. The lobby is spacious and designery. The rooms are not so spacious and still designery. The hallways are narrow and winding, as if this was a 500 year old building, but it’s not, because Germany started from scratch in 1946, and anything that looks old in a big city looks that way because the city planners in 1946 wanted it to look that way.

It’s not as if they are being inauthentic. All these old world buildings got knocked down in some firefight every few centuries. Nobody blames San Francisco for having started over in 1906.

The garage at Centro Ayun is the oddest of all. The spaces are made for smart cars in flatland, which you sort of expect in underground garages not designed for billion dollar urban projects, but the acoustics are dead. It hits you in the face. When you slam the door, there’s no boom. When you speak, there’s no reverb. The ceiling is all acoustical tile. The floor is concrete, but apparently the ceiling damps the sound entirely. We saw this effect in some other German motor hotel parking lots, but nowhere so dramatically as at Centro Ayun. I wrote this in my TripAdvisor review, but I don’t think any people are going to choose a motel based on the sound their car door isn’t going to make when they slam it.

Sundays are just useless. So are Mondays. The first restaurant we tried was closed Sundays, so we went to Aachenerstrasse, and parked immediately, which you don’t expect in a strange town. Aachenerstrasse is lined with sidewalk tables and happy eating drinking people. There is probably a German word for that. As I had no need to be happy, we turned down a side street and found a place called Belgischerhof, and since we’d just arrived from Belgium, we went in. It was marvelous. I think it might be a lesbian gay cafe. All these lipstick lesbians around — not just the Lesbian-Or-German-Lady meme. Pairs of guys, too. We started with a savory creme brulee (the brulee was still sugar). Then we had a flammkuchen (tarte flambée they call it in Alsace, basically a pizza) and a breaded pounded rabbit, and a rhubarb crumble.

On Monday, we left the car at the hotel, paying to park it in the basement where there were big pillars between every pair of cars, and one made 13-point turns to get in and out without touching anything. It was a short walk to the tram, on which we managed to buy tickets with only credit cards and it only took halfway to town to do it.

First, the Apostoler church, where you aren’t supposed to take photos, but I forgot and nobody said anything. They had instructive statues of saints there, with their symbols and attributes plainly displayed. Outside was a grim statue of Konrad Adenauer, the model German post-war politician, and a former mayor of Köln. When I first learned that there was a Germany, Adenauer was the Chancellor, and I still expect to see that inhuman moral certainty manifested in anyone who leads.

Adenauer exemplified the Christian center-right: Roman Catholics who preached hatred for two millennia, hatred of Jews and women and indigenous people who didn’t want to be slaves, and any Christians not subservient to the Pope, and Pagans, and any homosexual or pedophile who didn’t shut up about it after the altar boy dried the spots off his choir robe, and just to be on the safe side, tortured and killed several millions of them, over the course of time and power, and then come 1933 were shocked – shocked! – that this little fellow with the mustache took them at their word, and so they pouted and retreated to their country houses and their abbeys for 12 years and crawled out amid the ruins of their secret utopia to lead the charge against Communism.

Next, we found a nice bakery recommended by Duje, and a nice place to have coffee across the street that had one of the brass statues you see on park benches around the world, in the style of a Normal Person with whom you could pose for a photo. This particular statue seemed to be popular with people having a smoke. Vast numbers of people in Europe still use tobacco. All the gestures you see in movies, they actually make them. In America, one gestures with one’s cell phone. Not so many gestures. Only the hunched-over one, the lighting-up-in-the-wind pose.

Bakeries are a problem. You want everything, and you wouldn’t feel good if you got it.

We walked towards the center on a pedestrian road. We passed a little store with some postcard racks, which had a sign inside saying “postcards upstairs”. Upstairs there were more post cards than there are on the Internet, cleverly presented: one flipped pieces of cardboard, each of which displayed three different postcards. There were probably 10 racks of photo postcards, and another 12 racks of art postcards. This was not, however, an antique store; all the cards were current editions, in print. We must have spent at least an hour there, and picked 38 of the best to write to people on.

We walked from there to Kolumba, the only museum in Cologne open on Monday. It was built on the foundations of a church which had been built on the foundations of several other churches, and they are all visible from the ground floor archaelogical walkway. One corner of it was a tiny functioning chapel; the rest was a private art museum.

The guidebooks say that it is a religious art museum, but I didn’t see it. It has religious art. It also has art from Roman times, and modern times. It had art by someone who apparently lived to be only five years old. I may have been misinterpreting the caption. The captions are all contained in a little booklet you take with you from room to room; there are no signs next to the pieces, only small numbers to index by. For me, the most remarkable piece was called a “cage cup”: just for a stunt, an ancient glassmaker has made a glass cup, then enclosed it in a bunch of glass tubes in the form of a cage separated by glass standoffs from the inner goblet. They are rare, and when the archaeologist who found it told his site boss, he was not believed because it was April 1.

Then we walked to Cologne’s main attraction, the cathedral. It is such a part of the city’s identity that someone told us that it had not been bombed much in WWII so that pilots could use it to identify the city before they bombed something else. It is immensely tall. The outside is immensely ornate, with gargoyles and flying buttresses, and many statues on and above every door. Many stained glass windows, but many which are quite plain. One is just a bunch of pixels, specified by the artist Gerhard Richter, but it might as well be the starting frame of a level in the game “I Love Hue”.

We met our friend Alex, who drove an hour and a half after work to see us. We’d seen him in Kassel six months ago. He joined us at Päffgen, a brewery that was suggested by two different people. In Köln, they don’t drink beer, they drink Kölsch, served in 20 cl glasses. It is the only beer they serve here. We had an enormous pig “knuckle” (lower leg, actually), and a veal roulade. Alex was sensible and had only a bowl of soup. It got very loud in there and we got out and walked around for awhile. Around 9, Alex left to get ready for another day, and we met my ex-coworker Martin, who had moved from California to Cologne, via Hamburg. We went to a bar which was practically empty, and had two enthusiastic bartenders who did synchronized shaking just like in the movie. By 11:30 or so it was already half-full. Martin said it would be swinging at 2 AM. We left and took the tram back to the hotel before verifying that.

On Tuesday we got up early and drove into town, parked under the cathedral, and went to the Ludwig Museum. It was decent, with a pretty wide and deep collection of works since 1900 or so. They are said to have 900 Picasso works, though we saw only about 50, if you count each plate separately. By the time we got through the whole place it was time to drive to Hamburg to meet our friends for dinner at 6:30.