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Cologne - A New Experience

The newly scheduled service from Ireland West Airport to the beautiful Nordrhein Westphalia capital of Cologne was music to our ears. As a former resident of the city it was long my intention to return. The flights came in at an absolute steal, less than thirty euros. Those intrepid travellers among you simply cannot tun down such customer friendly prices. Departing Knock at 8’15 we had barely taken off it seemed before we were landing in the sun dappled airport. A mere three euros will get you a twenty-minute train right into the Hauptbahnhof, Cologne central train station. The German reputation of extreme efficiency remains intact we are glad to report. The public transport system is peerless, and this convenience extends to the infrastructural make up of the city. Cologne has a population of over one million people, yet you will never see any major traffic congestion. City dwellers whizz by on electric scooters and the urban area is extremely cycle and pedestrian friendly. Numerous shops near the station offer affordable bike rental deals.

Upon leaving the train station bask in the glory and wonder of Cologne Dom cathedral. Exiting the super modern shopping hub on the ground floor of the train station you will be greeted by one of the great global jaw dropping architectural treasures. Its size and intricacy assault your senses immediately. The ingenuity of human endeavour and persistence and selflessness in the name of faith almost legitimizes all of religions more malevolent effects such is the sheer awe this building elicits. Christianity has roots on the city stretching back to 313/314 with archaeological evidence of a church on the Dom site in the 6th century. Work on the Dom has been undertaken for an astonishing 632 years meaning that almost all who participated in its construction never saw its conclusion. Even now maintenance and preservation of the Gothic wonder requires 30 000 euros a week with urban pollution a constant problem, blackening as it does the buildings surface.

Napoleon used it as a storage centre for weaponry and as a prisoner of war camp. The seemingly miraculous avoidance of the Dom's destruction during World War 2 brings different explanations. The Allies would claim that it specifically tried not to drop its bombs on the cathedral out of respect for its religious status while many Germans favour the explanation that the building remained intact because the bomber pilots used it as strategic point for its attacks. Utility not theological sacredness kept it standing it would seem, but you can be the judge of that as you immerse yourself in the complex history of this UNESCO heritage site’s grandeur.

After a lingering marvel at the Dom we checked into Centro Hotel Ariane found on Booking.com. The hotel is clean and efficient with friendly staff and an excellent all-inclusive breakfast offered each morning. Upon check in you are asked to pay a business tax which can be avoided if you can be creative.

Our primary reason for going to Cologne was to attend a gig in the uber cool Luxor venue where viral social media Mongolian throat singing sensations The Hu were performing. Across town Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was onstage. The city is a paradise for all musical lovers with a vibrant techno, punk and rock scene as well as numerous jazz themed pubs on location not to mention a constant stream of international artists visiting.

Our trip to Cologne involved copious sampling of the local brew, Kolsch. The product is a bright hoppy top fermented beer the production of which is mandated by a series of laws entitled the Reinheitsgebot which was originally conceived around the 16th century. In modern times the law demands that only natural ingredients are used in its production such as maleted grains, yeats, hops and water. This would likely explain why hangovers in Cologne are more manageable than the stuck -to -the- couch -eating cornetto’s- half -watching- a documentary -about -zebras- zombieism of the Irish experience. The beer here contains no chemicals or preservatives hence its superior taste and its adaptability to the recovery process the next day. The Germans are proud of their beer and its natural production. That respect seems to translate to everyday life where signs of alcoholism and anti-social behaviour are very rare.

Homeless down on their luck people occasionally emerge as they navigate the city's streets checking bins and cleaning up discarded bottles. Recycling here is incentivised. The misfortunate can return empty bottles and cans for some coinage. The usage of such people as an unofficial cleaning up tool is beyond genius, a testament to that stereotypical German efficiency perhaps. Another striking thing was the bilingualism of the few down on their luck types we encountered. They were absurdly polite, well-spoken and with a command of English that was in all honesty superior to our own! They spoke clearer English than some of the Irish politicians we hear spouting stream of consciousness gibberish in the Dail. We urged them to move to Ireland which is crying out for German teachers, speakers and translators. It would be the equivalent of a Dublin addict respectfully approaching German tourists in their native tongue and saying ' " Entshuldigung sie bitte, Hast du ein bisschen geld?

The National Socialist Documentation Centre is a short walk from the Dom. The politics of memory is central to the national German consciousness and this austere edifice houses a multitude of sobering historical artefacts. The former Gestapo headquarters is open to the public where you can step inside the prison cells and read the prisoners desperate scrawling’s many of whom profess exasperation as to why they were being held. Mass executions took place in the buildings courtyard in the months leading up to the Allied victory as orders from Berlin commanded all prisoners to be murdered without trial. One prisoner wrote " I do not know why I am here, and nobody will answer my questions".

This vivid and poignant memorial is one of the best-preserved detention centres in Germany. School tours from around Germany are common as teachers impart the dastardly actions of Nazi ideology. That concept of ethnic German superiority and indoctrination of its young in the forms of the Hitler Jugend and the Bund Deutscher Madel can be observed in the myriad photos and demonstrations on display inside this hub of history. Audio guides can be purchased for an extra 2 euro and is recommended for a full and immersive educational experience into a historical phenomenon that represented humanity's dark potential at its most destructive.

The Free walking tour offered by our local guide Matthias was worth every minute of its near 3 hour duration. Starting at the Eigelstein-Torburg, which is one of only two remaining medieval city gates the tour offered a wealth of fascinating historical nuggets and an insight into the Cologne mindset, how Cologne people see themselves and how the rest of Germany views it. Our impression was that the city is considered the bohemian capital of Germany, more laidback and less serious. Think Galway but much larger and ran way more efficiently!

Highlights included the information about Cologne's gangster history and the story of Hennes the Billy goat. The billygoat is the mascot for the local football team Fc Koln. An election was held in which Cologne citizens got to vote for their favourite billygoat. The plebiscite saw a higher turnout than the actual political elections that followed not long after. Hennes saw himself embroiled in controversy when over exuberant Cologne striker Anthony Ujah celebrated a goal by charging to the touchline and yanking at his horns. The Nigerian striker issued an official apology while visiting the cautious billygoat offering a bunch of carrots in contrition. Stories like this offer an insight into the culture and psychological make up of the city. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is highly open minded and friendly to visitors even more so if they are Irish. Many Germans seems to feel a spiritual connection with the Emerald Isle so expect plenty of interest once you tell them where you are from especially younger Germans.

Our tour ended with a customary Kolsch by the Rhein where we were joined by a genial American couple and a neck tattooed Hannover man in town to complete a two day fire systems safety certificate who ,as my friend memorably remarked, was " crying out for craic" such was his infectious enthusiasm and warm demeanour. Alas just as the cry for more crack from our new Hannover buddy began to be answered we were forced to depart for a pre booked two-hour cruise of the Rhein which offered a beautiful and relaxing sail down the river and some spectacular views of the ever-looming Dom cathedral. The cruise is ideal for those fancying a romantic sojourn as well as families looking for evening stimulation.

After the cruise we re-joined our German drinking buddies where the Kolsch began to flow. Over here you are never left waiting for a top up as efficient eagle-eyed waiters remain poised and ready to pounce with a new tray of small glasses with lush, deep and snow-white heads. The tray of drinks is supposed to resemble a crown and with each fresh delivery a mark is left on a beer coaster. If you do not want any more, you place the coaster on top of your glass which signals the end of the drinking and the arrival of the bill. German efficiency again making your experience more fluid and enjoyable.

Our German pals tell us that the plastic flamingos dotted on the plastic plants on the edges of the seating area had just cost the owners 93 euros in on the spot fines after a city official arrived and noted that the bar had not lodged an official request for their placement which was likely in anticipation of the upcoming Cologne Pride weekend festivities!

The Claudius Therme spa resort is a 15 minute walk from the cathedral. Located in the Koln Deutz district this is a stress relieving sanctuary of rest and relaxation offered at reasonable prices. For a 4-hour stay expect to pay no more than 30 euros which a bargain is considering the myriad body rejuvenating facilities on display. Saunas, plunge pools, massages, an outdoor nudist area featuring log cabins offering various time-honoured sauna rituals this is the place to recharge and unwind after a couple of days sampling the local brewery's products.

We were about to enter one cabin when a dozen or so naked Germans burst out its front doors drenched in sweat. This was, we subsequently learned, the first part of the 'Venik Aufghuss' whereby birch water from a bundle of birch twigs is sprinkled on the sauna's hot stones before an employee begins to whip a towel around the room to increase the temperature. The heat was nothing like we ever experienced, and I ran from the room 3 seconds before everyone else did, to the relief of a cold shower and a dip in the pool, naked as the day as I was born, located outside the cabins. The honey and salt aufghuss were relatively mild in comparison but the overall feeling of body rejuvenation was just as profound with the honey offering a skin cleansing effect and a healthy influence on your metabolism. The liberation of the nudist area combined with these centuries old cleansing rituals was a first for us. One wonders if such a facility existed in Ireland what the uptake would be like. We left the centre thoroughly relaxed and renewed.

It was our intention to visit one of Cologne’s acclaimed urban beaches after the spa but alas we were content to chill out on the opposite side of the Dom peering across the bridge laden with love locks and statues of Prussian generals as the sun began to go down as we sipped on a refreshing Reissdorf Kolsch brew. Our strolls and runs around the city also uncovered many exquisite small urban parks complete with abundant seating area, waterfalls and quietness despite their central location.

The Ludwig Museum located at the rear of the cathedral is another must see attraction featuring Warholian pop art on its ground floor and works from Picasso and Dali on the upper floors. The Dali piece is worth the price alone. The museum offers free entry to children and teenagers also with a discount rate for students.

Our trip to Cologne ended with a stroll around the beginnings of Cologne Pride festival stretching from the Altstadt to the Heumarkt area and a few rejuvenating glasses of Kolsch al fresco at a bar in trendy Rudolf Platz while a life-sized replica of Hennes the Billy goat looked on approvingly.

The city offers an array of attractions and endless opportunities for fun and mischief and we will hopefully be returning for its annual Carnival celebrations where its citizens convert the urban landscape into a non-stop party for three days. A visit to the Chocolate Museum will be included next time as well as a sojourn to the Rhein- Energie stadium to see Hennes and the billy-goats back where they belong in Germany's top tier of football.

From shamanic Mongolian desert rock, pampered but democratically elected billygoats, unlawful plastic flamingos, German nudist culture, warped Uber- mensch Nazi ideology, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, gay pride events and awesome feats of art and architecture our brief sojourn to Cologne offered constant stimulation.

The city guarantees fun, new experiences and adventures for every type of traveller whether you are coming on a family trip or for a romantic break or if you are group of friends looking to have a good time and experience new cultures.

Flights continue to run from Ireland West Airport!

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