Cologne’s my favourite German city. Not beacuse it’s particularly beautiful, like Heidelberg, or wild and vibrant, like Hamburg, but because it’s the one I know best, and holds the most memories for me. Memories from my earliest visits to Germany more than a decade ago. Heartbreakingly happy memories that I now cling desperately to. Bette Middler is fittingly singing The Rose as the train pulls into Köln Hauptbahnhof, and I quickly cut her off, stuffing my iPod earphones into my jacket pocket. The last lines hang in my ears as I step onto the platform beneath the sweeping iron arches of the station.
When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong–
Robert’s waiting for me on the platform, and like Cologne, I’ve not seen him for almost two years, since the Football World Cup in 2006. Quick greetings, and we’re off through the crowds, looking for our first kölsch of the day. It’s not that Cologne can be classed an ugly city, or a dull one, by any measure. The city greets me like an old friend, with the first real sunshine I’ve seen since I arrived in Germany a week ago. The fantastic black gothic precipices of the Dom, Cologne’s main cathedral tower over the Domplatte, which is packed with young people on this Saturday afternoon.
When I first saw Cologne in ’96, it was my first trip out of Sri Lanka, and most of my expectations of the city had been formed by pictures and newsreels of World War Two, like the iconic footage of the Dom‘s twin spires silhouetted against the fires of the first British thousand-bomber raids. I’d expected Cologne to be all industrial steel, concrete, and ’60′s architecture. Fortunately, it wasn’t, pleasantly surprising me with it’s ancient cathedrals, old pubs, and narrow backstreets, many rebuilt to replicate prewar architecture.
Just off Roncalliplatz, Robert and I walk into the Früh brewery, which does, in fact, look like a mediveal brewery rather than a proper pub. There’s barely standing room and the characteristically rude waiters ignore us until Robert pointedly taps one on the shoulder. Two slim test tube-like glasses of the light Cologne beer are grudgingly served us, and we light up. Fortunately, the draconian anti-smoking laws of Europe haven’t reached North Rhine Westphalia, and the pub is thick with smoke. I find kölsch a tad too light for my taste, but don’t dare ask for an alt, the dark beer native to Cologne’s greatest rival, Dusseldorf, further north along the Rhine.
A couple of beers and we’re off again, down the crowded Höhe Strasse, which is the main shopping drag south of the cathedral. It’s been a late winter, with freezing temperatures and inches of snow in the Hunsruck Mountains of Rheinland Pfalz, where I’m based for this holiday, and even here in Cologne the air is chill and the pedestrians well wrapped. Quite different to my last visit in the summer of ’06, during the madness of the World Cup, skimpily-dressed chicks dancing in the streets in sweltering temperatures. Cologne had been a brief distraction then, a pause in the long frustrating slide into despair that my life had become. Two years later, the city still has the ability to distract and entertain.
Cologne’s a Colombo-sized city, a million inhabitants, and very cosmopolitan. It’s no London, New York, or Toronto, but the streets teem with Africans and Asians of every colour and shape. Vietnamese restaurants jostle shoulders with Turkish imbisses and Irish pubs. Cologne isn’t the car-watchers’ paradise that Dusseldorf is, with its Lambos and Ferraris commonplace, but I do spot a Scaglietti and an Audi R8 parked on sidestreets, and further along a Shelby Mustang.
Afternoon drifts into night, and more kölsch and endless cigarettes. Traditional German dinner of pork and sauerkraut and mashed potatoes in a crowded pub. Early morning ouzo in an Italian bistro. A blonde bartender’s green eyes reflect my hunger. I raise my camera, but she’s gone, serving wine down the bar.
It rains the next morning, as I leave Cologne, my train following the Rhine south. The Dom raises its spires against the horizon, in victorious farewell, but the funeral approaches. Love is dead, and it’s time to bury it.