A few weeks ago, I decided to take the plunge and do something I've never done before: travel alone. It wasn't so much a decision of, "I'm tired of people, I want to get away." It was more that everyone else was busy or just didn't want to go to West Germany with me, and I decided I wasn't going to let those facts stop me from going someplace I wanted to go. And so, on March 9th, I grabbed my bags and flew out to Cologne to start my solo journey.
My date of departure ended up being a HUGE mistake. That day was Ash Wednesday, and I was fasting. As in, I didn't eat anything or drink anything besides water the entire day. As it turns out, fasting and traveling do not make a good combination! It was also a mistake because the Rhineland had just finished celebrating their so-called "fifth season," Karneval, and the area was still recovering from that. All in all, though, it went okay. I arrived in Cologne and headed off to my hostel, registered in German with the receptionist (in German), dropped my stuff off in my room, and came back down to ask for a city map. He hands it to me, and starts speaking to me in English! Once again, I simply continued to speak in German, but it certainly did not give me a good first impression of the hostel.
I took the train to the city center, which is literally the Kölner Dom, the big cathedral that actually has the central station built around it. I went inside to see the brilliance of it, as this cathedral is pretty much the definition of the Gothic style. I knew the Ash Wednesday Mass was going to be starting about an hour later, so I decided to wander around and get a feel of the city. This basically meant I walked around the shopping center, as well as past restaurants and cafes. I finally headed back in to the Dom to attend the service, but apparently I mixed up my times when I checked the night before, because it was actually the Rosary at 6, Mass at 6:30. Oh well. After Mass, I went back out into the city to walk around some more. Most places were closed by this point, besides restaurants, so I decided to make it an early night and head back to the hostel.
Thursday I had planned to take the train to Dusseldorf. However, when I got down to the receptionist, she told me that the train conductors were striking, and the trains wouldn't be running until 10:00, and my train from Hauptbahnhof to Dusseldorf was to leave a few minutes after 9:00. Because of the strike, the receptionist didn't feel it necessary to check me out very quickly, and I ended up getting to the train station only about ten minutes before my train was supposed to leave. And guess what? The trains were running normally! I don't know if she mixed up the times when she heard it or not, but at least the strike didn't affect me. This time, I reserved seats on all of the trains I took throughout the region, and every single train was fairly empty, meaning I didn't need the reservation. Oh, well.
I got to Dusseldorf, ready to start on my "To-Do" list. I had three days in the city and a long list of things I wanted to see. My first stop was Altstadt, the center of the city. The map I got from the hostel a couple more places I hadn't even heard of, all of which were on the way to Altstadt. The first stop was the Johanneskirche, or St. John's Church, the first Protestant church in Dusseldorf (a mostly Catholic city) that was allowed to be built in plain sight. Inside there was the chapel, of course, but there was also a library, a small gathering room, and a cafe. The cafe offered a full plate of food for lunch for 4 euros in order to raise funds for the church, so I did my good deed and got their daily special of Nuremberg sausages, mashed potatoes, and red cabbage. Not bad for four euros! A little farther down was the main shopping district, Königsallee (or die Kö for short), which was so expensive I could barely afford to window-shop. I high-tailed it out of there and moved on to Altstadt, just a couple blocks away.
Altstadt, as I said, is the center of the city and is where almost everything is in terms of tourism. Hence, walking through, I saw a lot of little souvenir stores on corners, and these stores made one thing really obvious to me: there is a HUGE rivalry between Dusseldorf and Cologne. I had heard of this before, but I never truly understood the extent of it. The residents of both cities have a strong dislike for each other. They are only about 40 kilometers away from each other, along the Rhine. Dusseldorf is the capital city of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and is the economic powerhouse of Germany (which in turn is the powerhouse of the European Union). On the other hand, Cologne's population is much greater, it had a few of the government offices when Bonn was the capital of West Germany, and has more tourism than Dusseldorf.
I also had a slightly strange experience in the hostel that night. There was an actual German in my hostel room, and after we said "Hello/Hallo" to each other, he asked me if I spoke German, formally. I said yes, and we spoke a couple more in German, but he kept speaking to me formally. Now, there's really no clear cut rules for when to speak formally and when you can speak informally, but generally students speak informally to each other, and the guy looked like he was a fellow student. He was sharing a hostel room, after all. So I said, "Wir können dutzen," ("We can speak informally.") to which he replied, "Oh, so you don't speak German." I still have no explanation for what happened here, but the people I talked to all came to the same conclusion: He was a douchebag. Especially considering the fact that I heard him speaking informally to another girl in the room the next morning.
Friday I decided to get out of town, sort of. I headed to Schloss Benrath, which is in the suburbs of Dusseldorf and was the residence of Carl Theodor. As it turns out, this was the best day of my vacation. I got to the castle and went to buy my ticket. After showing the lady my student ID, she told me that the ticket to both the castle and the museums was free for students. Not what I was expecting, as my web sources had told me it would be 7,50 euros, but I definitely wasn't going to complain either. She wrote my name down for the next tour of the castle, and I went into the Museum of Natural History. It's had a lot of interesting information (I loved the exhibit about the birds), but it's definitely not the place to go if you don't speak German- there was absolutely no English anywhere! As it was, it was a little difficult for me to understand a few things, just because I don't know nature vocabulary, but I was able to figure out most of it out. My tour time came, I went to meet the tour guide, and found out that I was the only person in the "group"! He was just as surprised as I was, but we were both willing to go with it. I asked him a couple of questions before the tour actually began, and he asked in German, "Are you sure you speak German?" I replied that I was an exchange student, and he became very excited. I was very excited too, because he continued speaking to me in German after that, but said if I didn't understand something he said, just tell him and he's try to explain it more carefully. The tour started in the basement, where he showed me a model of the grounds. I asked a few questions about the construction of the buildings, to which he asked, "Are you studying to become an architect or something?" We wandered through the building and, although I was fairly quiet throughout the tour, I actually understood just about everything he said, to the point where I feel like I could show somebody around and tell them the same information, German or English. Go me! The last room on the tour was the games room, and I saw in the center of the room an old, pre-Beethoven piano. Of everything in the castle, that impressed me the most, although I didn't say anything. But before I knew it, the guide said, "See that instrument in the middle of the room? Most people don't guess this, but it's actually a piano from before Beethoven's time." Dang, I should have said something!
After Schloss Benrath, I went back to Dusseldorf and walked along the Rhine for a while, as it was such a warm and gorgeous day. By doing this, I walked up to what looked like an old lighthouse that said, "Schifffahrtmuseum" (Navigation Museum) on the side. I figured there was no harm in going in to find out what it was, so I did. It turns out the museum was free, with a small cafe on the top floor that overlooked the river and the city. As it turns out, the museum was worth the cost- fairly boring- but getting up to the top and having the chance to sit down, enjoy an Altbier, and relax was well worth it. Sitting in the cafe, I noticed a statue on top of an advertisement tower just a little ways away- a statue of a couple. So, I looked up what it was on the internet (yay iTouch!), and found out it was part of a series of statues by Christoph Pöggeler, taking ordinary people out of their everyday lives and making them "noticed" again. The couple were just one of 9 statues around the city, and I made it my goal to find more of them before I left. Also, after the Altbier, I decided I needed to go around Altstadt that night and try different brands of it while I could. And that's how I ended up bar-hopping on a Friday night!
Saturday, March 12th, there was a walking tour of the city that I planned to go on during the afternoon, but until then, I needed to figure out what to do until the time came. Figuring it would take me a few hours to get to Altstadt, the starting place of the tour, if I took a different route to get there, and for once hoped I would get lost and wander around a different area of the city. Sadly, this didn't happen. Quite the opposite, actually: I think I managed to find a faster way to get to the city center from my hostel! it was still several hours before the tour was supposed to start, so I tried walking around the outskirts of the city for a while before realizing it was hopeless, and just headed back to the hostel, skipping the tour.
Sunday I took the train to Essen, "The Shopping City" of Germany. Funny, considering I dropped Aachen from my itinerary because all I read about the city was about shopping, but so it goes. I made my way over to the hostel, which is the strangest hostel I've ever stayed in. It was actually a sports and guest house outside of the center of the city, and when I arrived, I was certain I was at the wrong place. The receptionist assured me I was at the right place and gave me the key to the room, shockingly enough, since it was only about 11 am, and most places don't have check-in until later in the afternoon. I got upstairs, and the maid was cleaning the rooms. She asked what room I was in, asked me to wait a couple of minutes, and quickly finished cleaning my room for me. I dropped off my stuff in my dorm, claimed by bed, and went on my way back to the central station and center of the city.
When I arrived, I didn't have a map of the city and only a vague idea of what to see. To add to the confusion, the tourist's office was closed, since it was a Sunday. However, there was a tour bus in front of the office that was leaving in five minutes, which would cost 13 euros. Since I hadn't paid anything for the past few days in ways of tours or attractions, and I really didn't know how else I would be able to see the city, I hopped on and enjoyed 100 minutes of the history of Essen, or at least tried to. The audio cut out a couple of times, making it difficult to figure out what was being said. But at least my lack of understanding was not because of a language barrier! Once we got back to the tourist office (still closed), I at least had an idea of where I should go next and a map to explore with! And with that, I headed down the equivalent of Main Street, where all the main shops were. A little farther down the street was the Hohen Domkirche zu Essen, the main cathedral of the city. I ended up getting there 10 minutes before the service started, so I would have felt so guilty if I didn't stay for Mass! And then the bishop walked in, because it turns out that he was leading the service! Although, I figured out about half-way through, it was not actually Mass, just a presentation of the candidates for Baptism and Eucharist. Oops. It's not like I was on a schedule, though, so it didn't bother me too much. I continued walking through the city, which was mostly all closed up for Sunday, and made my way over to the Old Synagogue and Jewish Museum and the Old Catholic Church across the way. As there was nothing more I wanted to see after that, and I needed to leave early the next morning, I headed back to the hostel. The awesome thing was, by the time I went to bed that night, nobody else had shown in my room. I had a private room for the price of a dorm! Almost. Somehow, by the time I woke up, there was somebody in the next bed over, who was not terribly happy that I had woken her up at 7:30!
Monday, I hopped back on the train to get to Bonn, the capital city of West Germany during the Cold War. After finally finding the hostel (which only took me a good 45 minutes of walking around lost), the receptionist gave me a map, which included a walking tour of the city so I "could see all the main sights of Bonn" on my own, which I gladly took. Along the route, I got to stop by the birthplace of Beethoven, the church he played the organ at when he was only ten years old, the university and the Academic Museum of Art. These were all great and dandy, especially the museum at the birthplace of Beethoven, but definitely not why I wanted to come to Bonn! So I went to the Tourist Office and asked if they had a tour or any kind of information about the former capital, and the guy actually did have a map of a walking tour called "Weg der Demokratie" ("Path of Democracy"). The only problem was, it was in the far southern side of the city, at it was already almost 6 pm. I managed to get to see a few of the buildings from the outside, although I didn't get to go inside any of them, between the time of day and the security. I did get to see places such as the UN building and the Villa Hammerschmidt, the residence of the president from 1950-1990. At this point, though, my knee was telling me I had gone too far and needed to stop walking, so I called it a night and headed back to my hostel.
Tuesday I was back on my way to Cologne, where I started my whole trip. I headed back to the Dom, but not to go inside the church again. Rather, I wanted to make the climb to the top of the tower. That's no easy task, though- in order to get to the top, you have to climb over 500 steps in a narrow, spiral staircase, with only one place to stop about 2/3rds of the way up. The view was well worth the climb, however, especially since it was an especially clear day and I could see everything for kilometers around the cathedral. On the way up, I met a woman with her two daughters, also Americans (although I didn't ask where from specifically) and unofficially became their interpreter for the rest of the way up. I lost them at the top, though, and never saw them after that.
From there I headed over to the Chocolate Museum, described by my guidebook as Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory come to life. Of course, I gave up candy for Lent, but I decided this was a learning experience, not a candy-gorging session. It was crazy how much information they had! Sure, they had the candy-making process, but they also had exhibits about the farmers of the cocoa bean and chocolate as a cult item. It was quite interesting to read about, and I am not too ashamed to say I played some of the games they had for kids there. (Hey, the German was easy to understand!) Unfortunately, I made the mistake of wearing a red shirt and black slacks, as that is the uniform for the workers in the museum. I had one little girl who kept coming up to me, asking me questions about the exhibit, the games, the gift shop, just about everything.
One of the experiences I wanted to have in Cologne was drinking Kölsch, the local beer, so I asked my hostel receptionist where a good bar/restaurant was. She said there was one about a kilometer away and gave me the directions. She didn't mention that it was going to be so crowded, though! There were three rooms, two of which were completely full. The third room had open spaces, so I went in. I was immediately screamed at by a guy, saying that the room was was reserved, and could I not read the sign on the door? I quickly headed out of there and walked down the street, trying to find another bar without so many people filling the place. I finally stumbled across a sports bar with almost nobody inside, but advertising that it sold Kölsch, so I headed inside. The emptiness didn't last for long, though. Pretty soon, people were coming inside, ordering their drinks, and generally just filling up the rather small room. Yes, there was a football game on that night, and everybody wanted to watch! What the heck, I thought, and ordered another beer and waited for the game to start, no idea who was playing. Was it going to be Cologne vs. Dusseldorf? (If it was, I probably would have left, in case things got out of hand.) All I could tell was that it was FC Bayern (the team from Munich) against a team called "Inter". I waited until I noticed how everybody else reacted before cheering or booing, since I didn't want to try to explain to angry football fans that I simply didn't know! After the first goal, I found out a) "Inter" is the team from Milan, and b) I was definitely supposed to root for FC Bayern. I quickly joined in with the groans that everybody was shouting, upset that Milan had scored the first goal. I ended up sticking around for the entire first half, meaning that I got to see both goals FC Bayern scored during the entire game. I left at half-time though, which definitely ended up being a good move, since FC Bayern lost 3-2. With how passionate everybody is about their football, I would hate to be around a group of fans when their team lost. Overall, a fun, if not unexpected, ending to a week of traveling.
I returned to Berlin the next day, slightly disappointed. I had a lot of fun traveling by myself, and it certainly meant I could do everything I wanted, without being told that it was boring, or that I was waking up too early on vacation. There was a lot of freedom that came with being on my own. I also came to love the Rhineland and the people there (and I won't lie, the beer, at least in Cologne). Almost everybody there spoke to me in German, which is more than I can say about Berlin. But life goes on, and I had to go back to my home base, at least for a short amount of time.