Jun 11, 2014

Cologne & Arnhem

We kicked off our European tour in Cologne (Köln), Germany on July 21st, 2013. Mars' long-time friend, Bengt, lives there. We thought it would be the perfect starting point for taking it easy and recovering from jet lag.

Bengt picked us up at the train station. By this point, I was delirious from lack of sleep.  I had zero sleep the night prior on the 12 hour flight from San Francisco and, not surprisingly, none on the 1-1/2 hour train ride connection from Frankfurt to Cologne. It was almost 1 pm local time (almost 5 am San Francisco time).

Brutal. What shocked me is that the sleep deprivation made me extremely angry, irrational, and unreasonable . I felt cross-eyed and dangerously close to snapping and losing my sanity.

The kids had two hours of sleep on the plane so they were severely lacking sleep as well.

This photo of us in the Frankfurt train station perfectly captures the gravity of the situation:

Bengt drove us straight from the train station to his home, which he shares with his wife and their two young children. Their home is spacious and has a gorgeous private garden. The weather was nice although uncharacteristically hot (i.e. publicized heat wave!) during our stay so we spent a lot of time in the garden in the afternoons and evenings once the temperature cooled off.

We unloaded our luggage in the guest bedroom and the kids unloaded their luggage in the connecting bedroom, their 4 year old daughter's room. Bengt and Kristin had temporarily moved their daughter into their 5 year old son's bedroom. We'd be staying here for the next 4 nights.

Bengt's wife, Kristin, graciously offered to make me a cup of iced coffee. I don't normally drink caffeine but jumped at the opportunity.  She promised it would help.

That cup of coffee was magical! I felt like myself again within 20 minutes.  Hallelujah!  We enjoyed pastries, cakes, and drinks in the garden while the kids splashed in the kiddie pool. I felt relaxed and slightly buzzy from the coffee.

Liesel, Gümby, and Kurt - ready to swim!

Splish splash!

In the garden and much happier. Caffeine miracle!

Refreshments - including local beer - in the garden.

I turned in early immediately after getting the kids to bed. 

Day 1: Cologne Cathedral and exploring Cologne on foot.

I didn't sleep very well and woke up with a headache to the sound of loud raucous bird calls. I had never heard this particular bird call before - I loved it. We heard it every morning and every afternoon and early evening during our stay in Cologne. The birds are very pretty.  Bengt and Kristin told us they were pigeons but they were much prettier than any pigeon we'd ever seen. Mars called them our scruffy ratty pigeons' refined European cousins. After we returned from Europe, I found out they are wood pigeons. I even found a sound clip. When playing it, imagine it much louder and pretend you're just waking up to a warm summer morning in Cologne. Listening to this brings back so many good memories and makes me pine for Cologne.

Are these birds gorgeous or what?

Bengt, Kristin, and kids had work and school - it was a Monday, after all - so Mars, the kids, and I decided to leisurely explore Cologne on our own. Before heading to work, Bengt surprised us by providing a large assortment of breakfast items for us: rolls, jam, cheese, cereal, fruits, milk, juice, and coffee. We were expecting to go out to breakfast or run to the grocery store. It appears to be the norm for European hosts to provide meals for their house guests, as we had the same experience later in the trip while staying with our friends in Villeneuve-les-Avignon and in Bournemouth. Bread and cheese are a very popular breakfast in every country we visited in Europe and it's difficult not to eat it because little else is available. The excessive dairy and wheat were hard for my Paleo body to handle and I quickly became bloated and... um, constipated.

Both Mars and I had a very humbling lesson in hospitality.  Not only did our hosts provide meals but also took a lot of time out of their schedules and lives to proudly show us around. It was apparent we needed to step up our game for our many houseguests back in San Francisco. Americans as a general rule are probably more laissez-faire about houseguests, not wanting to impose and letting them take the lead. This was certainly true for us. Not anymore.  We enjoyed our slice of humble pie.

We first took the train to Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom).

This cathedral, a Gothic architectural masterpiece, is amazing.  Immediately upon entering, the kids wanted to light candles for their deceased pet rats: Megan, who had died the day before we left for Europe, and Vanilla. It was a sweet moment.

Then we set off to explore the interior of the cathedral but didn't get far due to excessive crowds and unruly kids. The kids were not impressed and soon started asking to leave.

The exterior was hand carved from stone and is exquisitely detailed with gargoyles and biblical characters.

Fact 1: Cologne Cathedral was the tallest building in the world from 1880 to 1884, preceded by Rouen Cathedral and succeeded by Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower.

Fact 2: Cologne Cathedral is the most visited landmark in Germany.

Fact 3: Cologne Cathedral became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

After lunch across the street from the cathedral, we explored Cologne on foot.  We got a little turned around and accidentally did a large U shape around the cathedral.  Our plan was to cross Hohenzollern Bridge.  Little did we know when leaving the cathedral that we were heading the wrong direction. We came across a Lego store, much to Crumpet's excitement.

Lego store!

We eventually found our way back and dipped our feet in the pools at this plaza next to the bridge.

We took an ice cream break in an attempt to cool off before crossing the bridge on foot.  This is where I got shat on by a bird. On my arm.  I've been told it's good luck - I am choosing to believe that.

Notice the Lego bags. We're suckers.

Hohenzollern Bridge

We made it across the bridge! This was no small feat, as it was blazing hot and there was no shade.

Cologne Cathedral, Hohenzollern Bridge, and the Rhine River

We had to take another refreshment break upon reaching the other side.  Drinking fountains are rare in western Europe and we didn't pack enough water for such a hot day.  This outdoor refreshment area on the Rhine River was part of the Hyatt Regency Cologne.

Nice shady spot to relax/play with Lego but the water was ridiculously expensive!

We walked along the Rhine, stopping to look for shells and dunk our feet again. The heat was overbearing.

Showing off their shellfish - I'm pretty sure these are invasive Asian clams (thanks Google!)

We made our way through Rheinpark park and frantically searched for water at the Claudius thermal spa. We again spent way too much money for it in the restaurant bar there. Then, after major confusion over where to purchase tickets for the sky tram at Seilbahn Station in Rheinpark, we finally boarded and made our way across the Rhine to the Seilbahn Station at the zoo.


By this time it was around 4 pm and commute traffic was heavy so we decided to head back to Bengt's. Destination: Arnulfstrasse station in the Sülz district. We went out for sushi that night in the neighborhood with Bengt and gang.  Crumpet's favorite food is sushi - he was in heaven!

Forget sushi boats, Cologne has conveyor belt sushi! There was a conveyor belt that was refrigerated and a conveyor belt that kept the food warm.

Conveyor belt sushi

Kids with motorized toy in front of a bakery

Once again, I went to bed soon after the kids went to bed.  I was hoping to finally kick the headache. I had underestimated the jet lag. Maurice, Bengt, and one of Bengt's friends took the vintage Citroen out on the town to see the night sights, including Cologne Cathedral once again.  Mars told me the next morning that the cathedral looked completely different at night illuminated with lights.

Day 2: De Hoge Veluwe National Park in Arnhem, Netherlands.

The next morning my headache was even worse.  Nice.  Damn jet lag! Bengt had taken the day off work and surprised us by taking us to De Hoge Veluwe National Park in Arnhem, Netherlands. The De Hoge Veluwe National Park is home to the Kröller-Müller Museum, a well-known museum with a large collection of Van Gogh paintings. Bengt knows Mars too well; Mars is obsessed with Van Gogh. I was excited to add a fifth country to our itinerary.

It took about 2 hours from Cologne by car to get there. Bengt drove.

Our first stop inside the park was, of course, the museum. I was surprised to learn that photographs of the paintings were allowed.

Recognize this one?

Detail of incredible brush strokes and paint thickness

It's hard to say but I think this was my favorite.

Wait, this could possibly be my favorite.

I love this.

After the museum, it was bike riding time.  The park offers all visitors free unlimited use of the park bikes. Fortunately, many had child seats on the back.

Choose your own bike

We rode our newly acquired bikes to the De Koperen Kop restaurant cafe and playground.  We sat at the picnic tables on the outdoor terrace eating delicious fries from the café and sandwiches that Bengt had packed from home then the kids played on the playground.  After lunch, we took to the bikes again to explore the park.

It started to rain just as we were leaving and then turned into a thunderstorm while we were driving. Back in Cologne, Bengt joined us for dinner at a neighborhood pizzeria; Kristin and the kids had another engagement.

Day 3: Drachenburg Castle (Schloss Drachenburg) and Wildpark Rolandseck.

We had a leisurely morning. Gümby wanted to show Liesel and Kurt her favorite movie at the time, Matilda, so they watched a bit of that on the portable movie player while Crumpet played games on his tablet.

Sweet kids

Today Bengt and kids (Kristin had to work) were taking us to Drachenburg Castle and the Wildpark (wild animal park), both south near Bonn. We had to take two cars since there were 7 of us. Bengt drove their second car, a Volvo wagon, and Mars drove their main car, an Audi wagon.

But first, before leaving, we did our first official load of laundry in Bengt & Kristin's washing machine.  We hung it out to dry before leaving for the day.

It was on the freeway to Königswinter (tiny town near Drachenburg Castle) that I noticed the very practical gas stations right off the freeway, located like the rest stops you'd find along the freeways in the United States. You could exit right at the gas station and then enter again without driving on city streets. So smart!

We parked in Königswinter, bought admission tickets, then took the train up the mountainside to Drachenburg Castle. Drachenburg literally means "dragon castle". Historical information about this castle can be found here and on the official Schloss Drachenburg website here. Bengt told us that when he was a teenager in the late 1980s he used to come here to drink with his buddies when the castle was vacant and near ruins before its renovation.

The castle is beautiful! We walked around looking in the roped off rooms. The kids went crazy running around and sliding on the shiny hardwood parquet floors in the ballroom. It was surprisingly uncrowded and we mostly had the castle to ourselves.

All of us in front of the castle


Entrance into the foyer
Architectural detail

After checking out the castle we got back on the train and headed further up the mountain to Drachenfels (Dragon Cliff).  There are old castle ruins, sweeping views, and a restaurant.

Outdoor terrace café with old Burg Drachenfels
(Dragon Cliff Castle) ruins above

Gorgeous view of the Rhine River and towns of Mitte and Bad Honnef
looking south from Burg Drachenfels' lookout point

Next on the itinerary was Wildpark Rolandseck, a wild animal park near the town of Rolandseck, across the Rhine and southest from Königswinter, Schloss Drachenburg, and Drachenfels.  We took a ferry across the Rhine.

Crumpet on the ferry

Once at Wildpark Rolandseck, we bought animal feed at the entrance gate and headed straight for the goats wandering nearby. This wild animal park is on a forested hillside overlooking the Rhine. Simply gorgeous! Bengt told us that they come here regularly for parties and playdates.

We followed a trail up the hillside toward the observation tower, then stopped to feed the wild boars on the way back down.

Looking northeast from the observation tower, straight at
Drachenfels in the distance

Gümby and Liesel hiding under the spiral staircase in the
observation tower


Feeding wild boars

We let the kids play at the amazing playground near the exit gate before leaving. This shady forested playground had trampolines, tree houses, climbing structures, a large wood pirate ship, and play huts.

We had to cut the play short and quickly head back to Bengt's, as he had planned a barbecue party with local friends for our last night in Cologne.

Silly kids pretending they are asleep

Once we were back at Bengt & Kristin's house, I was dismayed to see that the laundry we had hung out to dry was not yet dry, which prompted a tumble in the dryer. Then we enjoyed our evening meeting new friends. Our last night in Cologne was bittersweet.  I was sad to leave yet eager to begin the rest of our European adventure.

Starting up the barbecue

Enjoying a warm summer Cologne evening under the stars

Day 4: Train travel to Munich.

After breakfast, we said our sad goodbyes and took the train to the Köln Hauptbahnhof (main train station) to board our train to Munich.  This final photo in Cologne was taken in the Hauptbahnhof.  Notice Cologne Cathedral behind us.

Auf wiedersehen, Köln!

Note: This post took nearly 3 weeks to write.  At this rate, I won't complete our European travel series before the upcoming 1 year anniversary next month.  Ack!

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