The joys of getting to Europe by train are obvious. No two-hour check in, convenient central locations and none of the cabin baggage restrictions that make us all so mad (why do different airlines have different allowances?) The biggest advantage when travelling with a family is the children’s contentment. After passing through a quick and simple ticket and security check you wait for your train in a departure lounge that you can’t leave. Children can wander about in total safety. It might seem a simple point but the difference between an airport and Eurostar is significant on the level of stress experienced.
I have travelled to Europe by train many times and have never been disappointed by the efficiency of the train networks. My train left on time and just over two hours later I was in Brussels Midi, the connection station for my next train to Cologne.
When planning a trip like this with a connection I always allow a little extra time between trains. Brussels Midi is a large station that has many platforms so to avoid rushing around with luggage give yourself an extra half an hour. This allows you time to call into the brilliant Belgian chocolate shop in the station. I was visiting friends so this is the perfect present to arrive with. The box of Godiva chocolates put a smile on their faces immediately.
I thought the Eurostar train was smooth but the Thalys train was so smooth that it was a few minutes before I realised we were actually moving.
Taking me into the centre of Cologne (another advantage over flying, no taxi expenses to get out of the airport) I was met by my friends. How civilised and easy. Had I been staying in a central hotel I could have walked from the station.
There is much to do in Cologne for the adults and children alike. The first site and impossible to ignore due to its size is The Dom or cathedral. This monumental structure and UNESCO World Heritage site was built between 1150 and 1250 and has been the symbol and landmark of the metropolis Rhine city for centuries. It is impressive inside and out. The space is vast and fully open to visitors. You can for small fee climb up to the base of the twin spires, which tower above the city at 157 metres tall. A word of advice this is an arduous task for the less than fit. I remember doing this as a much younger man and being exhausted at the top. You are rewarded with a brilliant view of Cologne if you manage it.
The city has culture firmly in its sights with museums seemingly around every corner. I called into the Museum Lugwig to see Germany’s largest collection of 20th century art including the largest number of Pop Art pieces outside of America, something the younger aspiring artist in a family might find more accessible that old masters?
A tour bus is always worth a look in to get an idea of the size and general feeling of a place. I took one from the centre just by The Dom it lasted 90 minutes and only cost €12. There are family tickets available as well. This tour circumnavigates the city and through multilingual commentary provides all sorts of interesting information. Cologne has the countries third largest zoo and the tallest inhabited building in Germany known as Cologonia. We travelled over the Rhine to the east side, which is under development where you will find the Odysseum Museum, a brilliant place for children of all ages to explore and discover. You can get on and off the bus all day long if you wish making it a very economical means of travel to all the interesting locations.
There is a history of holding trade fairs in Cologne they have a massive series of venues designed for the job. In the 1950’s a cable car was built crossing the river to make getting there a bit more fun. This is a great little adventure and the views are brilliant as you cross the river.
The medieval quarter is a delight with bars, restaurants and galleries aplenty and the most exquisite buildings to look at. It is mostly car free so relaxing to discover. Why not enjoy a glass of the local tipple Kölsch? This hoppy bitter beer is a perfect pick me up, served in small tall glasses, it is an institution in Cologne with many bars claiming they have the finest.
On a rainy day there is much to do with a family such as visiting a puppet show. Even if you don’t understand a word they are very entertaining and appeal to all ages. The Odysseum is a knowledge adventure park with over 2000 activities. Children (and adults!) experience how the earth came into existence and views from space. If you are over six you can undergo astronaut training. A wonderful place for the curious and adventurous alike. At only €14 for adults it is also good value.
The food is as varied as any major city in the western world. I dined with my host K at a traditional brewery pub Mühlen Kölsch. The sort of place that has scrubbed tables, wooden floors and serves endless chilled glasses of Kölsch. The food was typically German, robust and full of flavour. The interior is panelled in wood and full of benches and little corners to get lost in. They have recently expanded up a floor, which is where we ate. This is a very central place to stay, later this year they are opening up as a hotel with 37 rooms.
K kicked off with a homemade potato soup and I chose (on her advice) a goulash soup with bread. K’s was good and creamy with croutons for texture mine was a meal in its self. Strong with paprika and a thick sauce it tasted great. The mains were Cologne specialities, K had one of her favourites –‘heaven and earth’ which turned out to be fried black pudding, onions, mashed potato and stewed apples. The black pudding was in small sausage form and worked very well with the applesauce cutting through the dense blood sausage. My Rhenish braised beef with dumplings and stewed apples (again) was a master class in deep flavour from long, long cooking. It was a very generous portion and came in giant slices. They braise the whole joint of meat and then slice it when cooked. This allows it to stay together and produces butter soft beef with rich strong gravy.
As we ate, the place was filling up with locals and a few tourists all chatting about their days. It had a great atmosphere with ebullient and jolly staff. There is a boxed off counting section to prepare the bills and do other accounting duties that looked straight out of 1930’s. It has a charm that I feel will remain when it opens its rooms as a hotel. It already has a revolving door so is half the way there already.
We still had a tiny bit of room for dessert. These were less successful my semi fredo layered cake with sauce should have come with an alcohol warning. The sauce was so boozy I would have feared driving afterwards. It hadn’t been heated to burn off the alcohol otherwise it would have been fine. K went safe with a crème caramel, which was plain and simple and better for it.
One of the most exciting things about Cologne is their love of art in any form. I was lucky enough to visit a new exhibition, The Photobook Museum. Located in a vast derelict factory it summarized the progression of the last 170 years of photography, which the curators now feel is best represented by photobooks. With the advent of digital imagery the concept of the old photo album has ebbed and modern digital books have taken their place on the shelf. A concept in exhibition terms that allows the artists to display in juxtaposition more comprehensive essays of their style and vision. Using different printing techniques and sizes I found this captivating, watching a theme develop. This is a totally unique and surely trailblazing way to present the individual characteristics of photography. The exhibition is planning to move around the country and maybe abroad if you get a chance go and see it.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to a newish restaurant on my last night. The Ox and Klee is the brainchild of an impossibly young 23 year-old chef Daniel Gottschlich and his partner Felicitas, I will cover the restaurant in another dedicated review but I can mention that the food is clever, playful and really very good. Daniel Gottschlich will go far, Michelin have already noticed him and awarded Ox and Klee a mention in their veritable guide. I thank my hosts K and U who are experts are sourcing the best of emerging culinary talent in Cologne.
So Cologne is a city with much to offer the traveller, history, fun, sightseeing and great food. It’s simple to get to and couldn’t be easier to discover on foot or with a Köln card a 24-hour bus, train and tram pass that only cost €9. So what’s stopping you?
To find out how to plan your journey here is some useful information
Eurostar operates up to 11 daily services from Brussels Midi to London St Pancras International with return fares from €88 return.
The fastest Brussels – London journey time is 2hrs 1min.
Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.