Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Journey's End (Germany #20)

COLOGNE--Hard to believe I’m nearing my journey’s end. This is Germany’s fourth largest city, and on this trip I’ve now seen all of the others except Hamburg. Day before yesterday, it took our bus about half an hour to climb out of the steep wooded Rhine Valley following our river cruise. We came back here, freshened up at our hotel, and dined at a French bistro on coq au vin and chocolate mousse.
Yesterday morning (Oct. 12, actually), we began our last full day in Germany with a lecture on “The Romans in Cologne,” followed by a visit to the city’s famous cathedral; built between 1248 and 1880, it’s the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Cologne, which is located on both sides of the Rhine, was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D. It was the capital of a Roman province until being occupied by the Franks in 459, and later a sovereign state within the Holy Roman Empire until being conquered by Napoleon.
Cologne survived WWI without significant damage. But in WWII, the city center (including the famous Twelve Romanesque churches and many other cultural treasures) was almost completely wiped out by Allied bombing. Also, by 1945, essentially all of Cologne's pre-war Jewish population of 11,000 had been deported or killed by the Nazis and the six synagogues of the city destroyed. The synagogue on Roonstraße was rebuilt in 1959.
Following the devastation of WWII, Cologne suffered through another half century of Soviet domination and its grim architecture before Germany was reunited. Reconstruction of the center city (which was rebuilt to look old) lasted until the 1990s, when the Romanesque church of St. Kunibert was finished. Today, Cologne is home to more than 30 museums and hundreds of galleries, as well as its namesake university, one of Europe's oldest and largest.
Coffee houses have been a Cologne institution since Napoleon’s time, and for lunch yesterday we visited one of the city’s finest, the restored Gothic Café Reichard. Located on an elegant shopping street, the cafe seats 400 inside its glass pavilion, and 400 more on a beautiful terrace. But its most endearing feature was a magnificent assortment of cakes and pies that included gooseberry pie, something I’d never tasted and found delightfully tart. After lunch, we had free time the rest of the afternoon. At 6:15, we reconvened in the hotel lobby and went out together for our wonderful farewell dinner at nearby Renaissance Hotel.
Very, very early this morning (5:50), we were in the lobby of Hotel Flandrischer Hof waiting for our airport shuttle when my wife wished aloud for come coffee. There seemed little chance of this happening. Yet to our astonishment, a kindly hotel clerk immediately called across, “One? Or two?” and proceeded to brew us each a steaming cup. This small kindness typified our experience with the German people, who seemed so much like Americans.
Most everything on this tour was well-planned with lots of attention to detail evident. For anything that wasn’t, our amazing tour leaders made seemingly effortless adjustments (though I know they were sometimes exasperated). Throughout our stay, I’ve admired German cleanliness, up-to-date technology, style, and efficiency. This continued with our minivan ride to the shiny and apparently new airport.
Joachim walked us right up to customs, making sure we were okay before exchanging heartfelt farewells. As we showed our passports to German officials, I recalled learning on this trip that since I am of German descent (through my great grandparents), I could qualify for a German passport. What a strange feeling that gave me.

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