Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
The first five countries (Belgium, Germany, Poland, Russia and Mongolia) on my odyssey were all new to me, so the sight of a friendly face with a beaming smile was the greatest welcome I could hope for when I arrived in Cologne, Germany. Petra Schulten, a fellow travel writer I had met on a media trip to Amsterdam, agreed to be my guide.
I put aside my worries about snoring and took a bunk in a dormitory at the Station Hostel but as soon as I checked in, I realised it was a mistake. My concern about the safety of all my electronic equipment, which I had placed in a locker outside the dorm, left me unable to fully enjoy the prospect of the sights Petra was taking me to see.
The next morning, I upgraded to a single room although I still found one thing was decidedly missing from the hostel – a kitchen. Apparently, previous guests had left it in a mess, attracting rodents and so it was closed down. Still, the responsibility to ensure cleanliness is surely with the hostel? I thought this is a poor excuse to close a kitchen. There is something not right about a hostel that does not have a kitchen or at least a means for you to get hot water. Fortunately there were enough cafes in and around the station for my nightly cuppa.
Petra took me to a bridge that was of shimmering red. On closer scrutiny, I learned that the Hohenzollern Bridge over the River Rhine is another victim of a craze. Lovers have clipped their love locks as a declaration of their devotion to each other; there must have been thousands. Pretty as they were, I remember the French authorities banning them after a bridge in Paris had almost collapsed from the weight of these love tokens. We scanned every inch to read the names on these beautifully crafted locks, including some antique ones in animal shapes.
A few metres away was the equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia who reigned from 1888 to 1918, complete with twirling moustache.
Our conversation moved to the subject of English, and as I expressed my concern about the poor command of English among many Malaysians, a young man nearby agreed. It was Tony Prakash, a Malaysian bodybuilder who was visiting Cologne with his aunt, Judith Aschenbach.
Malaysians abroad tend to hit it off and we continued our tour together. We headed to the 103.2m KölnTriangle for a beautiful panorama of Colgone; the €3 (RM14) entrance fee was a steal. As we walked around the tower, Judith, now widowed, told me she has been living in Germany for almost 40 years. I was very impressed that she was still able to converse in Malay.
The Holocaust Memorial was our next stop. This installation by Dani Karavan called Ma’alot is Cologne’s monument to the Jews transported from Cologne to their eventual death. A rail track embedded in the concrete leads to the ma’alot (steps) behind which stands the Cologne Cathedral – too close for comfort. It made me wonder why there was no intervention by the clergy.
The cathedral is unmissable to any visitor. It was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set over the city. The cathedral was constructed over six centuries from 1248 and survived 14 bomb strikes during World War II.
Back to happier memories, the refreshing smell from aunt Mak Aton’s iconic 4711 bottle with the turquoise label is a distinct memory of my childhood. All this time I had assumed it was French. After all, cologne is a French word. It was the writer Awang Goneng who told me to visit the flagship store in Glockengasse. And what a treat that was. We arrived in time to hear the hourly chime of the clock on top of the building and got to bathe our hands in the Eau de Cologne fountain.
Another misconception was soon dispelled; the original Eau de Cologne was actually created by Italian Giovanni Maria Farina in 1709. The 4711 version was developed in 1799 by Wilhelm Mülhens and it took the world by storm. But the House of Farina still supplies its own perfume a few metres away.
My culinary experience in Cologne had up to this point been disappointing. A doner kebab on my first day was not up to scratch while a “vegetarian” dish I ordered had bits of ham.
I got all excited upon seeing the word “curry” above a stall but was told by Petra that currywurst was a sausage and had nothing to do with curry. I nagged her to help me find that Nordsee fish restaurant Awang Goneng was raving about.
You should have seen the pleasure on my face as I tucked into the breaded king prawns while we watched a jazz band playing in the Schildergasse shopping area.
Like the story of the Eau de Cologne, the British might have invented fish and chips but the Germans ran away with it. The restaurant and takeaway serves bite-sized fish and chips, including king prawns.
My next stop is Berlin where I would be hosted by veteran journalist and broadcaster Zubaidah Aziz. She had arranged a full itinerary for me and my decision to take a later train for my five-hour journey had thrown her plans into disarray.
I went to change my tickets and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. In Britain, I would have had to pay for a new ticket and go through a tedious process to reclaim the cost of the unused ticket.
I repacked my bags and my memories of Cologne and made my way to the station first thing in the morning, looking forward to seeing Berlin for the first time.
The next instalment in this series is in a fortnight.