Wednesday, August 29, 2012

-- BBQ's, Rhineland & Heat: Germany Baby! --

Some solid ten hours of sleep later, I was ready for another hectic day planned by my friend. Walked downtown to meet her at the tram station from where we started our stroll towards Koln Sud train station through the quietness of classic central neighborhoods with old well-decorated buildings while cleaners were working hard cleaning the streets as a testimony of a previous busy summer night in a city full of youth.

At the station, we had missed the first train due to a few delays on the way, and as German efficiency dictates, the next one would take a few more minutes allowing us to have a quick lunch consisting on salami and mozzarella sandwiches and some cold beers. Temperature was rising and the heat and sunshine mix was hard to cope with at some point.
We met my friend's boyfriend accompanied by their beloved dog, same dog I had seen some three years ago down in South America. Some minutes later and a crowded double-decker train was making its way into the station and bound south to Bonn. Inside, the air conditioned system was not enough to cater for the crowds taking the train and the heat outside. Good thing the journey was only some 25 minutes and soon we were in Bonn Hauptbanhof where it was a bit cooler.

A short walk down the road and we arrived at the apartment where my friend parents live and where she grew up. Things were being set for a BBQ later on in the afternoon and we were suggested to walk down the city centre and head to the Rhine River (or Mother Rhine as the locals call it) for a nice summer dip in the refreshing (and murky) waters and some quality summer time under the sunshine and in the tiny beach. The sight of boats and big ships making its way from and to the North Sea completed the scene whilst jet skiers showed their skills in high speed and some lost kayakers tried to claim their little piece of water in a perfect summer day.

Sleepy enough and feeling a bit battered by the sun, we made our way back to the apartment where the BBQ was just starting. Not without passing by the beautiful grounds of Bonn University while having a cold ice cream. Many neighbors had been invited and each one of them had brought something to share with the rest which created an interesting mix of typical German dishes, fresh fruits and salads, Moroccan style cooking and all sorts of meat.

The green back garden had become a little nice outdoor retreat of people sharing stories (mostly in German), catching up and eating all sorts of food. A combination of trains passing by at different speeds in the background framed the event which lasted all the way through the night time, when again German efficiency showed me the interesting sight of every family taking their own trays/leftovers back into their homesteads. We took the train back to Koln, this time with a strong air conditioning and some funny episodes, arriving some two hours later into the apartment.

Midnight and still 31 degrees Celsius, it became impossible to sleep, even with a cold shower and all windows wide opened.

Eventually the tiredness made its way and woke up early in the morning with the heat again. I had had some three hours sleep but my last day in Koln was planned as a sightseeing & walking combination which started at the Dom, with a visit inside this stunning cathedral, built in 1248 and finally finished in 1880, some 552 years after its construction officially started. It also possess the biggest church bell in the world and at 157 meters height, it is one of the highest and most impressive cathedrals in the world.

A hike up the observation deck at 100 meters of altitude, no lifts or escalators, gave me the perfect outlook of a vibrant city underneath me, with the Rhine River reigning over every activity and defining the city's organized layout. On the other side, the MediaPark and its "space needle" antenna contrasts with greens and the massive fields of the Universty of Koln.

Time for a quick lunch break (and a beer) while soaking up my tired feet into a cold fountain, kids were  more courageous and were playing on it like a big alive pool.

Crossed the main bridge, full of locks hanging off its railings as witness of union. The tradition says you should come to Koln, get a lock engraved, lock it on the railing and throw the key into the river. Key will never be found and the union will last forever, just as the lock will last forever as locked.
From the other side of the bridge, the hilly landscape of the city centre revealed a view of all important landmarks in one single shot, like a very organized postcard.

Old town was my next stop, a place full of history where small craft shops share spaces with old German cooking restaurants and tables outside were boiling with tourists and locals having lunch. A sudden summer shower served perfectly to freshen up the heavy environment a bit and the smell of wet terrain brought back a few memories from warmer lands.

After a few more sights, it was time to meet my friend which was finally off work and we wandered around the western part of the city to reach the hype district of Neumarkt with its restaurants, modern shops and young vibe. We had our last German dinner here as my friend and her boyfriend work side by side in a rather posh restaurant resembling a hype Manhattan Apple Store. Dried meat with vegetables and butter sauce were served to me and a combination of meatballs and capers to my friend. Night was enjoyable enough for a few beers afterwards and as soon as we knew it, time to head back to the apartment with a small technical stop across the Dom and the bridge to take some night shots of the bright combination of colours and textures of Koln skyline in the darkness.

Apartment an hour later and waking up at 4:30am giving me enough time to get my things together , walk down the empty streets of little Istanbul and into the main train station and catching the first bus to Frankfurt Hahn Airport. The fog of a summer early morning in the wheat and barley fields woke me up some hour later and the sight of small little towns welcomed us into the airport, some two and a half hours later. Quick check-in and time to wait and queue for boarding our flight to Knock Airport. 
The flight was full of tourists heading to Ireland for the last of the summer period. I was going back home to the cold weather I am used to.

A couple of hours later, a bumpy landing dodging some heavy rain clouds featured the classic Irish welcoming. Took my bus to Galway and connected immediately to Dublin. Arrived into my doorstep shortly after 13 hours of leaving behind Cologne elapsed. I was tired but the trip was absolutely rewarding. Meeting good friends combined with some sightseeing and local experiences are always a good way to go.

Working hard now. Africa in a few days. England following. Life is about to change again and I will keep you guys informed about it. Until then, safe trips!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

-- Trains, Beer & Pork: Germany Baby! --

The quest for the cheapest fare to go visit my friend in Germany had me combining many flights and buses in a very random backtracking journey.
Started my trip heading to Galway City shortly after work and gym, taking the last bus out of Dublin available for the day and arriving into my first destination a couple of hours later, deep into the late night. Even the people at the hostel were impressed of the fact that I still showed up, minding the hostel was fully booked.

My choice was "Snoozzles Hostel" as it was just besides the coach station and had stayed there in previous trips to the bohemian capital of Ireland. Even town booming on a Friday night with tourists and locals, my energies took me straight to bed for a short sleep which was quickly interrupted by early morning backpackers heading out of the room or getting ready for their onward journeys.
Quick breakfast while chatting with a lovely German backpacker with amusing stories about other past journeys and it was time for me to get the bus to Knock Ireland West Airport some hour and a half away and right in the middle of County Mayo.

I had been told this airport had an interesting story as it was built by a local without council permission claiming the Virgin of Knock wanted it. The religious theme is all over the region being the main feature a massive (and apparently very tacky) shrine in the town of Knock, some two kilometers away from the airport. The small terminal was very welcoming and a long queue was already formed with passengers taking all Ryanair flights scheduled for the day at the same time. Families heading for sunny holidays in Portugal, groups heading to London and Birmingham and my plane with destination Frankfurt Hahn Airport in Germany.
Boarding and security checks took most of my time and by the time I got to the gate, the flight was already being called. Rushed my way into the "cattle-passengers queue" and through the wet tarmac to get the best seat you could get on a Ryanair flight: the emergency hatch row. This is traveling in style for Ryanair flights as the legroom is considerably larger than a regular seat. Flight left on time and the green hilly landscape of West Ireland gave way to the thick clouds for the first hour until continental Europe was clearly visible through my window with Belgium and France just underneath us and until our descent into West Germany.

Frankfurt Hahn Airport is the typical Ryanair airport: small, crowded and right in the middle of nowhere. A very unexpressive immigration agent welcomed me into Germany with a grim and a sigh while stamping my passport and soon I was outside the terminal enjoying the clear skies and 37 degrees Celsius mean temperature. I was delighted. Ireland never gets that hot. 

After finding my way around, I had my first German meal: a lovely (and rather cheap) Currywurst -curry sausage- with fries and a beer. Perfect to endure the 2 hours and 30 min bus journey to Koln (Cologne) on the world famous and top class German autobanhs (motorway) around soft hills covered in wheat and barley crops and green pine woods.
A while later , the bus took a random roundabout and we finally hit the Rhine River, a stunning view of a classic summer day as many Koelners were enjoying the heat wave forecasted for the weekend by lazing around the river beaches, hanging around in bikes and eating ice creams while kids were playing in the cold refreshing fountains. Modern Koln was the first sight: an impressive row of modern buildings with a gravity-defying architecture and a sober combination of glass and light materials. Koln Hauptbanhof was reached a few minutes later, ending a long journey for the day.
Hugs and smiles were exchanged with my friend as it had been a good amount of years without seeing each other and this trip had been postponed for long enough. The day was absolutely scorching so the first stop was a convenience shop inside the train station for purchasing some local beers and sit on the stairs overlooking the Koelner Dom, a building that strikes with its size and peculiar details. I will be talking about this building later.

We then took the "free" tram to my friend's apartment, enclosed in a rather bohemian part of the city, just north of the main centre, surrounded by parks and post-war apartment buildings. The sight of young people sitting on the grass and having a picnic with the smell of barbeques being cooked late into the night was inviting enough for us to go back into town and have a lovely German dinner with sausages, mashed potatoes, pork joints and litres of beer.

Heavy enough, it was hard to move or even breathe after that delicious meal. A walk around the park surrounded by "picnickers" holding candles and enjoying a VERY warm summer night followed. Went to see a few of my friend's classmates, had a few beers, bit of a playing card game and back to the apartment to close a hectic day. I really need to learn some German.