Cologne is not filled with spectacular, must-see, must-photograph, gotta-get-the-selfie sites. Oddly, that is perhaps its greatest asset as a vagabonding destination.
Locals are not overwhelmed by tourists. They maintain their pride of community and sense of identity, they welcome and enjoy folks from the outside, and that is a joy to visit.
They do have a beautiful cathedral from the 1200’s.
A Quick Splash of Cologne’s Past
As so often happens, the British avoided hitting the cathedral because their bombers used it as a reference point for the 269 raids they launched against Cologne.
The cathedral survived, but British bombers destroyed over 95% of the city. Cologne suffered Britain’s first 1,000 bomber attack in May of 1942. Over 1,000 British bombers were sent to devastate the city, hoping to break Germany’s spirit to continue in the war. The primary target was actually Hamburg, but due to bad weather there, the destination was changed to Cologne.
During the several years of bombing, the population of Cologne went from 800,000 to 40,000, mostly due to evacuation of the population to the countryside.
Once they returned to the city after the war, there was no great master plan for reconstruction. Many buildings were constructed quickly and with inexpensive materials. As a result, people of Cologne will admit that the architecture in the city is not memorable. However, that doesn’t really dampen their civic pride.
No Mr. President, Not Here
When he came to the G8 Summit meeting in Cologne in 1999, Bill Clinton asked where he could get some real German beer and food. He was told he should visit a restaurant called Lommerzheim.
Secret Service talked to the restaurant owner and told him that unfortunately for security purposes he would need to clear out the restaurant before the president could eat there. The owner was at first confused and then politely declined. He explained that he had many happy, regular customers who rely on him for good beer and good food every night. How could he lock them out?
So the second choice restaurant now happily hangs a picture of Bill Clinton enjoying dinner in their restaurant and Lommerzheim continues to pack in their faithful regulars.
When we arrived, we discovered a busy restaurant with multiple dining areas and a group of folks on the sidewalk and scattered through the restaurant all waiting to jump on the next open table. We talked to a waiter who told us to wait out front and he would bring us a beer. This place had a strong local vibe. It felt like there were probably few if any tourists in this huge and sprawling restaurant.
While waiting on the sidewalk, we were approached by a tall, young fellow named Leon who smiled and told us they were in front of us in line. There actually was no line, just a small mob spread out in clusters. It was a good-natured ribbing and his way to open a conversation. He was there with another young man and woman, Marios and Anna, all in their early 20’s. We spent the next half hour on the sidewalk getting to know about them and Cologne, all the while keeping an eye for possible departures at the tables, and enjoying beer.
The three all studied Economics at the local university. They explained that the university combines a generous helping of Arts as part of the economics program to provide the students with improved perspective in decision-making. We could see why these people would be attracted to a holistic approach to education, they were open, generous people studying a rigorous field like economics. The well-rounded approach was evident in their personalities.
When a table finally opened, they invited us to join them at the long communal table. Already at the table there were four other men, in their 40’s, who were full of life too. One particular spark plug among them, wearing a red shirt and baseball cap was full of good humor. The young people immediately labeled him “Super Mario” and that was his name the rest of the evening.
Cologne locals are very proud of their city. They will tell you they are different from the rest of Germany in several important ways. For one, they admit that they are intensely proud of their city and eager to share it with visitors. Secondly, they have a sense of humor which they feel sets them apart from most Germans. And lastly, they have a “take it easy” approach to life. Don’t work too hard, take life as it comes, roll with it.
Our experience at this restaurant confirmed those positive attributes. Everyone at the table was open and fun-loving. And they all spoke English for our benefit! Leon explained that most nights at Lommerzheim were like this, with lots of diverse people sharing tables, beer and laughter. And that is why they come there once or twice a week.
And throughout the night, more of their friends from the University would stop by the table. Each time it was a joyous welcome followed by another student squeezing into the bench around the table. During the night, our group of three students sitting comfortably had grown to eight scrunched in tightly.
Oh, and like all Germans, people of Cologne enjoy their beer. In particular, they like Kurch style beer which originates in Cologne. There is a strong rivalry between Cologne and nearby Dusseldorf, a comical love-hate relationship. It would be ill-advised to ever order Dusseldorf’s Altbier while in a Cologne bar.
In Munich, the beer is served in enormous steins of either half or full liters.
In Cologne, the beer is served in diminutive little 200 ml glasses (about six ounces). We were handed two of them while we waited on the sidewalk. We were also handed a coaster which served as our tab. Each time we were served a beer, the server simply put a hash mark on the coaster. At the end of the night, they charge a Euro for each hash mark.
As soon as your glass nears the end, the server who continually walks thru the restaurant with a tray of fresh beers, without asking, hands you a new one, takes the old glass and marks a hash on your coaster.
The advantage of this small glass system is that the beer is always nice and cold. The disadvantage is it is very hard to regulate how much beer you have consumed. The hash marks start to get fuzzy and the jokes and conversation just get better and better.
With each new, small glass of beer there is another toast and clinking of the glasses. As these small glasses are rather delicate, it is customary in Cologne to clink with the bottom of the glasses. Otherwise ten glasses coming in for a clink would likely risk breakage.
Then the dinner arrives. The most incredible, huge pork chop in the world, covered with fried onions, and accompanied with a huge helping of the best potato salad in the world. Our best dinner in Germany!
Poor Bill Clinton, he would have loved the experience. And I totally understand why the owner said No.
It was a great night in Cologne to cap our three-day visit.
As we ease into our sixties, it can occasionally feel like we are becoming invisible, especially to younger people. Thinking back on our youth, we understand. So it was particularly nice, that in a fantastic place like Lommerzheim, we connected with young locals in such a fun and relaxed way. It was like the old days when we would cook big meals for our kids and their high school friends, but this time with beer.
We will carry the sweet memory of Cologne as we continue on down the road.