“Half the fun of travel is the aesthetic of lostness” – Ray Bradbury
I recently took a transcontinental flight with a 10-hour layover. My total travel time from San Francisco to Zurich would end up being 27 hours.
Yes, there were other flight options, perhaps even “better” ones depending on your perspective, but I chose this one on purpose … to get lost somewhere new.
I did not consider the long layover as inconvenient, nor did I wait patiently at the airport. I seized the opportunity to explore somewhere new, for free, courtesy of American Airlines. I thoroughly enjoyed all 10 glorious hours of “lostness” as I wandered about Cologne, Germany.
“Being lost” has an inherent negative connotation, I believe unfairly. Being lost implies you know not where you are and or are unable to find your way. I have discovered the beauty in discovering where you are and finding your way, which is not possible, unless you are first lost. I have learned to embrace and even seek out lostness.
My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus
I decided to go to Cologne at random. When I realized my flight would layover in DUS, the airport code eluded me. A quick google search linked DUS to Düsseldorf, a city in western Germany I knew nothing about. While I am sure Düsseldorf is a lovely place to visit, I envisioned an adventure involving a train, and Cologne just happened to be the next closest “big city” I spotted on the map, a city I also knew absolutely nothing about.
After all, it is not the destination, but the journey that matters most, right?
I mentioned to a friend my intention to “rock up” to Cologne without a map, without a list of the “top ten things to see”, without a plan, and explore “by the seat of my skirt”. To my dismay she started to tell me about her time in Cologne. I hummed songs in my head in an effort to tune her out and preserve the blank slate I had saved for my own personal experience in the city.
While I appreciated my friend’s sincere attempt to be helpful in offering suggestions, in general I don’t like taking other people’s advice while traveling. I prefer to enter new cites blindly. You will never find me scouring the Internet for information, reading blogs about other traveler’s experiences. It is just not my style. While some do like to hear suggestions from others: where to eat, where to sleep, what to see, etc. to plan their trips, I prefer to know as little as possible so that I may cultivate my own opinions and experiences without the influence of others. Now I will say I do appreciate and do tend to take the advice of locals I meet once on the road, as will usually lead me to places off the beaten path.
I believe so much can be missed by going from site A to site B checking off a list and I find this exercise to be exhausting and choose instead to wander about slowly, list and plan free, allowing my experiences to unfold organically as they should. I find it exciting to not know what is just ahead around the bend.
And vice versa, I don’t expect others to follow my path. Just because I had a lovely experience driving offroad through the Sahara and living in a 4WD named Honeybadger, doesn’t mean the next person will as well. Different strokes for different folks and I don’t think for a second that what my opinions and desires for traveling is “the way” or even “the better way”, it is just MY way and to each their own! Happy trails to you I say!
In between my humming, my thirsty ears were caught mention of a local brew I must try. This is certainly something I would have done without any encouragement and I thanked her for the tip!
When my plane landed in Düsseldorf at 7 am, I was sound asleep. I am one of those people you love to hate on airplanes. The one who is asleep before the plane takes off and has to be waken by the stewardess upon landing. I stumbled off the plane, headed straight for the
toilet , I mean restroom my American friends, where I splashed water on my face and attempted make myself somewhat presentable to the outside world. I patted down my frizzy curls with water and reluctantly changed out of my travel pants (aka travel velour) into my comfy travel blue jeans with tiny holes in the knee caused by battery acid that leaked out of Honey Badger. Memories.
Looking into a mirror, I opened my eyes wide as I put in my contacts. When I relaxed my eyes, I screamed aloud, horrified by the large lines across my forehead that stayed. I had either aged on the flight, the lighting was horrible, or I had just never noticed the wrinkles on my forehead. I stared at myself in disbelief for a long time, raising my eyebrows again making my brow furl. I remember Tom often telling me often “stop making that face, you are going to give yourself wrinkles on your forehead.” I guess he had been right. I thought about all the times I make this face … the raising of my eyebrows in question, something I have done all of my life, never believing everything I hear, seeking the truth on my own accord. I call it being curious and open-minded, others might call it being defiant. Regardless, I decided right then and there in that poorly lit airport bathroom that I love the lines on my forehead for what they represent … questioning the status quo and seeking always to form my own opinions based on my own experiences.
I applied a thick layer of moisturizer and an even thicker layer of SPF 55 and set off to find a place to store my heavy backpack for the day. By no means was my backpack qualified for carryon per size or weight but I had successfully snuck it on the plane nonetheless, saving in extra baggage fees. Inside were some of my heaviest items: my new hiking boots and laptop all of which were weighing me down.
The first person I asked about luggage storage told me there was no storage in the airport due to security measures. This was certainly not good news. But my gut told me she was wrong and I am glad I asked someone else who informed me I could indeed store my bag for only €6 in the airport parking lot.
Feeling light and free of my beast of a bag, I set out to find the train station with only my camera, passport, and the €50 I took out of the ATM. My next task was to get to the train station. While I could have easily asked for help in getting there, I prefer to find my way on my own when time permits. A travel scavenger hunt you could say. I guess I am easily amused, but I find such tasks to be a fun adventure and a big confidence booster to find my own way in a foreign place.
People who know me best have often told me they are shocked that I manage to find my way in foreign lands, as I am not known to be good with directions. However, when I travel alone I tend to pay more attention as I am not distract by a travel partner and I am forced to find my way on my own. But again, since I am completely okay with “being lost” I am quite content having no idea where I am most of the time.
I followed signs with a logo of a train that led me to a “sky tram” which in turn delivered me to the train station five minutes later. As I sat aboard the sky tram I breathed in freedom. I thought that I was a little too giddy, a little too excited to be on my own. Perhaps there is something wrong with me? Is it normal to filled with immense happiness when you are alone and have no idea where you are going? I was lost.
Upon arrival at the train station I watched carefully as others purchased their tickets. I noted that before entering the station they stuck their tickets into a little orange machine that stamped them. When it was my turn to buy a ticket, I selected the British flag on the screen. I typed in my destination “Cologne” but nothing came up. “Hmmm that is strange,” I thought. Surely there is a train to this city? I consulted a list of cites and I saw Köln, which I immediately realized must be Cologne. Silly English translations! I purchased my ticket for €10 and boarded a train shortly after. I worried for a second about getting on the wrong train, but then I thought … so what if I do? So I get “lost” in Germany, surely there are worst things that could happen.
One of the great things about having no plan is you avoid being disappointed when things don’t go as you planned, if you had planned.
I sat in a window seat, the world flying backwards as I watched towns fly past me. I felt triumphant that I had made it on the correct train.
At about 10:00 I arrived at Köln Hbf station. Without a map, I chose an exit at random. As I pushed open the glass door of the train station, before me stood a very grand cathedral, the Kölner Dom, I am certain was probably the “must see” in Cologne.
Having yet to have my morning coffee, I purchased a cappuccino in a café across from a grand cathedral and sat by the window and enjoyed the view. Sipping my coffee slowly, I watched people passing by. The sun was shining but I could tell it was chilly as their scarves blew in the wind. Friends gathered on the stairs of the cathedral, laughing happily with seemingly no place to go anytime soon.
I took this time to just breath in all that was around me in a continued effort to be mindful and in the present moment. I smelled the hot flaky pastries an the rich coffee. I listened intently to the humming of the espresso machine and the mingling of foreign tongue. I reflected on my good fortune, and felt sincerely blessed for this simple moment, for opportunity to get lost once again.
The sun was shining brightly, its rays streaming through the steep arches atop the cathedral. Puffy white clouds dotted the deep blue sky, a cheerful backdrop to the grey yet gorgeously ornate church. Chiseled priests and angels burrowed into the walls looked down upon me, inviting me to come inside.
A coolness engulfed me as I entered the dimly lit cathedral, the vastness of which overwhelmed me immediate as I made myself dizzy turning in circles, my neck arched uncomfortably as I tried to take it all in. Light streamed in through beautiful glass windows stained by the colors of the rainbow. A sign taught me that construction on the Kölner Dom began in 1200, a majestic feat for that time I thought. Feeling WOWED as I often do when I experience much older cultures and architecture in comparison to own home’s young existence.
The wooden pew creaked when I sat upon it. I stared upon the flickering light of the rows of tiny candles lit before me. I thought of my best friend, remembering the time she lit a candle for her mother in an even older church in Italy. I missed her at that moment. I thought of all the people in my life I have loved that have passed. I thought of all the people I love that are still living and wished them all happiness, love and long lives. Calmness settled upon my body as I closed my eyes and breathed in the vastness yet simplicity of the moment.
I could have sat in the church for hours, but my grumbling stomach embarrassingly urged me to find food. I struggled to adjust to the brightness of the day as I exited and circled the perimeter of the cathedral. I came upon a junction with green arrowed signs pointing in all directions. Imprinted upon them words I could not pronounce or decipher. “Altstadt” caught my eye, a familiar German word I had encountered in Switzerland meaning “Old Town”. Without hesitation I began to walk in that direction knowing cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings awaited to take my breath away. The Altstadt seemed to be sleeping late as I wandered alone through the meandering narrow streets.
I came upon a fountain in the middle of a square, a group of young boys gathered nearby rowdily chasing and punching each other. Boys will be boys all over the world I thought and smiled. Tables and chairs positioned neatly outside cafes awaiting the first patrons of the day. I continued walking following signs to the Rhine, envisioning a lovely lunch eaten beside the river.
The road came to an end at the river where a grassy field ran parallel to the water separating it from the bustling cafes and hotels bundled together. Young people lounged in the grass laughing together while others lay quietly reading books under cherry blossom trees in full bloom. I thought once again how much I love the relaxed pace found in most European city I have visited. I walked along the rivers edge noticing the sky darkening wishing I had brought an umbrella.
Delicious smells tumbled out of the cafes, I consulted a few menus but decided against spending €30 on lunch. I began to crave a German sausage and made in my mission to find lunch under €10, accepting that it most likely would not be served with a river view. I wandered back to the sleepy square I had passed earlier which had come to life while I had been gone.
I entered a tiny unassuming café and ordered a veal brat, frittes and a Kölsch beer, all for only €8. I sat at a picnic table under a red umbrella and savored my delicious and inexpensive lunch.
The beer was quite tasty, and I believed it to be the same locally brewed beer my friend insisted I must try. It was a light lager and not too hoppy, which I liked. I wondered where in town it was brewed? I decided to find out and I wandered into the first pub I came across, which was no surprise to me an Irish pub.
The bartender, Glen, greeted me cheerfully in an Irish accent as I sat down on a stool at the bar. He seemed pleased that I ordered a Kölsch; with an approving nod he poured the beer from the tap leaving two inches of foam per German standards. I was surprised that the beer only cost €2.
One of many perks of traveling alone and being lost, is the inclination to speak to more strangers than you would otherwise which more often than not leads to more interesting conversations, experiences and quite often you will learn something new.
I would learn that Glenn had come to Cologne fifteen years earlier from Ireland. He had no intention of staying in Germany until he fell in love with a local girl whom he married shortly after. He seemed to have left his love for Guiness at home and like a true Cologne native; he drank only Kölsch with pride.
“Kölsch is the only language you can drink” he said matter of factly, teaching me that Kölsch is also a German dialect.
The beer has been brewed locally since 1906 but did not get its name until 1918. Prior to World War II Cologne had over 40 breweries; but in the devastation and aftermath of the war was reduced to only two. Today, thirteen breweries produce Kölsch and in adherence to the Kölsch convention of 1986 Kölsch may not be brewed outside the Cologne region.
“What brings you to Köln?” he asked.
I told him about my 10 hour layover and he said “Oh man, that really sucks!”
“Not at all I said, I have quite enjoyed being lost in your town.”
He seemed to understand and leaned in closely with all seriousness and said, … “Promise me one thing, when you are back in Düsseldorf , whatever you do, DO NOT drink Alt.”
Puzzled, I asked “What is Alt?”
“Alt is the locally brewed beer of Düsseldorf. Alt means old in German. Old nasty beer, that is” he said with a snarl.
“When you drink Kölsch, Alt is what comes out of you in the toilet.” he explained with a smirk.
“Good to know,” I responded with a laugh, my curiosity elicited.
And so I came to learn about the long-standing local brew rivalry between Köln and Düsseldorf.
I wondered if I had time for one more Kölsch before I had to head to the train station. I had no idea what time the trains ran to Düsseldorf so Glen kindly looked up the schedule for me. He convinced me I had time for just one more, an easy sale really.
As I exited the bar, he called after me … “Remember what I said, don’t drink the Alt!”
The word “don’t” more often than not will illicit my inner defiance. On the train ride to the airport all I could think about is that I must try Alt. I must taste this beer with my own lips and decide for myself which local beer is the best.
After picking up my bag from storage and passing through security, I went straight for the closest airport bar. Yes mom, I did this, in the name of research of course! I ordered an Alt and again received an approving nod from the bartender who was seemingly delighted by my choice of beer. I stared at the beer in front of me, noting a much darker hue. I inquired about the difference in this beer to Kölsch. He seemed quite amused by the question and proceeded to tell me in detail the difference in the method of production. Atl is an old beer and is still brewed the old way using warm top fermenting yeast, the way it was done in the olden days pre-lager brewing. Kölsch, he told me, is warm fermented then “cold conditioned” meaning lagered.
I took a small timid sip of the Alt realizing that Glen had tarnished my experience with his condemnation of the beer. I felt annoyed that I could hear Glen’s voice in my head reminding me that I am drinking piss. Sigh.
I liked the beer, it was different than Kölsch, but I felt unable to cast an honest vote feeling influenced by the opinion of the biases bartender in Köln.
I told the bartender that neither Alt nor Kölsch get my vote. It is still Belgium that wins my vote for the best local brews period. I forever pledge my allegiance and love to Belgian beer.
I saw a sign that I felt summed up my adventure of the day. Important words to live by, I do believe.
Think Globally. Drink Locally.
As I settled into my airplane seat on the final leg of my long journey I was tired but happy. Getting lost in Cologne was fun. I saw what I am sure are some of the “must sees” of the city, I made a new friend, I felt grounded by solitude and the beauty of nature, I learned something new … the cultural importance of supporting your local brewery in Germany.
I slept during the short one hour flight and woke excited to be back in Switzerland, where my sweet boyfriend would once again greet me with the worlds biggest smile, a bouquet of fresh flowers, and arms wide open … wondering why his girlfriend was a bit drunk. “When in Germany …” I explained.
Get lost and see what you can find!!!
To see more photos of Köln, CLICK HERE.