Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Quick Excursion to Cologne


Quick Excursion to Cologne, Germany 7/30/2003 Budapest is joining the rest of the big cities with the low fare airlines coming to town. One of them, Germanwings, a subsidiary of Lufthansa started here just a few months ago. All of their flights go from 15 different cities into Cologne as their one and only hub. As I perused the web site, there were tickets from Budapest to Cologne for 39 Euros round trip. Unfortunately, these seats are for the spontaneous. By the time we discussed it, thought about, planned it, they were all sold out. We did however, have our heart set on another summer get-away, so we opted for $122.00 r/t tickets leaving from Vienna. Still a bargain! To make the most of a cheap holiday, we decided to try a program that we joined some months back. It is . There you sign up to host people, we have had a few already, and this makes you eligible to be hosted by others in return. I checked the Cologne listings and found 7 candidates. After e-mailing all of them, some were not planning on being home at the time we needed, but most of the others welcomed us. We chose the first to give us an affirmative answer. So now we had a cheap airfare and a place to stay for free. We left on Thursday, July 24th and since we had to bus to Vienna airport, we had to leave home at 5:00 am for a 3:35 pm flight. Fortunately, we are both Diners Club members and we knew that Diners Club has a magnificent lounge in Vienna’s airport. The grueling part was the bus ride. Since they seem to drive slower than a kiddie go-cart and stop at every street corner, the trip lasted over three claustrophobic hours. Knowing the complementary soups, breads, and drinks that were waiting for us at the Diners Club lounge was enough carrot in front of us to lure us on. The glitch was that when we arrived in Cologne, Germanwings does not open their windows until two hours before boarding. Without boarding passes, we could not get into the main part of the airport to the DC lounge. Ron did some fast-talking and finally found a security guard who was sympathetic enough to account our reservation number as proof of tickets and we did get in. Note: Advertising here…The Diners Club card membership is $80.00, but with every $2.00 you spend, you earn miles on ANY U.S. airline of your choice when you choose to transfer them. They sit in a DC miles bank until you do and never expire. In addition, you are given free access to airline club lounges around the world with complementary beverages that run the full gamut. Some have food too and Internet connections. The money we have saved on these alone has made up for the cost of membership. DC is not just for food any longer and the list of places that accept the card is huge and growing daily. If anyone would like a card, I can sponsor you, you will get 12,000 bonus miles for joining, and I get 6,000 after you are a member for 3 months. What we did not realize about Germanwings was that their ticketing is like Southwest. You get a plastic boarding card and no paper ticket or boarding pass. No big deal! However, their carry-on policy is nothing over 8 kg., which meant that we had to check both of our carry-on pieces. Not a big deal either. The flight was 1 hour and 10 minutes to Cologne. Randolf, our host was waiting for us at the airport. As soon as we met, it was like meeting an old friend after a long absence. We started the conversation as if we had left it hanging on the last meeting. We were all perfectly comfortable with each other immediately. The last time that has happened was when we first met our friend Fernando, but these are rare happenings usually. Randolf whisked us off in his car for downtown Cologne, where he guided us in short walking tour of city. As he said, the city is not beautiful due to the damage after WW II, but the ambiance is clearing one of welcoming the visitor and caressing the resident. After getting a quick bite of dinner and a café stop, we went to his flat in a suburb outside of Cologne. Randolf’s flat is an eclectic mix of styles that make it charming, welcoming, and comforting all at once and without reservation. His second floor has a large sitting room with a bed loft, which we had all to ourselves. We slept beautifully. Much of his furniture and décor is Dutch since he is from my favorite country in the world, The Netherlands. Perhaps this is why we felt so at ease with him so soon after meeting. The flat is only 2 km from the downtown of his suburb and from there; we were easily able to get a tram into downtown Cologne. The town itself was fun to walk around since there were many shops, bakeries, farmer’s market, and fountains to ogle over. The people everywhere were polite, friendly, and excused us for not knowing German. We felt completely welcomed wherever we went. Cologne, one of the greatest cities on the Rhine, has a long history that dates back to about 50 BC when it was established as a Roman outpost. Approximately 100 years later it became the Roman city of Colonia. Recent excavations under the current city have revealed Roman ruins that are open to public view.Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Cologne remained an important city. At the onset of the industrial revolution, Cologne quickly grew to become an economic center. Its strategic location on the Rhine River and proximity to the coal of the Ruhr region helped it develop a modern economy. During World War II, nearly 90% of the central part of the city was destroyed. Miraculously, the Dom, the magnificent Gothic Cathedral that forms the heart and center of Cologne, was spared serious damage. Cologne has again taken its place as one of the cultural and trade centers of Europe. Today, it is Germany's fourth largest city with approximately one million inhabitants. Known as the center for broadcast media in Germany, Cologne is also one of its country's most cosmopolitan cities, with large ethnic neighborhoods and international arts festivals. Begun in 1248, the construction of this Gothic masterpiece took place in several stages and was not completed until 1880. Over seven centuries, successive builders were inspired by the same faith and a spirit of absolute fidelity to the original plans. Apart from its exceptional intrinsic value and the artistic masterpieces it contains, Cologne Cathedral testifies to the enduring strength of European Christianity. The city is rich with Roman ruins and wonderful museums. We spent hours walking around and the shopping was reasonable. We had keys to Randolf’s flat, so we had a great mix of autonomy as well as sharing. We met for dinner on Friday night and had a splendid meal in a cozy, but busy restaurant with great food. The highlight of the trip for me was on Sunday. Randolf drove us to Tongeren, a small city in Belgium that is known for its flea market on Sunday mornings. The flea market is year round and it not only covers many of the streets, but it is also in two huge halls besides. We spent joyful hours there browsing around. Had we had a truck, there were many pieces of gorgeous furniture there to drag home, but alas, lack of mobility saved us. The prices were surprisingly reasonable. This is definitely a place to return to after we have purchased our Budapest flat and turn it into a rental property. From there, we drove to Maastricht, The Netherlands. Maastricht is in the southeast of the Netherlands, sandwiched in between Belgium and Germany. (Not my pictures, from the web) We did a short walking tour of the city and then relaxed in the square that was filled with cafés for a cup of java and people watching. Our next stop before home was an area where The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium all converge. There is a large post in the center and the countries are designated on the ground. In less than a half a minute, you can walk through all three countries. Unfortunately, my batteries died in my camera and the souvenir shop did not sell them, so I missed out on a picture. When we arrived back to Randolf’s, he made a stupendous dinner while we relaxed. We felt exceptionally lucky to have someone like Randolf to take us around as much as he did. We saw much more than we ever would have on our own. All of this was unexpected, but certainly welcomed. As we discussed, it was a pleasant balance of having time on our own and time to share. Since we were invited back again, we may return for the Christmas fair. We were there for the Christmas fair in 2001, before coming to Budapest. It is magical being right next to the famous cathedral. Now that we know more of the city, it is even more exciting. We are hoping to host Randolf also, here in Budapest. We hope that he will find time before we return there. Ryan

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