Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Köln Special

Whether you spell it Köln or Cologne, it's worth the trip from Luxembourg if you're looking for a night out of town. And right now, Luxembourg's rail system (CFL) is offering a Köln Spezial, reducing the ticket price to just 19€ each way, so there's really no excuse not to go - especially since the famous Cologne Carnival season is well underway. More on Carnival in a minute. First, let me give you a little bit of background on the town:

About Cologne
With a population of over one million, Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and one of its oldest, having been settled by the Romans in 38 B.C. The city straddles the banks of the Rhine and has been an important trading post and industrial center for ages, remaining so today with the second largest inland harbor in Germany. Cologne is a bustling city that is also home to a large number of television and radio stations and production companies, and more than a third of all German television programming is done here. The city is also a draw for international film crews, and to wit: the 2008 Oscar-nominated movie, The Reader, was filmed in Cologne.

What to Do
The city holds a great affinity for the arts, with a large number of museums, theatres and music venues, so there's lots to see on that front. (In particular, check out the Hänneschen puppet theater.) But Cologne also has a reputation for its joie de vivre, famously celebrated during Carnival season, its large gay pride festival, or during its Christmas market (which I've read is quite impressive). But of course, Cologne's #1 attraction is the Cologne Cathedral. If you're traveling to the city by train, there is no possible way you'll miss the massive cathedral, as it is situated directly outside of the train station (Köln Hbf). It is gigantic and beautiful and miraculously withstood Allied bombing at the end of World War II, while 80 percent of the rest of Cologne was completely destroyed. The cathedral is also famously the home of the Shrine of the Three Kings, a gilded and jeweled sarcophagus that holds the remains of the Three Wise Kings who followed a star to find baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The remains were war spoils that were brought to Cologne in 1164 from Milan, and it took 30 years for artisans to create the sarcophagus.

The tourist information office also sits across from both the train station and cathedral, and is a good place to buy a map of the city - a great investment at 20 cents. The map will point you toward all of the Romanesque churches, museums, parks and Medieval and Roman sights in town. Be sure you make it to the Altstadt to wander through the cobblestone streets of the old city. Keep an eye out for inevitable tourist traps, but otherwise the old city is a good night spot with lots of brauhaus options for evening entertainment, or maybe just an afternoon break. As we wandered through the Altstadt on a Saturday afternoon, we popped into the Gaffel Haus Köln to join several pirates, clowns and other costumed locals in watching the second half of the FC Köln vs Bayern Munich football game on television. The game was being played in Cologne and was a big rivalry; happily, the home team won 3-2!

We barely scratched the surface of all that there was to see in Cologne, but on Sunday before catching our train home, we stopped at the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum (Museum of the City of Cologne), which is worth a stop inside. Your 5€ entrance fee comes with a free audio guide, so the items you see will be explained in English. The museum takes you through the city's history from its foundation, through its physical and industrial growth and through its history during World War II.

Kölsch & Costumes 
Cologne is known for its kölsch beer, which, by law, can only be brewed in or around Cologne. Just like sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it is from the Champagne region of France, kölsch can only be called a kölsch if it is from Cologne and is made in the manner laid out by the Kölsch-Konvention, an agreement between the members of the Cologne Brewery Association that regulates how the beer is made. For fear of offending the fine people of Cologne and beer aficionados everywhere, I'll skip the comparison to any other kind of beer and will just say that it tastes delicious. (Sources researched, however, describe the beer as being most similar to an English pale ale. Feel free to comment below.) Kölsch is served in tall, skinny glasses called stangen ("stick") in .2 liter portions (6.7 ounces), about a half a can of beer. Every time you finish your drink, your server will place a mark on your coaster to tally up the number of beers you've had through the night.

Servers filling stangen with kölsch from
wooden casks at Paffgen Brauhaus.
In the name of research, Nick and I sampled the kölsch not only at Gaffel Haus, mentioned above, but also at a bar where you could only order beer in a wooden container designed to hold either five beers or ten beers (photo above). We also tried the beer at Paffgen Brauhaus (Friesenstrasse 64-66), which was a fun show. We miraculously snagged a table in Der Beichtstuhl, or "the confessional", though it really is just the long hallway you enter when you walk into the brewery. You should be prepared to drink beer at Paffgen Brauhaus because you're going to get beer whether you want it or not, without even asking! Two seconds after we sat down, a server carrying a container of beers stopped at our table and plunked down two (only 1,50€ each). Time flew by and we must have been working on our third beer before we could stop him long enough to tell him that we wanted to order dinner! (Hey, there are worse problems in life.) The place was packed with both diners and with people who only stopped in for a few beers. Patrons who were standing in the hallway were still served beers just as quickly - but instead of tallying on a coaster, the server marked the wall next to where the person was standing with a crayon for every beer consumed. Awesome system.

For dinner, I wanted to go local, so I ordered from the Kölsch Spezialitäten section of the menu. My stomach grumbled away as I waited contently for my Krüstchen Reindfleisch mit Röggelchen to arrive. I knew that I had ordered a beef dish, but wasn't entirely sure what it would be - but it was local, so surely it would be something new to me and delicious, right? Wrong. Somehow, I had ended up ordering what must hands-down be the most boring dish on the menu: slices of boiled roast beef with a dinner roll and a dab of horseradish. So, steer clear of this if you would rather eat something interesting! However, this tip may come in handy if you happen to be dining with a child or a picky eater, who might appreciate the blandness of this dish...
Krüstchen Reindfleisch mit Röggelchen at Paffgen Brauhaus.
As we were eating dinner at Paffgen, we noticed more and more people dressed in costume entering the brewery. We had assumed that the costumed folks at Gaffel Haus earlier in the day were dressed up for some kind of birthday party or something...but seeing scores of sailors, bagpipers, Minnie Mouses and yet more clowns at the restaurant - and throughout the rest of the night - made us realize that we must be missing out on something fun. When we checked out of our hotel the next morning, I asked the woman at the desk why everyone was in costume. After all, it was only the first weekend of February and not yet "official" Carnival season. But I was wrong: apparently Carnival season starts in November in Cologne!

Karneval (Carnival) season in Cologne is one of the biggest parties in Europe. It is referred to here as "the fifth season of the year" and the festivities actually start at 11:11am on November 11 (11/11 at 11:11...so one can only imagine the celebration that will take place this November when the calendar hits 11/11/11!). It sounds like while costumed revelers start coming out of the woodwork in November, the real Carnival craziness doesn't happen until Weiberfastnacht, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. (In 2011, Weiberfastnacht falls on March 3 and Ash Wednesday falls on March 9.) Weiberfastnacht translates to "Women's Carnival" and on this day, women are in charge and do things like chop off the ties of male colleagues, symbolically cutting off their power. (Sounds fun, eh?) On the day of Weiberfastnacht, the "official" Carnival-starting party begins at 11:11am, of course, in the Alter Markt, a large square in the old city. The costumed festivities continue with a massive parade and street party on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). Our Lonely Planet guidebook gives a great description of the parade when noting that Cologners say that "if you were at the parade and saw the parade, you weren't at the parade" - meaning, the parade is much more about reveling than it is about watching the floats!

If you head to Cologne during Carnival season and forget your costume, don't worry. There so many costume shops in town that you'll find one around practically every corner! And you'll also have the biggest selection to choose from that you've ever seen. ...Which only made us wonder: just how many costumes does the average Cologner own?
A Cologne costume shop window.
Coat of arms of Cologne.
The significance of all of the instances of "11", such as 11:11am, 11/11, and so forth, are tied to Cologne's patron saint, St. Ursula. As the story goes, Ursula was a 4th century British princess who led ten virgins on a pilgrimage to Rome. On their way home, they were murdered near Cologne by the Huns. In 1155, a massive burial ground was discovered that was thought to contain the remains of Ursula and the virgins that had accompanied her; however there were so many bones in the grave that imaginations started to run wild and rumor spread that it was not the burial ground of eleven virgins, but actually 11,000. (Like all good legends, the story changes a bit depending on who is telling it, and most versions of the story portray the 11,000 martyrs as being all female virgins; in others, the 11,000 are described as being priests, relatives and courtesans who accompanied the eleven virgins.) In any case, Ursula was elevated to sainthood, becoming the patron saint of the Ursulines, a congregation of nuns dedicated to educating young girls. She is also the patron saint of Cologne and her story is represented on the city coat of arms, where you will see eleven teardrops, one for each of the martyred virgins. The three crowns at the top of the crest symbolize the Three Wise Kings, whose remains are believed to be housed in the Cologne Cathedral.

Getting There
The Köln Spezial is offered only by Luxembourg's railway, CFL, and you can find ticket information at this link. Provided the link is still active (and if it isn't, let me know), all you need to do is go to the ticket office at Luxembourg Gare and tell them the day(s) and time(s) you'd like to travel. You can only take certain trains in both directions, but the great news is that the only trains available under this special are high-speed trains that do not require you to change trains at any point. Tickets are 19€ each way and the trip takes just over 3 hours in both directions.

Train times below run 7 days/week unless noted. Double check the train schedule with CFL to make sure times are still valid, but for general planning, here are the trains you are allowed to take and the times at which they depart and arrive:

Luxembourg to Cologne
IC 231   departs at 6:20, arrives at 9:42 (Mon-Thurs and Saturday only)
IC 131   departs at 6:20, arrives at 9:42 (Fridays only)
Click here to view train times and
all Lux - Cologne stops on the CFL site.
IC 133   departs at 8:22, arrives at 11:42
IC 135   departs at 10:24, arrives at 13:42
IC 137   departs at 14:24, arrives at 17:42 (online schedule indicates possible interruptions)

Cologne to Luxembourg
IC 136   departs at 12:18, arrives at 15:39
IC 134   departs at 14:18, arrives at 17:43
IC 132   departs at 16:18, arrives at 19:34
IC 130   departs at 18:18, arrives at 21:34

Additional Resources
Cologne Tourist Office: One of the best and most informative English-language tourism web sites I've come across yet since moving to Europe. It's full of excellent information about what to see and do in the city and has several pages dedicated to participating in Carnival.

Karneval - The Guide (The Local, Feb. 8, 2010): In English and an excellent overview of all of the important events of Carnival and what happens on each day, from a German news source for the English speaking community.

Video: Church of St. Ursula (Tripfilms.com): Interesting and short three-minute overview of the church and of the legend of Saint Ursula.

In Search of Kölsch in Cologne (The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4, 2009)

The German Beer Institute: Interesting writeup about kölsch beer and its origins.

European Beer Guide: Entertaining writeup on drinking kölsch in Cologne here and informative list of breweries here.


  1. Our first night in Koln we went to Paffgen Brauhaus! That's where we fell in love with Kolsch! We were surpised when they brought it to us without even asking. I didn't like my meal though there either, but hey at least the beers were good!
    We're going to have to come back during Carnival - it's sounds like a lot of fun! Maybe "Jess" can dress like a pirate for the occasion.
    Oh and you almost forget another good reason to go to Koln, it's close to the German F1 Grand Prix, that's why we stayed there! :)

  2. Thank you for the information you provide about Cologne. 2 years, and I have lived in Cologne trip notes "here" I wrote.