Grab Cologne while you can

Before I start, some advice.

Get onto your browser straightaway and check availability on the Ryanair flight from Ireland West Airport to Cologne. With the service scheduled to run until September 28, don’t be left regretting that you did not take this unique opportunity to see this wonderful place.

Last Saturday week, I enjoyed a coffee in the fab new lounge at Ireland West Airport. Just under a hundred minutes later, I was sipping another one in Cologne. If you were driving to Dublin, you’d hardly be in Applegreen by that stage. And with the way all our teams are performing at the moment, there mightn’t be many Applegreen moments this summer.

With that in mind, we departed Ireland West Airport on Saturday afternoon, and returned on the early flight on a Tuesday morning, and the duration was sufficient to get a strong feel for what is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Getting through Koln Bonn Airport is a breeze, with typical German efficiency ensuring you can be in your hotel in the centre of town in just fifteen minutes in a taxi or a train. Just less than two hours after leaving Ireland West, we were settled in our hotel room at the Pullman.

Ahead of us lay two full days of sightseeing and craic — Sundays in Cologne see most of the shops closed which offers a throwback to the type of sleepy Sunday we once had in Ireland, and it’s bloody great. Everything seems nicely paced. Families take the opportunity to be families. We took in some sights and sounds with a walking tour, and in the afternoon, availed of the panoramic Rhine cruise aboard a marvellously luxurious and well-staffed river cruiser. Here, you can eat or drink while seeing the wonderful architecture of Cologne from the water.

A city that was almost completely rebuilt in the last seventy years, everything is shaped by the 500-year-old cathedral which dominates the skyline, lords over it all, and acts as a convenient landmark to ensure you can never get lost in this beautiful city. Sundays in Cologne are relaxed, the parks and riverside areas are filled by families having picnics and locals enjoying hearty lunches.

Heaven and Earth

In terms of food, I adopted a sort of ‘when in Rome’ approach, and chanced my arm at whatever looked the most mysterious on the menu. In the main, it paid off, with the highlight of the bunch being a medieval dish called Himmel und Erde (heaven and earth ) — a poetic offering that comprises fried onions, black pudding, stewed apples, and mashed potatoes. Another gamble saw me end up with mackerel, while a colleague who ordered pork shoulder ended up with half a pig on his plate. Win some lose some, but overall the variety of food available in the city was wide and excellent.

Everywhere in Cologne is walkable. I took in a pre-breakfast run through the city every morning I was there, and it illustrated just how navigable on foot the entire place is. Although on Sunday morning, it was far more enjoyable, where you could run across empty streets without having to stop for pesky pedestrian lights, on Monday morning, it was different, as the death stares of compliant Germans would make you stop and wait.

One of these runs brought me to the iconic cathedral, once the tallest building in the world and a vista that is mindblowing. There it was, soaring up to the sky as far as the eye could see; a masterpiece in architectural engineering built almost 500 years ago, yet still as solid and breathtaking now as it was then. Inside lies the reputed tomb of the three kings — a gold casket containing what are believed to be the remains of the Three Wise Men who travelled to the birthplace of Christ with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Right around the corner from the cathedral and the museum lies Heinrich Boll Square, but we were prevented from walking on it, because it doubles up as the roof for the Kölner Philharmonie — and walking noise from people with stiletto heels or driving noise from skateboards or trolleys can be heard below in the hall. Due to this reason, the town square is closed during each performance.

There was a certain resonance too in the realisation that we had flown from a Mayo airport, given Heinrich Boll’s long love affair with Mayo and Achill, where the Nobel Laureate’s cottage is now used as a writers’ residence. Truly the links between the two regions go deep.

Nightlife in Cologne is a veritable patchwork of whatever your heart desires. We spent two nights in the iconic Papa Joe’s Jazz Bar, where veteran musicians belted out all the sounds of the 1930s, making you feel like you were transported back in time.

In Cologne, the beer of choice is Kölsch which is traditionally served in a tall, thin, cylindrical 20-cL glass called a Stange (“spike” or “rod” ).

The server, called a Köbes, carries twelve Stangen in a Kranz, a circular tray resembling a crown or wreath. Instead of waiting for the drinker to order a refill, the Köbes immediately replaces an empty Stange with a full one, marking a tick on the coaster under the Stange. We were told that it is tradition for the Kobes to be rude, so play along with the charade. It’s all for show. If the drinker does not want another refill, he or she places the coaster on top of the empty Stange and pays for the number of beers marked on the coaster.

Take the train from the main station, four stops north on Route 18, and get off at the Zoo/Flora for access to the cablecar which bring you across the Rhine and back, offering spectacular views of the water and of the city skyline. If you fancy taking in a spa and some swimming on the far side, there is a fantastic spa here, but don’t expect them to give you a towel, especially if you’re easily shocked at liberal German attitudes to nudity. But it’s grand if you’re prepared to be walking in the nip and hear someone saying “jaysis, is it yourself that’s in it.”

Don’t miss out on Cologne

The chocolate museum requires a taxi ride but is well worth seeing. Sponsored by the likes of Lindt and other major choc makers, it gives you a real sense of the origins and production of chocolate, along with loads of free samples provided along the way. See how the Lindt bunny gets wrapped like he does. The past and present global story of cocoa and chocolate is portrayed in detail over more than 4,000 sq m of floorspace and it’s well worth a visit.

Cologne is a shopping mecca and the main area, just a few hundred metres from the Cathedral is a veritable who’s who of all of the main High Street brands in Europe. For the best cafes and wine bars, take a swift turn off down the side streets and enjoy the wonderful ice creams.

Cologne is one of the warmest German cities, so be prepared for this and arm yourself with light clothes. I am only just back but I plan to travel again before the summer ends, as there is great value to be had on air fares, hotels, and eateries.

I hope that this route continues again next year as it offers German tourists a great opportunity to fly directly into the heart of the west of Ireland, so by supporting it, we are also supporting local tourism and jobs. For this reason, the team at Ireland West have to be applauded for attracting such dual benefit routes to the airport.

This new service is a major boost for tourism in the West and North West as it provides the only direct access to the West Coast from the North Rhine-Westphalia region. While the original purpose of our local airport was to enable pilgrims to visit Knock, the addition of novel routes such as Cologne offer us a great opportunity to fly with convenience to some great Euroepan locations. Nobody should miss the opportunity to take up this chance before the route closes for the winter on September 28.

Fares are reasonable and Ryanair operates a twice weekly service to Cologne every Tuesday morning and Saturday afternoon. For a break with a difference, act now. You will not be disappointed.

Auf wiedesehn, pet.

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