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  • Writer's pictureRuth Mcbride

Who knew?

Day 13/15, Viking Ve Grand European Christmas Markets River Cruise. Cologne, Germany

Our last chance to shop was how Program Director Daniel billed today’s excursion into Cologne, Germany! With over 1 million people, Cologne, Germany is a large, and very busy city, as we were soon to find out!

Our ship the VE could not dock on the Danube in Cologne again because of high water levels so instead of being docked in a place where we could walk into the city, we were docked in the Viking winter storage compound with 20 other empty Viking long ships! It was kind of eerie seeing all of these empty Viking ships tied up together, but I guess it makes sense to have them all in one place for maintenance in the ‘off’ river cruising season.

We had to set another alarm to get up today, to make the 9:00am tour and our 15 minute shuttle bus ride into Cologne this morning. It was really cold outside at 4C with a strong wind and I think I underdressed for the day, but we were doing a walking tour of Cologne, so perhaps it would be ok?

Our guide was named Peter. His father and grandfather were named Peter. There are 3 other Viking guides named Peter and since he says there are so many people named Peter in Cologne, probably dating back to Saint Peter the Apostle and the first bishop of Rome (Cologne was founded by the Romans), and the fact the Cologne Cathedral is also called Cathedral Church of Saint Peter. Our guide calls himself “Two Metre Peter” because he is 6 foot 6 and this way he differentiates himself from the other guides named Peter, as well as anyone else in the city of Cologne named Peter.

Two Metre Peter was a very experienced Viking guide. He said that last year when Viking contact him about guiding for them to give him his schedule for the year, he could have worked every single day of 2023 if he wanted to! He loves what he does and he said that during the pandemic he would cycle over to the Viking winter storage yard where Viking had stored a number of long ships and he kept wondering when the Viking ships would sail again. His employment during the pandemic involved teaching kids, gardening and anything else he could get his hands on to make ends meet. He said he has exhausted all of his savings trying to keep his family afloat and that is why he is very happy Viking is sailing again and he is getting lots of work. He lives about a 10 minute bike ride from downtown Cologne and between walking every day and cycling to work, he stays in shape to be able to eat delicious German breads and pastries.

Peter said that if he ever left Germany he would miss the bread and the pastries! As we were walking through the city centre Peter showed us his favorite baker and some of the nougat pretzels and other goodies that were made fresh daily, on site, at this bakery cafe. We made a mental note of where this baker was for future reference!

Our walking tour of Cologne had originally included going inside the gothic Cologne Cathedral which is a Catholic Church. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1996 it is Germany’s most visited landmark attracting over 20,000 people a day. The Cathedral is the tallest twin spired church in the world; the second tallest church in Europe and the third tallest church of any kind in the world.

The church is 474 feet long and 283 ft wide. The church was built between 1248-1560; 1842-1880 and from the 1950’s to the present it was restored after experiencing damage during WW2. The church was hit 14 times by aerial bombs during WW2. And while 95% of Cologne was bombed and damaged during the war, the church remained standing for one reason only; the Allied aircraft used the cathedral as a navigational landmark, so they did not want to completely decimate it with bombs.

The Cathedral is rarely without scaffolding as repairs and maintenance work is constantly being carried out since pollution, wind and rain slowly eat away at the old stones.

Blue and white police vans around the Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany.

But the reason we could not go into the Cathedral today was not related to reconstruction efforts or private services, but because of a valid terrorist threat! Apparently German police had been tipped off that there was a dangerous threat to the iconic Cologne Cathedral and they arrested 5 men after searching an apartment 100km north of Cologne. One man remains in custody who was arrested on Sunday December 24th. The suspect is known to the police.

Well that is a drag! The most iconic reason to visit Cologne was off the table. Our guide Two Metre Peter made the best of our walking tour instead showing us around the busy city so that we could find our way back to the shuttle bus when it came time to walk back to the bus.

Peter took us to the last remaining Christmas Market of our cruise which was not open yet, but would be opening at 11am, after our walking tour was over. The Christmas market had unusual looking little ‘gnomes’ all through it so Peter explained to us that the knows are called HEINZELMANNCHEN and there is a little legend about the gnomes in Cologne.

The Henzelmannchen are actually supposed to be little gnome creatures that come out at night to do all of the work of the citizens of Cologne, allowing them to be lazy during the day. The gnomes would disappear before anyone awoke, but the wife of a tailor was curious to see what they looked like. She apparently spread peas on the ground in the workshop to make the gnomes slip and fall. The gnomes got so mad that they left, never to return again and the people of Cologne had to do all of their own work once again.

The legend of the gnomes was first written down in the 1800’s and a fountain was built in 1899 to reflect the legend outside the famous FRUH brewery in downtown Cologne.

Besides the Cologne Cathedral, Cologne is very famous for a style of beer called ‘KOLSCH’. The beer is bright, and clear with a straw-yellow hue and an alchol by volume of 4.4-5.2%. Since 1997 the term ‘KOLSCH’ has had a protected geographical indication within the EU, indicating a beer has been brewed within 50km of the city of Cologne and brewed using the KOLSCH Konvention as defined by the members of the Cologne Brewery Association. KOLSCH is one of the most strictly defined beer styles in Germany. Pale and hoppy, but filtered. KOLSCH is warm fermented with top fermenting yeast and then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. Served in a tall thin cylindrical 200 millilitre (6.8 fl.oz) glass called a STANGE or ‘pole’. The server called a KOBES carries eleven or twelve STANGEN in a KRANZ (wreath). Instead of waiting for the drinker to order a refill, the KOBES immediately replaces an empty STANGE with a full one, marking a tick on the coaster under the STANGE. If the drinker does not want another refill, they must place the coaster on top of the empty STANGE and pay for the number of beers marked on the coaster.

Peter showed us on our walking tour where Viking would be taking the optional evening excursion to ‘Peter’s Brauhaus’. He said the food, Kolsh and service was excellent at Peter’s Brauhaus if we were looking for a good place for lunch, if we happened to be staying in Cologne after our tour.

Viking was running shuttle buses from the ship every hour on the hour until 5pm. The shuttle pick up location was where we were dropped off in Cologne, about a 10 minute walk to the cathedral. Shuttle bus pick up from downtown was on the half hour until 5:30pm. After our walking tour we could walk back to get a shuttle back to the ship, or stay in town and have lunch on our own, and explore Cologne, before heading back to the ship. I bet you know what we did?

Yup! Your’re right. We did not go back to the ship for lunch. With only one day in Cologne and having the aggravation of a shuttle journey back to the VE for lunch and then another shuttle back to Cologne, for lunch, we opted to stay in Cologne and are we ever glad we did!

Our first stop was the Merzenich bakery on the pedestrian shopping street downtown Cologne. My initial thought was to get a nougat covered pretzel but then I saw something else much more appealing!


Oh my goodness! I don’t even want to think about how many calories were in this decadent piece of heaven, but was it ever delicious. The marzipan filling inside the fresh doughy bread was so delightful. I love almond filled croissants from France, but this marzipanbrezel was so much better than an almond filled croissant! WOW! We thought that we would save some of this delicacy for later, but we finished it in one sitting at the tables set up in the square, outside Merzenich bakery. If you are ever in Cologne you must visit this bakery and get a MARZIPANBREZEL. It is some kind of wonderful!!!

Now after eating 3 days worth of calories in one sitting it was time to get our steps in! The pedestrian boulevard was getting a lot busier with shoppers who had not been able to shop during the 2 day shutdown over Christmas! There must have also been a lot of people who were tourists in town for the holidays as well as people on vacation in town, because it sure was busy!

I looked in a few stores but nothing really appealed to me and then we needed to find a WC. Finding WC’s is always challenging in major cities in Europe, but we know that all department stores have WC’s even if we have to pay for them!

We found Galeria KAUFHOF a huge department store at the end of the pedestrian walkway. Our guide had told us that anything we needed could be bought at KAUFHOF and he was right! Talk about a huge department store which seemed to be as wide as the Hudson’s Bay downtown Toronto at the Eaton Centre, and much taller! This KAUFHOF store was RETAIL OVERLOAD!

I used the WC paying 1 euro since I didn’t have a 50 cent piece and there was no change available. I found Richard a very nice aqua coloured cotton sweater which I thought would look very nice on him. I then started looking through the after Christmas sale racks for something for me. There were a lot of nice sweaters and tops on sale, but I started to think “When will I ever wear warm sweaters again?” And so after leaving Richard sitting for about 30 minutes, I said “Let’s go!”

We walked to the far end of the pedestrian walkway in Cologne and found a H&M. H&M has free wifi and since we first connected in Auckland, New Zealand while on the Viking Neptune World Cruise to the H&M’s free wifi, anytime we are near an H&M anywhere in the world, it prompts me to join their wifi. We were looking for a Birkenstock store or a store that sold Wusthof knives. We could not find a store close enough to be able to walk to either type of store, so we abandoned our search.

Since we knew this would be our last opportunity to visit a Christmas Market in Europe in 2023, we decided to head to the Cologne Christmas Market. The crowds were becoming very difficult to navigate in the pedestrian streets of Cologne. We understand now why Viking wants us to be out on our excursions at 9am! There is no way a guide leading 30 people could manage to navigate the major and side streets in a town as busy as Cologne after about 11am.

The Christmas market was almost un-navigable with too many people all crowding the market to drink Gluhwein and eat traditional German food. There were quite a few stalls selling handmade goods, but the crowds were just too much to want to stay and try and shop for anything. Neither one of us likes crowds especially when you cannot move because there are people on all sides of you, so we exited the Christmas Market as quickly as we could.

It was time for lunch so we found our way through the side streets of Cologne to ‘Peter’s Brauhaus’. We entered Peter’s and had to wait for a table. Our menus were in English so it was easy to understand what was on the menu for lunch. We both decided to order a KOLSCH beer even though I don’t usually drink beer. Our guide Peter had said that most women who don’t like beer would enjoy the beer as it is very mild.

The beers were very cold and refreshing and paired so well with the food that we ordered.

Richard had meatloaf with a fried egg on top alongside fried potatoes with onions. I ordered sauerkraut soup with sausage which also came with a small loaf of dark brown bread. I LOVED my sauerkraut soup! I love sauerkraut but I would never ever have made soup out of sauerkraut! Who knew that you could make soup out of sauerkraut? I’ve learned a lot about different foods on this trip through Germany the past 13 days and I’m eager to go home and try to replicate this sauerkraut soup! The KOLSCH beer paired perfectly with the soup too. I learned that we do get KOLSCH beer in Canada brewed and exported from Cologne at our LCBO and Beer store, so in the future we can buy the beer and pair it with homemade sauerkraut soup!

After lunch we walked back to Uniqlo so I could buy a cashmere hat. A small souvenir from Cologne!

We walked to the Viking-shuttle bus at a very brisk pace and arrived just before 4pm. The bus left the winter storage facility at 4pm, so we had a bit of a wait for the shuttle bus. The bus filled up pretty quickly and we left the pick up area at exactly 4:30pm. While it would have been nice to stay in Cologne longer, we had been out ALL day and had a very full day of being on our feet. Our step count was almost 15,000 steps!

At the port talk at 6pm Program Director Daniel outlined the details for tomorrow in the Netherlands, our last stop. The VE would be leaving Cologne’s winter storage docks at 10pm this evening and we had a full night and morning of sailing before we got to dock tomorrow.

When we got back to our cabin after dinner we had our departure notice waiting for us. We are the first people leaving the ship in Amsterdam where we will be docking early on Saturday morning!

Who knew that I would like sauerkraut soup paired with KOLSCH beer? It’s amazing what you learn when you travel. It’s the small things like the meals we’ve had when we travel that make the trip interesting. While we did not get to visit inside the Cologne Cathedral, we will be back in Cologne next year on our Viking River Cruise in October. Hopefully that time when we come to Cologne the cathedral will not be under a terrorist threat. And we know where to go to get an excellent pastry and lunch next time too!

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