Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Aaaaaaaaaaachen! (And Cologne/Koeln!)

Last weekend's trip was inspired by Mandi from No Apathy Allowed, who gave us the heads up that Improv Everywhere was planning to stage a mission in Cologne on Saturday! I've been reading about their stunts for a while and was itching to do some kind of travel, so it was the perfect thing to plan at the last minute. We got out a map and looked around at the possibilities, easily deciding that Aachen would be a great place to visit while we were in the area. Our next real trip to Cologne needs to be a local-guided one - it's really that kind of city - and we were planning way too late to try to find a volunteer for that!

We had reserved seats on the IC to Cologne Saturday morning and when we took them, I noticed we were sitting right next to seven high school students and a chaperone. It looked unpromising to me as a good seat to relax in, since high school students tend to get a little giddy in large numbers. I had really been looking forward to plugging in the iPod and reading a bit or just daydreaming. Little did I know, the high schoolers would be the least of our problems!! At Mannheim, our entire half of the train car was filled with hen/bachelorette and stag/bachelor parties. These have become an enormous phenomenon in Germany, and when you talk to Germans about it, they want to blame it on the US. Although we have those kinds of parties in the US, they're nothing like the ones they have here. So sorry, Germany, but I don't think you can blame this unfortunate cultural intrusion on us. American drinking laws actually make hen and stag parties as they exist in Germany impossible in the US. The large groups of shrill ladies and gents wander the streets - and train cars - selling nips and cigars to passersby, fellow passengers, people sitting at restaurants (can't believe restaurants allow this!), all the while getting drunker and drunker. I really can't believe it's allowed on the train. They have no boundaries at all and were all over our seats and practically in our laps, and much louder than any 7 high school students could ever hope to be. When the ticket checker came through, he didn't say a thing about it. We asked him if there were seats free in any of the other cars and he told us a couple of cars that had space. I didn't want to give up my seats because I knew the party wanted to take them over - they'd already tried to get them from us - but leaving was definitely the right decision. The rest of the trip was heavenly in comparison.

And where were the hen and stag parties headed? Cologne, of course!! Without a local perspective, all we know of this city is the Dom/cathedral, museums, and beer beer beer beer beer beer beer. Beer beer beer. It's laid-back, but not in the same way as the south. I can't really describe it, but I don't like the vibe in Cologne. I say this, though, not being very familiar with it outside of what a tourist sees.

After arrival, we had a few hours to burn before the meeting time for the Improv Everywhere mission. We checked out the meeting location just to be sure we could find it, then wandered off to find some cake. The first time we were in Cologne, we had Herren cake for the first time at Cafe Merzenich - so we went back there again. They didn't have anything quite that chocolatey this time, but we got some other goodies and enjoyed them while debating what is and is not a "meaningful question" and whether that's a very good term for it. Then we checked out St. Ursula's Church, where St. Ursula is buried, and some kind of gate near an area with lots of Turkish formalwear shops. Check out the pictures for the full story!! The weather was not good, unfortunately reinforcing my already-existing association between Cologne and terrible weather. It did clear up enough to get a blue-skied Dom shot, though! The Dom never ceases to amaze. It is just huge.

Koeln Jul 09

Then it was time for the IE mission!! We were totally nervous, having no clue what kind of stunt we'd be asked to try to pull off - but figuring that if we didn't like it, we could just bail if the crowd was large. And it was!! There must have been at least 150 people there already when we arrived at the meeting point, and more just kept arriving. Most looked like college students, and other than the IE people from New York, we didn't notice any other non-Germans there.

The mission turned out to be easy and a funny concept, so we were in! The main IE guy explained that we would divide into two long single-file lines (when he used the words "like schoolchildren" to describe this, the crowd found this inexplicably hilarious - I think it says something about Germans, but I don't know what). These two lines would enter the back doors of the Cologne train station and cross through the station single-file. Upon reaching the front doors, the leaders of the lines (already chosen) would choose a random stranger exiting the station and follow them through the plaza until they left it (by whatever means they left). If the stranger held an umbrella or turned around or anything else, the rest of the line was to imitate this. When the stranger left the plaza, the line would turn in place and be led by the people at the other end (also already chosen) back to the back of the train station, where the line turned around - rinse, repeat! We did the whole thing three times, following a total of six random strangers. If anyone asked, we were only supposed to say we were just following the person in front of us, as if there were nothing strange going on at all. I was about halfway back in the line, or maybe in the first half, but I usually couldn't see all the way up to the stranger to see how it was going. None of the stranger's actions that we were supposed to be mimicking made it all the way back to me, either. But, merely having giant single file lines in public was a complete spectacle that mystified everybody! This goes double for Germany - as anyone who has ever boarded a plane going to, from, or within Germany knows, they are not big on lines. The official videos of the mission aren't up yet, but I found already a Flickr album and Youtube video of the event which should tide over the curious for now. You can see us in both of them! I didn't take any photos or video myself, so as to be fully participating.

After the mission, we had dinner at Frueh am Dom, then hopped on the RE to Aachen, where we relaxed at our hotel to gear up for the next day of sightseeing! Aachen is the most westerly city in Germany - right on the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. It was Charlemagne's favorite hangout and thus his capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and its cathedral was the first German place to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Aachen Jul 09

The next morning we enjoyed brunch at Nobis Printen, a bakery/cookie shop near the Dom that was really a madhouse! The counter was packed the whole time we were there. We both had breakfasts that came with scrambled eggs and a big pile o' bread, plus some cake that we just couldn't pass up trying. The Donauwelle there was really good. We dawdled in there for a long time before moving on the the Domschatzkammer/cathedral treasury. We heard that there was some particularly cool stuff in this treasury, so we went ahead and paid the 4 EUR for admission. Admission came with a great little booklet full of information about all the goodies on display. The Schatzkammer was really well-organized and the stuff inside was amazing, if you find the whole concept of relics as fascinating as I do. There were all kinds of gold-plated gem-encrusted ridiculously ornate objects built to hold bits of bone and cloth and whatever other strange relics the cathedral came into the possession of. There were also some neat altars, statues, and vestments. It's definitely worth the price of admission and we spent about an hour and a half looking over everything and reading the descriptions in the booklet.

After the Schatzkammer (I love that word, by the way) we paid 2.50 for a tour of the Dom. With the tour, you're allowed to take pictures inside the Dom without paying the photo fee, and you get to see the coronation throne where many kings were crowned, which you can't see without the tour. This is also really worth the small price you pay. Our guide's English was so perfect Damon though she might be Irish (until, toward the end of the tour, she made a cute/embarrassing mistake which seemed to definitely indicate she was German) and she shared lots of details about the different bits of the church - what is original, what is not, stuff about the pilgrimages to Aachen and the relics, why they think it really is Charlemagne in the big gold box, etc.

We then wandered over the the Rathaus/town hall. In the door they offered a "special price" of 2.50 for admission - normally 5 EUR, it said. We decided to have a look. They gave us a free audio tour which was really fancy - it detected what room we were standing in automatically. They had a couple of other interactive displays and tons and tons of staff on hand to answer questions. The best thing in there were some replicas of Charlemagne's crown and other fun royal shiny things, but the rooms weren't that interesting. 2.50 was a reasonable price to go in, especially for the nice view of the Dom you can get from the windows in the stairwell.

In the discussions surrounding the choosing of a location for this year's expat meetup, another blogger mentioned that Aachen is very pretty, but Heidelberg is prettier. I would agree with that assessment. It's not as beautiful as Heidelberg (let's be clear - Heidelberg's natural setting is very hard to beat), but it really is very nice, and we liked the layout better than Heidelberg. There are many quiet little squares hiding here and there where you could have a drink. Perhaps we'll swing by there again sometime - maybe on a trip to Belgium or the Netherlands!! (I certainly hope we manage to visit those countries soon!!)


  1. Oh, yay, I'm glad you participated! Sounds like it was a lot of fun! I'll keep my eyes out for the official video so I can live vicariously through you. ;)

  2. That IE is awesome. The followed strangers must have been totally perplexed. So cool that you guys did this.

  3. Damon informs me that anywhere I said kings I really meant emperors. What can I say, there are certain parts of history I totally suck at.

  4. Improv Everywhere!
    How cool, and I'm very jealous.

  5. Sounds like a fun trip! I love watching the IE videos.

    And you guys should definitely make a point to visit Holland soon. We LOVED it there, and now I wish we could move there!

  6. I find the title of today's entry very funny: it's exactly how I sound when I say "Aachen"!

  7. How fun! There were a lot of people in the line taking video! That line probably would have driven me crazy if I was a bystander trying to get somewhere! : )

  8. I'm surprised to hear you didn't dig the Köln vibe. I lived near there for about a year in 1992-93 and I dug it then. I know lots of native Germans (but not Bavarians) who hang out there specifically for that vibe at certain times of the year (Alaaaaaaf!) — maybe it's a non-Bavarian thing.

  9. Mandi: Thanks again for the tip :)

    MIHH: It was awesome! I hope they put together a good official report on their site for it. :)

    Snooker: You did mp3 experiment, though, right? :) I was jealous then.

    Sarah: We really want to go! I'm glad to hear your good review of it!

    Emilie: I didn't plan that, all those As just kept coming...

    Michelle: Yeah, we had to let people through and sometimes it messed up the line a little bit. ;)

    Cliff: Me too; I think I just need to find a local to give me a perspective on the parts of Koeln I would probably like. The drunks there just remind me of drunk Americans, but for some reason that's not so here.


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