In September 2015, my mom, my wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘Romantic Road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.
This is part one of the story, and is about our time in Wuppertal and Cologne.
Also read: Part 2 (Brussels and Nieuwpoort); Part 3 (the Rhein); Part 4 (the romantic road); Part 5 (Ainring, Salzburg and the Jenner) and Part 6 (Munich and the Oktoberfest)
Considering the overall length of our holiday and the corresponding sizeable budget, we decided to take Air India’s day flight from Hyderabad to Frankfurt via Delhi because it was the cheapest available (approx. Rs. 25,000 per person). Consequently, we realized there was some truth in the saying ‘you get what you pay for’: despite putting us on a brand new Boeing 787 dreamliner (with electronically dimming windows, no less!) our in-flight entertainment system was on the blink, and so were the reading lights. After multiple reminders, the hostess finally told us nothing could be done, so we ended up entertaining ourselves through the seven-hour flight. Luckily, I had my laptop along, so I spent a few hours reading through a detailed guide to driving in Germany. Meanwhile, my mom took it upon herself to give my wife a crash course in German while I tried hard not to listen!
We finally landed in Frankfurt around 6:00 PM local time. Very conveniently, the airport also has a full-fledged train station in the basement, so getting anywhere from there is quite simple. We bought ourselves tickets on the last train to Wuppertal—where my uncle lives—and, because we got to the platform with about 15 minutes to spare, we settled down to wait.
When the train rolled up, we were told by the conductor that only the compartment right at the end of the train would go to Wuppertal. As we hurried down the platform, we heard the conductor’s whistle, and watched in horror as the automatic doors closed and the train accelerated out of the station without us! We spent a few minutes trying to recover from our shock—and trying to come to terms with having to spend the night in Frankfurt—when my mom suddenly spied a train on the next platform that said ‘Wuppertal’ and immediately ordered us inside. By an incredible stroke of luck, it was the train that was scheduled before ours, but was running 20 minutes late! We finally got to Wuppertal at around 10:30, an hour late but very grateful to have gotten there at all.
Wuppertal and Cologne
Wuppertal is near Cologne and Düsseldorf, and is most famous its university and for having the first suspended monorail train in the world—the ‘schwebebahn’ (literally, the ‘floating train’). The cars of this local train hang from a single rail that runs through town, for the most part following the course of the river Wupper that gives the town its name. For those who are interested, Wuppertal was also the headquarters of chemical and healthcare giant Bayer, before it moved to Leverkusen.
We spent a few days there with my uncle and his family, with the incessant rain—another thing Wuppertal is famous for—keeping us company. Our most memorable time, however, was a day trip to Cologne with my cousins, during which we took in the incredible Cologne cathedral. This massive gothic church—one of the largest in the world, and said to have the world’s largest façade—supposedly took over 600 years to build, and is also said to house the relics of the three kings (or magi) who attended the birth of Jesus Christ. History and religious significance aside, the building itself is a sight to behold—a gothic mini-mountain in the middle of the city, so large that I couldn’t get the whole of it into a single picture.
We began by climbing the 500-odd scarily narrow steps up one of the spires to the viewing platform almost 100 meters above the ground, and were greeted to glorious views of the city. Sadly, we were also greeted by graffiti scrawled on every reachable surface, proving that nothing beautiful anywhere in the world is safe from vandals seeking cheap thrills! The views and incredible architecture, though, almost made us forget the list of all the world’s names etched into the ancient walls.
After a wobbly-kneed descent down the same staircase to ground level—during which we passed an unfortunate fellow sitting and nursing a cut on his chin as a result of a slip on the way up—we decided we needed fortification, and headed to a nearby bakery for a sandwich. There were, or course, hordes of people in the bakery, but also a large number of bees buzzing around, sampling the freshly baked sweet treats for free. One even followed me, attracted to a spot of jam on my cap (!), the jam having travelled there from my ‘Berliner ballen’—a kind of jam-filled doughnut—via my finger. Both the jam and the bee caused much amusement.
Duly fortified, we went back to the cathedral, this time to marvel at the inside. The cavernous interior of the cathedral was awe-inspiring, with magnificent stained-glass windows, ancient statues, and intricate sections of mosaic flooring. The hordes of tourists—of which we were a part, of course—spoiled the effect a little, but we could have easily spent a few hours there, gazing at this 12th century panel, or that intricately carved Madonna. We didn’t have hours, though, because we also wanted to take a guided tour through the archaeological excavations in the foundations of the cathedral. During the fascinating tour, we saw parts of the older church on which the cathedral was built, and the even older remains of a Roman villa underneath, all accompanied by historical witticisms from our guide. The only drawback was that the tour was in German (the English one was on a different day of the week) which frustrated my wife no end, in spite of occasional translations provided by yours truly.
As the day drew to a close, we emerged from the cathedral’s foundations in time to attend vespers, the evening service and song in the cathedral choir. Though usually reserved for worshippers, we were taken through to the choir by my cousin, who is a lay sister with an abbey near Düsseldorf. The service, with the psalms and hymns echoing through the cathedral, and the evening sun making the stained-glass window glow, was the perfect end to the day. The only way it could have been better was if there hadn’t been hundreds of tourists like us around!
- When buying cheap air tickets, don’t be surprised if you get cheap service (and not just with Air India—Singapore’s Tiger Air is another case in point).
- Frankfurt airport is massive; make sure you have enough time to get from points A to B.
- Trains in Germany stop for a very short time, and doors sometimes don’t open unless you press their ‘open’ button—either from inside or outside.
- Don’t expect too much help or empathy from public servants.
- If you need to get to a particular train compartment, board the train first so it doesn’t leave without you.
- If you have a valid train ticket, chances are you’ll be able to use it for a cheaper train going the same direction as well.
- When in Wuppertal, make sure you carry an umbrella or raincoat.
- If you want to visit Cologne cathedral, reserve at least half a day for it. And if you have a budget, you might have to choose between the climb up the spire and the tour through the foundations. They are both expensive. The prayer service is free, but there is a nominal entry fee for other times of the day.
- If you choose to climb the spire, make sure you wear layers that you can peel off as you climb. The exertion and the narrow staircase will make you feel uncomfortably hot, and the wind at the top is bitingly cold in autumn.