Bonny Bonn

Bonn is a fairly small city at the bottom of the big trail of places running down the Rhine Valley. This doesn’t mean you should miss it as the people are wonderful and it does have some good sights. Oh, and Beethoven was born here though he hated the place by all accounts.

When I first arrived, my host (Elise) met me and took my bags back to her place so I could explore for a while before meeting her and some other Couchsurfers for dinner and a few drinks. I took to wandering around and saw the Museumsmile, some nice cathedrals and some shops. The architecture around the museums and galleries is interesting and maybe not to everyone’s taste but at least it grabs the attention. A shame the same can’t be said for the sterile, boring, concrete blocks that are being erected on the other side of the same road.

Some buildings have a tourist board outside in German and English with some historical details, accompanied by photographs of how it used to look. Interesting and I believe they form part of a trail that can be followed.

One of the galleries has a roof garden that would be a wonderful place for lunch as well as the cleanest toilets I think I’ve ever seen. I didn’t bother to look elsewhere inside – I’m not an “art” person.

After wandering all the way into the south of town I caught a tube back up to the north and met Elise. We headed for a local bar where, over the course of an hour, about 16 people joined us for beers and conversation. Many were couchsurfers, others were students from the area – and I had a great time. After 2 hours I was ordering two beers at a time as the Germans insist on using tiddly little 0.20cl glasses which are just too small!

As the bar closed, we got our bill and people tried to work out how many they’d had. I was last and I had completely lost count/ I guessed at “ten?” to the barmaid and she shrugged, nodded OK and charged me for about half the beer I’d consumed.

From there we walked to a club for another couple of beers after which I crashed at Christoph’s/ – Elise had had to go home earlier. Thank you for the emergency couch, fella!

In the morning, I caught up with Elise who showed me some of the sights in Bonn including Beethoven’s birthplace – which is rather un-awe-inspiring. And easily spotted by the crowd of Japanese photographers burning through memory cards taking pictures of it.

There are some nice building up in the northern end, inclduing an enormous well-crafted university hall. After she’d shown me round them and we’d had pastries from a shop for brunch. we headed back to her’s where I gathered my gear and headed off for Cologne.

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Cool Cologne / Köln

Take your pick – Germans use both to refer to this city which is the capital of this region. It’s also home to a magnificent cathedral which has recently had a new window installed… which is awful. A mess of randomly coloured pixels with no reason, design or anything. Just dots. Pretty, colourful, but utter garbage compared to the works of art installed in the other windows. Mind you, it’s drawing the tourists. Including far too many who stand around waving their arms and pointing to things within the pattern that simply aren’t there. Muppets.

I spent a lazy 45 minutes sat in a bar watching the Saturday football with a bunch of Germans and some random English guys on a pub crawl (Cologne is very popular for stag parties), wandered around a few more cathedrals and small streets and met up with my host for the night Ira. Yet another lovely person with a comfy couch!

As Ira had to work, I made my own arrangements and spent two very different nights in the city.

The first was overnight in a very posh spa called the Claudius Therme. Ulf had managed to score a couple of discount tickets for the rare overnight session, and I took one along with Heydi, another couchsurfer who lives in the area but hails from Finland. As you can probably tell from the web site, the spa is huge – it covers an enormous three-storey building inside and several pools, huts and a separate 2-storey building outside. Plus some parkland.

And you wander round most of it naked.

Eek.

The main building is a “covered up” zone, but for the overnight event it’s “clothing optional” after 10pm. Outside of the building is permanently “clothing optional”. The Germans are certainly a lot less reserved than us Brits and there were people of all shapes, sizes and ages letting it all hang out in the pools and saunas.

The saunas were an experience in themselves. The usual ones in gyms and so on are just braziers and wooden benches. Occasionally someone dumps some water on the coals and you get hotter. Here, it’s different Each sauna has a theme and is based on a style from a different country. At scheduled times, staff arrive, the doors are closed to prevent latecomers arriving and a “pouring” begins.

These are rituals using different scented waters which are poured onto the coals in vast quantities, really raising the temperature. The staff then waft wet towels around in a manner almost like a choreographed dance (some of them are set to music) to ensure the heat is spread evenly around the chamber. At points it reminded me of being back in Kuwait and Dubai as my body first of all went “breeze!” then quickly realised that the said breeze was damn hot.

During some of the pourings, there are breaks for people to pop outside. At one pouring, sponges soaked in beer are provided. You rub these all over then go back into the sauna for another pouring. This is apparently good for the skin. As is smearing honey on yourself. And rubbing salt on your body. All of these are offered during different pourings. My favourite was the “fire and ice” one where we got a nice wine glass with a dollop of sorbet which was topped up with champagne! The “twig” one was also good, where the staff beat your back with boiled branches. This makes small incisions in the skin (tiny ones) and certain beneficial chemicals from the leaves can then get under the surface and do good things. Or something.

We had a pretty decent dinner at 5.50 Euros for a “fit as much on a plate as you can manage” buffet and after a decent rest and a chat, Ulf had a surprise for us. He’d very kindly paid for one of the optional extras – a chocolate sauna! Well, more of a steam room. Someone seems to have discovered that chocolate is good for the skin, but not if you eat it… We were taken into a small chamber, big enough for six people. and provided with a rather hot bowl of melted chocolate which we were instructed to smear all over ourselves.

I don’t think my shoulders have ever tasted so good. One of the staff kept providing us with little cocktail sticks with fruit on them so we could make the most of the remaining chocolate, as well as drinks of hot tea which went surprisingly well together. So there we stood as the steam gathered. Ulf, Heydi and I. Naked but for a layer of Belgian choccy with three other Germans in a small, echoey chamber listening to relaxing music.

Yep, it was a pretty bizarre night.

Over time, the chocolate changed consistency from runny, to dry and slightly crumbly, to pastey and then to watery. I think we were in there for maybe half an hour before we washed everything off (it was a pain getting it out of my ears) and had a complimentary cocktail.

It was about then we had the branch-whipping sauna, after which we retired to bed on very comfy water mattresses. However, despite being about as relaxed as I’ve been in months, I simply couldn’t sleep! I watched two episodes of Hereoes on my PSP, went for another swim in the almost empty main building and admired the Cologne skyline from one of the balconies. Finally I drifted off at around 5am.

The next day I spent some time in the morning with Ulf and Heydi before traveling back into the city for a further walk. In the evening some of the crowd from Bonn as well as Ulf (that man again) met me and we went to a bar in the student area. A beer tower was ordered. Five metres tall. But I wasn’t allowed to drink it all myself. Grr.

From there we agreed to all go to a studenty nightclub though I’d have preferred a rock bar. Ah well. It was cheap enough to get in and drinks were also cut price all night. I did have to put a jumper on over my Newcastle shirt, though. I guess some things never change.

As the night progressed, people vanished in twos and threes until I was left with a guy from Ecuador and two American students. The girls “went to the toilet” then vanished. And my Ecuadorian companion just melted into the crowd never to be seen again.

And I had no idea how to get back to where I was staying.

Fortunately, friendly Germans and friendly English people came to my aid. I got talking to two girls in the club (the usual “my English isn’t very good” excuse followed by a long conversation with a drunk Englishman in a loud club – indicative of very good English in my opinion) who took me to another club at 4am.

There, we were crammed in like sardines but got another two cheap drinks before they departed. At that point, I luckily bumped into an English girl who was out with friends. She lived in Cologne and gave me very good directions to the Cathedral from where I could locate Ira’s place. Basically, go out of the club, turn left and follow the tram lines!

I crawled into Ira’s at around 6am. After the almost sleepless night at the spa I was amazed I’d stayed up so long. Two great nights. I like Germany!

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My second ever visit to Germany!

Given that my first was barely three months ago, this was still quite new territory. Last time I entered by bus and left by plane. This visit was to be somewhat more pedestrian.

My first overnight stop was in a small town called Roetgen which lies on the border. There are no signs telling you which country your in, but my host (Manfred) pointed out all the old border lines as we walked to the pub and back. Manfred’s family were amazing hosts. He himself is great to talk to and likes his football (even if he does follow Germany) while his wife makes an amazing chicken curry. The kids were great to spend time with and he has one of the nicest dogs I’ve met on my travels.

It was a shame I was only there the one night, but we made the most of it – much German beer was drunk as Germany beat Romania and England stuffed Russia. I slept soundly in my comfy caravan under a toasty blanket.

Dzien dobry, Polska!

I staggered to the airport bus stop as the time drew near 4am and hopped into the express which would wing me to the distant Frankfurt-Hahn. Worth noting if you get a budget flight to/from Frankfurt – check the actual airport. Frankfurt Airport itself is barely 15 minutes from the city centre. Not that it made much difference to me. I was asleep within three minutes of buying my ticket and didn’t open my eyes again until we pulled into the airport parking lot.

Unlike on the bus, I could barely sleep a wink on the plane. No real reason, I just couldn’t nod off. We landed early, and I made my way through the immigration at Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotswahf) and onto the number 406 bus, getting off at the main train station and waiting for my guide and hostess, Gosia. Gosia and I worked together at Matrix / Soft Solutions for a couple of years and I’d not seen her since some time before I left the UK. It didn’t take her long to appear and it was great to see another friend again after so long. This European jaunt is turning out to be full of reunions!

Gosia loves Wroclaw and it shows. We spent a good day walking around, from 10am until after 9pm. Basically, dig out the Lonely Planet, look up Wroclaw and we did everything. And then some.

The church off the main square (though we couldn’t get up the tower), the two small buildings in front, beer in one of the oldest bars in Wroclaw, ice cream in a lovely little restaurant, KFC in a mall (yay!), the beautiful town hall, the university buildings with their stunning painted walls, street statues, the museum (which wasn’t that great to be honest), the Panorama (which was), cheap internet (this is where the Berlin idea bit the dust)… Wroclaw’s got a lot, particularly if you like churches. There are some fantastic buildings, and some near bridges.

I apologise to Gosia for rushing this post and not giving all the proper names of places. I’m just so far behind on posts right now I’ll need to return to this one when I have more time and beef it up! Even better if I can get to somewhere where I can easily insert Polish characters for that authentic “I know what I’m talking about” feel. Even though my attempts at speaking the language sound like a lisping man trying to speak with a mouthful of water.

I will rattle on a bit about the Panorama of Raclawicka. This is a huge circular painting created in 1894, showing details of a battle which took place 100 years earlier. The building in which is is housed was erected in the 1970s (if memory serves) and really showcases this 114m x 15m artwork well. “Real” objects lean up and “into” the painting, some so indistinguishably (there’s a new word for you) as to look like they just ooze from the canvas. It gives the whole thing an amazing sense of depth.

Entry isn’t cheap at 20 Zloty (around UK3.50 – expensive by Polish standards) but includes a mandatory guided tour and entry to the museum over the road as well. No photos or video allowed at all. Shame, as it really is something special – but if it encourages more visitors then that’s fine by me.

By the time we had one last beer in a street cafe, it was getting cold and dark. We just squeezed onto the last bus to Jelenia Gora for the 90 minute ride to Gosia’s home town. And indeed the very house she grew up in!

It was definitely dark by the time we got there, but her granny was still up to welcome us home. You couldn’t meet a more stereotypical grandmother – shorter than either of us, hair drawn back with clips and a lovely granny smile. I felt welcome the second I walked through the door. Of course, we were fed and watered before bed. A whole room to myself – luxury!

Zooming round Frankfurt

I stayed in the hostel and loafed a bit until lunchtime partly as I was knackered and partly as the weather, frnakly, sucked. Harsh winds and periodic downpours made the outside world a very unexciting prospect.

Still, this was no bad thing as I ploughed through the book I was reading and tinkered on the PSP for a while. The people in the hostel wre all chatty and I got nattering to a small group. Lunchtime rolled around I and suddenly realised how hungry I was so I went on aa KFC-seeking mission.

I failed. I should have Googled before I went searching as there is definitely at least one, but after an hour or so I still hadn’t located it. In desparation (my stomach was growling and my eyesight wobbling with hunger) I settled on Burger King. Unusually, they accept US Dollars as well as Euros, and I found this is the case in Berlin as well. Only BK – nowhere else.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do the postcard thing for which I apologise as it’s the first country I’ve been to where I’ve not mailed cards to the chosen few back home. The thing is, I was planning on going to Poland then bouncing back into Berlin. A few days later, though, I found that the transport on the day I wanted to go to Berlin was chocka, so I had to knock that on the head. I will be in Germany again as part of The Walk so I’ll sort them then. And the KFC.

Back at the hostel, I’d signed up for a free walking tour and our guide stepped us out into the slightly warmer outdoors for a ninety minute stroll. It was pleasant enough (excepting the occasional downpour), but Frankfurt’s not the most touristy of cities. We saw a couple of cathedrals, some beautiful old buildings and some reconstructed wooden ones on the town square. I lost count of the times our guide told us of buildings which weren’t there any more as they were bombed in the war. I didn’t know whether to apologise or tell him it was their fault for invading Poland.

Sadly, it’s true that a lot of Frankfurt’s older structures – in particular the wooden ones – perished during WWII. A sad fact is that if one wooden building catches ablaze, then the entire terraced street will follow.

A handful remain and they truly are lovely. The old city square was left three times its old size until around the 1970s as the council decided to leave the flattened land “open” as a reminder of what happens when war breaks out. Finally, they decided that the lesson had been learned (we hope) and funded the rebuilding of a set of “replica” houses in the same spot as the originals had stood. The slight problem was that modern-day architects thought they were cleverer than the original builders and cut a few corners, making their reproductions more “efficient”.

Needless to say, one of them ended up being braced, partially collapsing and then being demolished and rebuilt according to the original several-hundred-year-old specifications. They’re still standing now, though I doubt the architect in question has quite washed the egg off his face yet.

Most of the features of modern-day Frankfurt are tall bank buildings. It’s the economic centre of Germany and in pursuit of this, they demolished several beautiful building-fronts to make way for glass towers. Fortunately, this practise seems to have stopped with newer buildings making use of those fronts, or being far enough away as to not require their pummelling.

On the walk, I got talking to a couple of American guys (Yuri and Slaytan – what a pair of names!). We arranged to go for dinner in a German pub a small walk away and indulged in wonderful German cooking. I had a pork chop with veg and fried potatoes. Great stuff. And good beer as well.

Beer seemed a good idea, so we sat in the hostel when we got back and worked our way through all the beers the bar sold. Then went round the corner to a bottle shop and tried a few more. By now we had a small crowd, and decided to giggle at the red light district (even a couple of women joined us).

Well, the beer’s expensive in those bars. And the entertainment’s rubbish – I’d rather watch telly. It didn’t stop us walking around until almost 3am, though. Thanks to Alex and Slaytan for keeping me company so I didn’t fall asleep and miss my airport bus!