Our decision to visit Cologne, Germany, went something like this:
"There's a really cheap flight to Cologne."
"What's in Cologne?"
"They have a chocolate museum."
Up until that point, my friends and I knew of Cologne only as a men's fragrance, but when the guidebook promises a "Willy Wonka-esque" chocolate fountain, you heed the call.
We left our home base in Padua, Italy, with visions of candy bars dancing in our heads. Nine hours of missed bus and train connections later, we arrived starving, exhausted, and about ready to punch a sugar plum fairy.
Emerging from the train station, the ominous shadow of the Kolner Dom immediately enveloped us. Cologne's towering cathedral broods over the city, justly earning its title as the largest gothic church in Northern Europe. Beholding the dark behemoth against the bright blue autumn sky, we couldn't help but he impressed...and slightly less disgruntled.
From the imposing square of the Dom, Cologne breaks off into smaller cobblestone streets with modern stores that perhaps aim to counter the church's heavy dose of history (it dates back to 1248!) Ambling through the city on the way to our hostel, we came across another prevalent feature of Cologne's landscape: street art.
A graphic series of poster-sized photographs depicted the lives and deaths of struggling drug addicts. A huge wooden sculpture of rainbow-colored, nesting squares let us climb inside for a picture-framed view of the city.
We were amused, but not appeased, still grumbling over our traveler's misfortune and regrettably empty stomachs.
And then we saw it. In the middle of a small, tree-lined square, it was unassuming but irresistible. A man-made puddle, no more than 20 feet wide, with a turquoise plastic cube at its center for one to perch upon. Along its edges were at least a dozen pairs of white rain boots, beckoning to be worn.
Without hesitation, we threw off our shoes and grabbed a pair of galoshes. Nevermind the dozens of questionable feet that had occupied them before us — we had some splashing to attend to. For nearly a half hour we waded around in the Kolsch puddle — almost two feet at its deepest point — laughing and taking pictures and forgetting all about our rough journey there. It was as if Cologne had anticipated our unhappiness upon arriving, and it knew just the cure.
Even after our puddle jumping had concluded, Cologne continued to intrigue and delight us. We ate bratwurst alongside mustachioed old men in a traditional beer garden and danced recklessly to German Top 40 songs at a student nightclub. Along the banks of the Rhine river, we explored Cologne's Old Town and finally tasted milk chocolate from the Lindt Museum's golden fountains. We stuffed ourselves with pretzels and potato pancakes and washed them down with the signature Kolsch brew.
When we stepped into that puddle, Cologne had christened us, allowing us brief access to its finest secrets. A city rife with history, Cologne honors its roots, but somehow manages to stay young at heart. Both the young and the old gather at the same outdoor restaurants to eat, talk, and listen to a street band honk traditional tunes while the beer flows until the drinker sets the coaster atop her glass.
Cologne is often forgotten alongside the more popular German cities of Berlin and Munich — but it doesn't mind. Cologne will wait for you. When you arrive, you might find — just as we did — that it's all too easy to dip your toes in...