Day Ten: Big Hair and Big Hare
There are only three chain hotels in Koeln: the Hyatt, a Crowne Plaza that's a bit farther out, and I hear there's a Novotel somewhere on the autobahn. There are, of course, local hotels, including two right on the main square by the Dom, but these probably don't offer room service menus in English and a free copy of the Herald-Trib. Since the Hyatt is by far the nicest and best-located of the chains, all the businessmen and major meetings and rich US vacationers stay there. (Rich European vacationers preferring the more colorful local hotels, as would I if I didn't need access to FedEx and AT&T quite so often.)
This section of Germany is very populous, and it's also right near Luxembourg and Belgium and north-eastern France. All the big US concert tours stop in either Koeln or Bonn as one of their 4-6 German sites. There are big arenas in both cities, and they obviously can pull from a broad population, so it makes sense. Now, let's say you're a big rock band on tour, and you're looking for a nice, convenient hotel near your concert site. Where would you go? Yes, you guessed, the Hyatt.
A couple of weeks ago, the Backstreet Boys were there. Apparently you could tell because there were 100 teenage girls outside standing by the Rhine, staring at the front doors of the hotel, waiting to see something. The doorman kept them back from the entrance a bit, but if you wanted to walk across the bridge you had to go through teeny-boppers. This past weekend, we noticed that there was a small crowd of older women staking out the hotel, though a bit more calmly. There were perhaps a dozen of them out there at a time, and they all seemed college age or older. They also refrained from squealing, which Elizabeth told me was a big improvement. We were trying to figure out who was staying there, but the staff was coy. (The Backstreet Boys were easy to discover -- the teeny-boppers brought signs.) I noticed a suspicious number of BonJovi concert advertisements that suddenly appeared in the parkingplatz, though, so I had an idea. Sure enough, Jon and the guys were here all weekend. Someone in the breakfast room rode in an elevator with Jon and some other band member and was very impressed: "He's short! I mean, I'm not that tall, and he's shorter than I am!".
Later this summer, the hotel will play host (presumably) to Ricky Martin and Tina Turner. Ricky Martin's only German concert date is May 1 (a major holiday), here in Koeln. Waseem and I were joking that between the holiday, the weather, and Ricky, the walkway outside the hotel will be standing room only. I wouldn't be surprised if they stay through most of the night before the concert. I'm actually a little sorry to be missing that delight, but such is life. By then the biergarten will be open, so you could spend a nice evening watching the lighters reflect off the water and hearing the plaintive call of the ringnecked teen.
Another interesting food discovery: Last night we went to a Greek restaurant nearby. (Very nice -- right on the river, with great views of the city.) They definitely put their own twist on Greek specialities -- they had rabbit kebabs. And everything came with potatos, even the things that also came with rice.
Day Eleven: The World's Worst Chinese Food
Travel Tip #1: Do not ask a German concierge for a Chinese restaurant recommendation
We wanted to find a new restaurant, as Mark at least has been to all the ones he knows several times. He remembered that there was a Chinese section of town, and that there were supposed to be some good restaurants there. He couldn't remember where this was, though, so we decided to ask the concierge. He immediately perked up and drew several "x"s on a map, all quite close together. That must be the right neighborhood, we thought. He recommended one place in particular.
Travel Tip #2: Do not go to any restaurant in Europe that isn't crowded at 9pm
We strolled for about 20-30 minutes to get to this area of town, and when we arrived we didn't see many signs in Chinese or other promising artifacts. This isn't the US, where every Chinatown is required by law to have torii gates at all the major intersections, but we expected some indication that we were in the right place. We wandered toward the "x"s, but some of them seemed to be misplaced, and the one or two vaguely oriental restaurants we saw seemed very closed. They seemed to be fast-food lunch take-out spots.
We finally did find one of the "x" restaurants, in fact the one the concierge had recommended. It didn't look great -- empty, very bright -- but it was late and they took credit (a rarety), so we went in.
Travel Tip #3: Do not order dishes that your Hong Kong-native team member doesn't recognize
The menu was in German and English, which we didn't really take as a good sign. Mark asked for a Chinese menu, to see their specialties, but they didn't seem to have one. Of course, our waiter spoke very little English, so we thought he'd just failed to understand the request. Due to some oddities of translation, some of the dishes on the menu didn't sound quite right. We could figure out some of them, but others were left with odd blanks. ("Dude with broccoli"?) With no Chinese to refer to, we ordered at random from the house specialties list. I asked for spring rolls, figuring that at least those were recognizable. Mark thought to ask how many were in an order (as the price looked rather low), and the waiter held up only one finger. We decided to get 3.
Travel Tip #4: Do not think to yourself "It must get better..."
The "spring rolls" arrived with a bang and a clatter. Each one was the size of a bread plate. They were these huge rectangular pieces of fried dough, with a filling of overcooked bean sprouts, carrots and some form of meat. The closest analogy I can think of is a soggy Hot Pocket. (Not that I've eaten one, but I've seen the commercials.) There was no resemblance of any kind to actual Chinese cuisine. We stared at these enormous, inexplicable mounds of dough for a full minute. Finally we decided to try them. They were absolutely terrible. Words cannot describe the horror. We tried the sauce that came with them, a sticky orange substance with the consistency of motor oil. That was even worse, seeming to consist solely of sugar and food coloring. Finally, we gave up and decided that perhaps the spring roll concept was fighting with the fried dough habit of German cuisine. We looked forward to the main course.
Travel Tip #5: Do not let the waiter take the rice until the last grain has been consumed
The main course arrived in stages.
Act One: A seafood pot, that was described as containing both shrimp and snowpeas. Both were sadly lacking, but we did have large lumps of soggy fried fish partially submerged in a salty broth of bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. This restaurant seems to believe that bean sprouts should always be cooked into submission, a philosophy drastially at odds with most Chinese cooking I've encountered. One wonders what person in the cook's family lost their fortune in bean sprout speculation.
Act Two: Bean curd in Szechwan sauce. Never have I seen or tasted a Szechwan sauce that contains large round black peppercorns. Nor have I encountered one with big lumps of highly spiced sausage. It was like a Jimmy Dean tofu explosion. It was not edible. I seriously believe that two different pages in a recipe book were somehow combined -- we got half bean curd in Szechwan sauce and half paella.
Act Three: Chicken in sweet and sour hot sauce. Generally I've found that one gets either sweet and sour sauce or hot sauce. Not wanting to be discriminatory (in any sense), this restaurant allows you to experience both for your dining pleasure. Pour this over soggy fried chicken bits and the inevitable overcooked bean sprouts, and you have a taste sensation. What kind of sensation I'm sure you can surmise.
As each dish arrived, we each tried a small amount. In unison, we reached for our beer glasses. With the aid of rice and Koelsch we were able to choke down a bit of each one. Finally Waseem couldn't stand it anymore and blurted out "I think the bean curd is the worst". This sparked a friendly argument over the hideousness of each one, which finally was ended by a multi-attribute weighting system. This at least distracted us long enough to pick out all the edible vegetables and eat all the rice.
Travel Tip #6: Do not be afraid to admit defeat
We paid and we left. It was all we could do to keep our most terrible comments for the street. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped first for some ice, and then for some cognac. The ice nicely got rid of the sweet-sour-hot-pepper-sausage-sticky taste we all were suffering with, and the cognac made the whole thing seem very funny.
There are several other restaurants recommended by this same concierge: Indian, Thai, and Indonesian. They actually do have a restaurant here that claims to have rijtaafel, that marvelous Amsterdam treat. I must admit to a little fear, though. I don't think I could take bratwurst satay.
Days Twelve and Thirteen: Geschlossen
Friday night we planned to drive up to Duesseldorf to go to a sushi bar. There's a fairly large Japan town there, for reasons not very well explained. Waseem and Mark wanted to drink sake, and therefore proposed taking the train up. I pointed out that I was happy to drive, so we decided to take my car. I worked rather late, so when I got back to the hotel at 7:30 they were waiting for me, drinking wine and discussing the possible reasons for a Japanese community in Duesseldorf. (Toyota plant? Sony office? Advanced Karaoke system?)
It's a 30 minute drive north to Duesseldorf. About 25 minutes in, I asked Mark where we were going -- what exit should I look for? He didn't answer immediately. Finally, "I think it's on Internationalstrasse?
International...Intercontinental...Inter something." Ah. And that would be....where? "Somewhere near the Hauptbahnhof, I think" (Hauptbahnhof = railway station)
So we follow signs for the Hauptbahnhof, and Mark keeps making encouraging noises "This looks familiar! I think..." When we finally get to the station and he hasn't actually found the famed "Intersomethingstrasse", I
take charge. I find a hotel and send Waseem in for a map and directions to the Hotel Nikko, which we know is in Japan town. He returns a few minutes later to tell us that we are only a few minutes away. It's Immermannstrasse, by the way.
We finally get to the right neighborhood just before 9, park the car, and head for the sushi bar. Given that the night before had been the Chinese food disaster, we were enthusiastic. When we got to the sushi bar, appropriately small and cramped and smoky, we were told that we needed reservations. This despite the empty chairs and the fact that Mark has been there several times without. We are reluctantly shown to a table upstairs in a small room off a hall. We are not allowed into the tatami rooms, either. Only after we are very reluctantly seated do we realize the
problem -- I am the only female patron in the joint. It's all Japanese businessmen. As I am the pariah, I then proceed to do all the uncouth things that we need, such as getting a sushi menu and a saki list from the waitstand, demanding still water, and finding the bathrooms. I am roundly ignored -- Waseem has to place my order.
The sushi is fabulous, however, and afterwards we are up for a stroll through the city. We walk down to the old town, passing by the ever-present pedestrian malls and a very nice canal. Near the Rhine in the old town, there is a district of rowdy bars and restaurants. Mark thought there were cafes where we could sit on the pavement and eat ice and drink coffee. Instead we found hundreds of drunken 25-35 year old Germans. The bars were all full, so they were standing outside drinking and singing and falling over each other (seriously). There were many broken glasses and spilled food all over the street. The restaurants on the side streets were quieter, but didn't look very good. There must have been a dozen Spanish restaurants all in a row -- paella and tapas for a mile. I've rarely heard of a city having more than one Spanish restaurant, let alone a whole block of them. Very strange. I didn't think insane amounts of Pilsner went with chorizo, but what do I know?
Having failed in our quest for dessert in the old town, and not enjoying the rowdiness and glass, we walked back toward the car. We finally saw a cafe, but when we went in they told us they were just closing. "Geschlossen" They sent us to another one, but it was also closing, "Nei, geschlossen". We passed a third (dark) on our way back to the car. It was midnight at this point, and we were getting tired. We finally decided to just go back to Koeln and get something at the hotel bar. We return to Immermannstrasse and head for the garage. In the tradition of fine cafes, it was also geschlossen.
All I could do was stare at the big metal doors, holding the car key, saying "Oh My God". Mark started sputtering and trying to translate the sign next to the large doors. Waseem, practical as ever, said "Oh well, let's get a cab!". Seemingly seconds later, we are in a cab heading for Koeln. After a nice drink in the hotel bar, the whole thing started to seem pretty funny. But we still needed to get the car back. Waseem and I agreed to meet at 10am Saturday to fetch it.
Waseem was late. Then he wanted to eat breakfast. Then we had to unpark his car, which was wedged behind a metal post in a surely physically impossible manner. 15 minutes later, with the assistance of 2 bellmen, we are on our way! It is, at this time, about noon.
By 1:00 we were firmly lost somewhere in Duesseldorf. Recall that our directions the night before had started with "somewhere near the Hauptbahnhof". Well, there are a lot of one-way streets near rail lines. Sigh. It was also pouring rain, which meant that generally we didn't see street signs until the moment we passed them. We stopped briefly at a grocery store (one of our other errands for the day). Finally at about 1:15 we found the garage again, this time blissfully open. We were in very heavy traffic, though, so when I emerged (delightedly!) with car, we had some trouble getting to the autobahn. We wound up on a road that headed to Koeln, although not quite the one we wanted. Waseem stopped at a rest stop to see if I wanted to turn around, but I refused to re-enter the black hole of Duesseldorf. That place has a magnetic quality, I swear. We made it back to the hotel safely, in spite of a ridiculous number of wrong turns, illegal U-turns, and a few stunning merges. We found dubious parking spaces and met, triumphant and tired, in the lobby. We made it!
Next, we wandered over to the city. We mostly wandered around window shopping and eating crepes. The rain came and went lightly. By 4, it was starting to lighten up and it looked clear and nice. We decided to climb the spire of the Dom. This is done by way of a stone spiral staircase, then a metal stair, then another stone spiral. The stairs are all very narrow, and naturally are two-way. There's a rail on the outer wall, but this is largely unavailable on the way up since there are large people with large backbacks constantly walking down. We climbed what we later discovered is over 30 stories of slippery stone spiral stairs -- on the inside. I was leaning into the center column and placing my feet very carefully. Unlike some stone staircases I've stupidly climbed in other old Europe monuments, this one is at least well-lit most of the way, which does help. I still recall feeling our way up the stairs in Chillon in the pitch dark, with no railings, trying not to trip over someone doing the same in the opposite direction. <shudder>
It occured to us that this would never be allowed in the States -- there would be big signs at the cashier "Do not climb if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or have a fear of heights. Not appropriate for children under 6." etc. They also would have lots of railings and lights and safety stations for resting, and probably would have closed down once it started raining. Not that the last one is a bad idea, but the rest wouldn't really be atmospheric. We kept wondering about the poor monks carrying sacks of something up these stairs in long robes with no electric light.
This was nowhere near so dark, although it was very very very tall. And, as we got toward the top, wet. The rain started up again, and spires have a nasty tendency of being open. At one point we were getting hail. So we
stood at the top, breathless and soaked, staring out into the grey sky, barely able to see to the other side of the Rhine much less to Bonn. The deck is about 35 stories up, so you generally plan on great views. All we got was a really piercing wind and some more hail. sigh We headed back down, and then back to the hotel. Squishing.
That night, we decided to find the cool part of town. A very nice man at the front desk gave us some recommendations that promised to satisfy our need for vegetables, good wine, and (largely for Waseem) trendiness. Given our luck with the concierge's recommendations so far (ref Chinese food horror), we were dubious, but decided to walk around and see what he mentioned. What we found, a scant 35 minute walk from the hotel, was the right section of town. Real people live there, and it's teeming with great restaurants. We ate in a wine store that had a small restaurant attached. No markup on wine, and the list went on for pages and pages and pages. They had a marvelous selection of eau de vie and cognac as well. And the food was edible! Sort of California cuisine -- they even had a vegetarian pasta that really was! (I've twice run into "vegetarian" pastas that have meat in them. One assumes that having non-potato vegetables as an ingredient qualifies a dish as vegetarian, regardless of other ingredients.) We were very happy. On our walk back, we stopped at a cafe for coffee and dessert -- this one was actually open -- and strolled over the bridge in a great state of calm. The car was back in the right city, we found several good restaurants, and neither of us were showing signs of Dom-induced colds. Excellent.
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