When my daughter told me she was taking me to Germany for my 66th birthday (just gone), I thought it would be a bit of a blast from the past, since I lived in Germany for three years way back in the 1960s. My father served in the Royal Air Force and we lived at Rheindahlen, which was then the NATO headquarters, but I haven't been back since we left there in 1966.

We arrived on my actual birthday and there was a huge surprise waiting when we got to our room.  There had been a mix-up over my daughter's payment to the budget  Ibis Centrum Hotel, which was to be our home for three days, and to compensate, they had upgraded our room and left balloons and bunting (even though they got my age wrong, but as it made me younger, I didn't fuss about it!

Cologne cathedral 

Our first afternoon was spent getting our bearings and wandering around the city centre - which was around a 15 minute walk away from the hotel.  The first thing that struck me was that I didn't remember any of the city - despite the fact that we had spent many days and hours there and had visited lots of times. 

Obviously there has been a huge amount of building during the past 53 years - probably most of it during the 1960s as it was obvious from the design of the architecture. Clearly Cologne had been devastated during World War II - as had many English cities, and most of the rebuilding had been completed at a time when square building were the norm.

However, the beautiful and iconic gothic cathedral was one of the few buildings left standing, and stands proud and majestic in the city centre, although it is currently undergoing extensive renovation.  Finally completed in 1880, the cathedral took some 600 years to complete and was one of the most important religious sites in Europe, since it was to house the remains of the Three Kings.

The cathedral is free to enter, though there is a small charge to go up the tower - which we didn't do since I am very scared of heights and the 100m height and 533 steps was just too much for me! Interestingly I don't believe the blackened stone-work has ever been cleaned, leaving it very dark on the outside - testament to the history and the architectural significance of the building.  It is absolutely the heart of the city.

My birthday dinner was spent at my daughter's favourite restaurant - the Hard Rock Cafe - and we have to eat there wherever we travel if there is a branch!  The staff were very kind though, and brought free ice cream for us to share!

The Fragrance Museum

We had booked a visit to the Fragrance Museum, which was certainly one of the highlights for me.  At just 5 Euros, we went to the House of Farina for a tour and history of Eau de Cologne, which was quite fascinating.

Originally from Italy, the Farina family set up their business selling Eau de Cologne in the city to combat the appalling smell which we humans emit when we never wash!  Since the local water was filthy and smelly it was not used for washing, and consequently the population was also filthy and smelly and something was needed to enable people to live without a permanent bad smell!

Although the name of Eau de Cologne is French, the product came from Germany, the name endured  because all trade and nobility spoke French, which was the language of business and the upper classes.

Using essential oils, the Farina family developed a fragrance - actually stronger than today's eau de cologne - which was used by the aristocracy and rich population only, since it would cost the equivalent of 1000 Euros for a bottle at today's prices.  Bonaparte had a special compartment built into his shoes to place the glass container and reputedly went through a bottle a week.

Fainting was normal for people at events since the smell of the body odour, coupled with the strong smell of the fragrance meant many passed out when in close proximity! 

We were also treated to some little titbits of how life was like back in the 1700s - people put drops of blood and honey on cloth and hid it among their clothes - the blood to draw the fleas and lice, and the honey so that the little beasties would stick to it!

We were delighted at the end of the tour to be given a sample of that first fragrance - not as sophisticated as today's perfumes, but still quite pleasant. More modern bottles derived from that first cologne can be purchased in their on-site shop.

Incidentally 4711 was a competitor to the Farina family, which bought a licence to produce a similar product, and although the family tried to rescind the licences at a later date, and eventually succeeded in many cases, 4711 continues to this day.

Red Bus Tour

We always book a red bus tour during our city breaks, and we jumped on a bus just as the heavens opened, so that was a good choice.  However, I did find the rest of the city quite uninspiring.  Clearly many of the historic buildings no longer exist and it just seemed like any city with lots of office blocks, entertainment and sports venues and museums.  On the opposite bank to the city is Deutz - originally a separate town, but now part of the major conurbation.  It is here that you can "hop off" if you want to visit the city zoo or shop in one of the larger malls. There was also a zip wire and climbing course for the more adventurous but probably more suitable for those with older children.

We decided then to take the train to nearby Dusseldorf - another place I had often visited during my early teenage years, but again, I didn't recognise anywhere - though there is a fabulous shopping centre!  We strolled along the Rhine Promenade, but again, the view on the opposite river bank was largely flat and uninspiring. The train journey however, was exceptionally smooth, with double-decker carriages, largely on time and clean.


The Haymarket

Dinner was spent at the  X11 Apostles Restaurant in the Heymarket District which was exceptionally good.  We had searched for a gluten free restaurant as my daughter is intolerant to gluten, but sadly there is a distinct lack of GF choices on restaurant menus.  

This area housed the medieval market where merchants came to trade their cloth, leather, salt, cheese and of course hay, and forms part of the old town with its traditional buildings and local breweries.The area is very lively at night with food and drink stalls, jewellery and leather, and a live band creating a festival atmosphere.

 River Boat Cruise

For our final afternoon, we opted for a river boat trip, but I was hugely disappointed since it seemed like a kindergarten with beer!  Small children ran around while the adults drank and waitresses carrying trays of beer and chips swerved around screaming children  Since we were inside we couldn't hear any of the commentary and the upstairs outdoor area was completely full.  We had asked the guy when we got our tickets if the boat was full or if we should book another time, but he said the trips were always full, and there was only one more cruise that day.  Somehow I think they are missing a trick.  I would have loved an evening cruise with dinner when all the buildings were lit up through the city!

Incidentally the Willi Ostermann referred to on the boat  above is a famous German carnival singer and composer.

A stroll along the river bank is a must - walk around the back of the cathedral and between the museums and it is pleasant to sit and watch the world go by on a sunny day. You can also see the impressive Hohenzollern Railway Bridge spanning the Rhine, and which was largely destroyed during the war It now carries around 1200 trains each day in and out of the main railway station, although there is also a pedestrian walkway running alongside if you want to walk to the other side of the Rhine.  There are also plenty of riverside cafes and bars and some pretty old buildings in pastel shades which are extremely instagrammable!

There is certainly plenty to do - especially if you like museums - there is something to interest everyone, including for sport, art and chocolate! As one of the largest city and oldest cities in Germany, it is certainly worth a visit, but I think if I was to visit again, I would love to go in December to visit the Christmas markets! The shopping is excellent, though many of the names are to be found all over Europe, including the UK, though it was interesting to see C&A thriving here - a store which disappeared from our high street a few years ago!

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