Köln: A Christmas Feast

As we beat our way through the throng the scents assailed us. On one side there was mulled wine, calling us, tempting us. On the other side was our goal: a mingling brew of dried parsley, cooked onions and cheese. Käsespätzle. On a cold winter’s day in Cologne it was everything we needed.

Cologne in December is full. Full of people, full of Christmas, full of stalls selling an almost endless array of crap which no one needs. However, it is a higher class array of crap than I have seen in any set of Christmas markets I have ever been to. Weird and wonderful confections of metal, wood and paper; intricately formed for a variety of temporary purposes. Hanging, spinning, illuminating.

That wasn’t we went there for. The mulled wine stalls in each market were centralised. This meant that in each market there was another opportunity to avail oneself of a special edition mug. I know I could have returned the mug at the end, and got my deposit back, but I liked them too much.

One street of stalls in the market only sold candles. Some of them were as wide as beer casks, with myriad wicks poking out of their enormous faces. The scents of wax and of spice wafted through the air as we passed by. It reminded me of the smell of an old lady’s house, albeit with more sausages.

Buying a DVD player in Germany is not the easy experience I’m used to. Neither of us speak enough German to watch local TV, so we’d brought a few DVDs with us for the evenings. We assumed the flat would have a DVD player but we were wrong. We found a shop and picked out a cheap model. It was out of stock, but they’d let us have the display model. It had no remote, but that was ok. Then, straight out of the 1970s, we needed to collect a chitty from the manager, take it to the cashier, and pay. Only they did not take card – most of the stalls in the streets did – so we had to pay in cash or acquire a German bank account. We joined an interminable queue, and waited to explain it all to the bemused assistant, still unsure which decade we were in. We still have the DVD player; it’s crap.

We wanted fish. Ever since I’d had freshly fried herring sandwiches of Stockholm we have sought out fish. This market had a maritime theme, and there was a stall selling fried fish products. We queued and we queued, but service was not to be had. I don’t know whether they were ignoring us, or if we were doing something wrong, but we soon left, empty handed. Instead we found fillets of salmon cooked freshly over fiery flames. We ordered a portion, and the herring was but a distant memory.

We texted when we were on our way in, but we were still unsure. We knew where the apartment was, and how to get there, but we did not know who we were supposed to be meeting. He was the boyfriend of the woman we were renting the apartment from – the woman who still lived in the apartment, and slept at her boyfriend’s when she was letting it out – but we did not know who we were looking for. Weighed down with luggage and uncertainty, we pushed our way through crowds of revellers, enjoying the markets. And then a mountain sized man called out my partner’s name.

The staircase was tight, dark and scary. We were climbing floor after floor of this ancient building, following a man we had only just met. We weren’t sure how far to push our trust, or whether we were walking in to our doom. The stuttering language barrier hardly helped matters. He told us not to tell anyone that we were staying there, that if anyone asked we were staying with our friend. We were told this a number of times, before handing over a wad of notes in exchange for a set of keys.

The following day, the darkness of this ancient stairwell would lead us to fail to spot the difference between a light switch and a doorbell. Was that movement we heard in there? Panic! Run!

The gingerbread stall was a marvel to behold. The products were largely the same as any other stall of its ilk, but this one had a specialism: tins. They sold their wonderful biscuits in decorative tins of all shapes and sizes: robot tins, car tins, picture tins, map tins, tins of tins and towers of tins.

Across the square, through a bustling market, seemingly built of lights, was a traditional brew house. Legend has it that staff in such places are ridiculously rude, distributing local beer whether you want it or not. That was not our experience, as we gorged on huge legs of ham, chicken schnitzel and sauerkraut: the staff were very pleasant, and we could have managed far more beer than we were given. The sound of joy and laughter fluttered up from the square below; it was utterly infectious.

We were there for the food and the light. The light of the markets, warding off the encroaching winter, was a blanket, covering square after street after square with warmth. Beyond the light felt wrong, as if terror lurked in the shadows. We rushed from market to market, from food stall to food stall, feasting on the wares we found. Raclette cheese scraped on to garlicky bread; stubby noodles draped in melted mountain cheese; hot, firm sausages, crunchy and heavy with mustard. We ate well.

The parts of the city which weren’t festooned with Christmas were dull. The sky was to blame: grey and unrelenting. Dim light, cast on beautiful buildings, robbed the world of warmth. Half-timbered buildings, bright stucco alleys, concrete utilitarianism. An appropriate vernacular for a living city.

Out of the apartment window we could see people gathering by a hole in the wall. They emerged brandishing pizzas. After an evening enjoying the local beers – highly recommended, by the way – we were in the mood for something filthy to eat. We pulled on pyjamas, grabbed the key and ran for it. The men preparing the pizza laughed at the drunk Englishers, but what they gave us was heaven.

The cruise along the Rhine was undersubscribed. We wended our wobbly way through countryside around Köln, turned around and went back. It made for a most diverting way to spend an afternoon.

We didn’t really know what we were buying, except that we’d ordered two of them, and they were different flavours. I think they were bread; they were not pizzas; they were tasty. Ham and cheese, herbs and onions, on top of a crispy bottomed round of fatted bread. The second was sweet, though lord knows why. They made a tasty breakfast, and we pushed on, back in to the morning crowds.