Thursday, July 31, 2014

Desolate Dusseldorf and Kool Koln (7/26 - 7/29)


This post is yet another late one, a few days behind schedule, and for that I apologize--we didn't have Internet access in Venice, and we were in such a rush to get out of Germany that I didn't write the post up before we left. Now that I am sitting comfortably in Sorrento, Italy, I hope to finish out the last couple days strong and write up all the remaining posts before we leave for DC.


Last time you checked in, we had gotten up at an unfortunately early hour, headed from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. The bus ride went off without a hitch, and we were able to find our flight and board in the Barcelona airport without a problem.

Well, when we arrived in the Dusseldorf airport in north-west Germany, we knew something had changed. We could feel it in the air, pressing down around us in the smog, and in the silence of the airport, broken only occasionally and never intentionally (involuntary sneezes, dropping of plates, the occasional cough of a baby that didn't know better--that sort of thing).

We had arrived in Germany.

There were no customs officers to greet us, or even customs at all. The customs office simply said, "Temporarily Closed", and we walked around it, and into Germany.

Now, in France, Italy, Spain, etc. the signs in the airports are in the native language of the country, the languages of the surrounding countries, and usually English. Each sign has a long list of translations in italics under it (the record goes to Marco Polo airport in Venice, with five). This is not the case in Germany. Even though it borders several distinct, unique countries with their own languages, the signs in the German airports are in two languages: German and English. That's it. If you don't speak one of those, then too bad. While it was unfortunate for some of our fellow passengers, it was great for us, because it cut our travel time in the airport in half--no searching through long lists of instructions for where to go or how to get to the train station, because we could just read the signs and move on.

But as we read the signs and burrowed deeper and deeper into the airport, searching for the train station, we started to notice something, and started to feel uneasy. It was nothing particular, nothing you could put your finger on, exactly. It was in the way that people hurried by, their eyes on the ground, lips tightly closed. It was in the way that children spoke in hushed tones to their parents, and their parents only nodded or frowned in reply. It was in the way no music played, and shopkeepers simply sat behind the counter and stared out into the airport. Something was off.

But whatever else may be said about Germany, let this also be said: the Germans know how to do public transportation. We stood at the platform, expecting a train at 12:11. At 12:10, the train silently pulled up, the whoosh of air and the muffled beeping of the doors opening the only sound that alerted us that it had arrived. Tickets into the city cost two and a half euro, and then we were off. Inside the train, it was silent, and the only person speaking was a young boy, probably seven years old, who was whispering occasionally into his mother's ear. The train itself was, of course, silent and fast. In twenty minutes we were there, so we stepped off the train, walked 50 meters up the street, and arrived at where we were staying. It was, by FAR, the easiest, most efficient, and fastest travel we have experienced yet.

Our host was waiting inside to meet us.

Before I post the pictures of where we were staying, I should explain something: this is not the place we originally were going to stay. We had selected a nice little flat near the main train station in Dusseldorf, something small and tidy with a tiny kitchen. It was close to the city center, and above all, cheap. After confirming her availability and collecting her deposit, our host told us that she had made a mistake, and had already promised that room to two Chinese exchange students who had contacted her personally (not through AirBnB), and had mixed up the reservations due to their being in different systems. She offered to place us in her other property, a two-bedroom-full-kitchen-study-library-patio-living-room-dining-room space, for the same price.

The same price? Nearby? Easy to get to? We said yes.

And this is what greeted us, when we came through the door, into the foyer, and looked left. That bottle there, on the table, is labeled "APOLLINARIS // the queen of table waters". I did not know they made water especially for tables, and this distressed me a little bit. To the right, out of the frame, is a strangely-placed TV. It is only watchable if you sit on the hideous loveseat and look so far to the left you are almost looking behind you, or if you are sitting sideways on the loveseat.

Through the first room was a study/library, stocked with random books that appeared to either be leather-bound tomes that contained census information or something equally boring, guides to every city in Germany except Dusseldorf, or New-Age crystal healing manuals. Wooden bowls with complimentary crystals broke the monotony of the books, which, strangely, were almost entirely in English.

Past that were two bathrooms, right next to each other, and decorated completely differently from one another. Both smelled of mold, and there Sarah and I started to again feel the buzz and the prickly feeling on the back of our necks that told us that something weird was going on in Dusseldorf.

We moved on to the kitchen, where the dishwasher was running. According to our host, a group of four British travels had left four days ago, three days early for them, claiming the rooms "weren't good enough for them". They had left a bunch of dirty dishes that our host had only just discovered/remembered (it is unclear which) when she came to meet us, and had stuffed in the dishwasher right before we arrived.

Not pictured is the floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets filled with 500-600 glass figurines of various animals, arranged in order of color (to the left). Also not pictured is the inside of the cabinets, which held several plates, several bowls, six cookie sheets, and literally 60-70 cups. Also not pictured is the inside of the oven, in which we found all the cookware, pots and pans and trays, blackened with soot and greasy to the touch, and smelling of something burnt and rotting. Also not pictured is the inside of the fridge, which contained three bottles of wine, two packages of cream cheese, an apple juice so thick we were worried it might be German applesauce, and a single beer.

All of this, of course, we discovered later, once our host had left, and we did not touch it or disturb it, lest we wake some sort of evil spirit. It is unclear which part of this was due to our host, and which part was due to the former guests. We did not want to find out.

Opposite the living room pictured above was this tasteful room, the second bedroom. It was really more of an alley or a hallway that led to the patio, but it was furnished in all manner of jungle-themed things nonetheless. In the picture, I am standing with my back very close to the other side of the room, which was dominated by a huge, black cabinet. We did not open it. Behind me is the doorway to the patio, a grey stone area with a small table, two folding chairs, and an ashtray. But we did not go on the patio, because we did not go in the Jungle Room, because of this:

Yes, that is a life-size mannequin hiding in the corner of the Jungle Room, behind the door. When I first walked by the room and saw it, I jumped and hissed like a frightened cat. I was certain someone had invaded the apartment while our host was showing us around and was waiting for her to leave to pounce. Once I saw it was a lifeless doll, I felt even more uncomfortable. When I had calmed down a bit and asked our host why the mannequin was there, she just flashed me a pointy grin and said, "There will be two women in the house tonight!" and laughed and laughed and laughed.

We shut that door and never opened it again. I considered secretly moving the mannequin to the hallway in the night to play a prank on Sarah, but when I had steeled myself and placed my hand on the doorknob, this chill came over me, and this feeling of fear so intense that it sat in my belly the whole night, and I can still feel an echo of it now, writing this. So I turned on every light in the house and sat up for a while, and never played the prank.

In all of this, Sarah and I never thought the place wasn't nice. In fact, we thought it was incredibly generous of our host to offer us the space for a tiny fraction of the price she would have been renting it for to someone else. It was just... very strange, and uncomfortable. We felt very out of place.

So we decided to leave immediately and walk around the city.

The trouble was that there wasn't much of a city to walk around in. As opposed to Paris and Barcelona, Dusseldorf does not have any ancient tourist sites or historical points of interest, the museums were all closed (it was Sunday), and most of the shops were, too.

This is a picture from Konigsallee, the long park-like sprawl of high-ends clothing stores that is Dusseldorf's main attraction. We looked up things to do in Dusseldorf, and even on their official, government-run tourism site, the only attractions they mention are within a ten-minute walk of each other, in the north-west of the city, the only portion of the city that does not fall under the categories of Residential, Industrial, Trains, or Sad.

Because it was sad. We took a wrong turn, initially, on our way to Konigsallee, and ended up going around it to the north to check out some parks we saw on the map. But everywhere we went was grey and desolate, and graffiti covered every available surface. The doors were all closed, and trash blew down the streets like tumbleweeds. Strangest of all, there was no one there. In our forty-minute walk from HuttenstraBe (sorry, German-speakers, for this poor representation and for missing all the umlauts--Blogger's simple interface doesn't let me put in special characters, and the Internet here is not great, so I don't want to waste a lot of time by slogging through the complex interface), we saw maybe fifty other pedestrians. That's a little more than one per minute. We even went minutes at a time without seeing anyone, only the occasional car or an empty bus. It felt like a ghost town.

But when we finally reached Konigsallee, it was quiet. People were there, walking up and down the promenade that was stuffed only with expensive stores (not a charming cafe or even a restaurant that served German food to be found) like Gucci, Prada, Escada, etc., but no one spoke. They only walked and looked in the windows. It felt like everyone was there just to wait, before they moved on to somewhere else.

Konigsallee was quite beautiful, though, in a modern sort of way. The trees were tall and straight and waved in the breeze, and the long pool was calm and the fountains were fresh. The weather was very pleasant. Just like our lodgings, we felt as though we should like it, but didn't, or couldn't somehow. Dusseldorf was the only city we visited that felt grey under a sunny sky.

The next day, we decided to abandon Dusseldorf. We just couldn't take another day of the grey silence. The day before we had gone to the grocery store and picked up food for our three days there (food for both of us for three days cost a little over 30 euro, a great deal compared to the expensive prospect of eating out), so we packed some lunches and headed to the train station to see what we could find.

First of all, we found the people. It seemed that all of the people that had been hiding in Dusseldorf were camped out in the train station, and walking through the main station (Dusseldorf Hbf, where "Hbf" stands for "Hauptbahnhof", because that's too long to put on signs) was the only time when I felt like the city was alive.

So, despairing of Dusseldorf, we fled to nearby Cologne on the glorious German trains. Immediately after exiting the main train station (pictured above), we were greeted with this:

Bam. Cathedral. Right there. In your face.

Closer up view of one of the side wings, which looked to be taller and wider than the main entrance to Notre Dame.

We were really not expecting this, coming from Dusseldorf, so we spent a long time admiring the outside before we even realized we could just walk in and it would be interesting.

There were no lines here, and no waiting. Cologne is not especially notable for tourism, but the place was packed.

In my eyes and Sarah's, the Cologne Cathedral is both more beautiful, more impressive, and more awe-inspiring than Notre Dame in Paris, but we had never even heard of it. That might make us bad travelers, but it also meant that we were surprised when we stepped out into the sunlight (already sunnier than Dusseldorf), and remained awestruck by this magnificent building for our whole time in Cologne.

And Cologne was nice. We really enjoyed ourselves. The weather was great, there were friendly people about, and Cologne was interesting.

We just walked around and found cool stuff all day, including a sweet park, some dogs, some chocolate, more dogs, fountains, huge churches, twisty streets with no cars, German culture, pretzels, and this bar. Then, like moths drawn to a flame or a toddler drawn to cake, we returned to the cathedral.

Just look at this thing.

Isn't that amazing?

Isn't she beautiful?

The cathedral, I mean.

For reference, this is a 1:1 scale model of the fancy spikey thing at the top of the two main spires. It's five times my height. I cannot convey with words the smallness that this thing instills in you. It is truly amazing.

So later that night, we boarded the Glorious German Train again and headed back to Dusseldorf. The next morning, we packed up, said goodbye to the Mannequin From Beyond the Shadows, and headed to another place down the street, a cute and quiet little room that was clean, neat, tastefully decorated, and thankfully small. We had one more day to spend in Dusseldorf, so we tried to make the most of it.

We headed to the Cafe Heinemann on Martin-Luther-Platz, just off Konigsallee, which is billed as "The Pope's Favorite Pastry Shop" on the Dusseldorf website. There's photos of the Pope (Benedict XVI, not Francis) shaking hands with everyone and eating cake and stuff. It's actually a really troubling (to me, at least) exhibit on the commercialization of religious authority, but according to the website, it is a must-visit if you're in Dusseldorf, because it is so good that the mouthpiece of God on Earth chooses to eat the cookies they make here.

Yeah, it's pretty bad. We paid nine euro for a piece of dry cake and two glasses of water. Then we bailed.

We were almost accosted by a short German who I think wanted to sell us more over-priced and over-cooked baked goods, but we managed to give him the slip.

And left Dusseldorf for good. Cologne was nice, but we were glad to see the last of Dusseldorf when we boarded the GGT and headed for the airport.


Thanks for reading. Stop by tomorrow night to hear about Venice. Miss everyone at home, and looking forward to coming home. Lots of love from across the Atlantic.

Hi, Chelsea.

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