Here I am in Cologne. Again. I think it’s the most British-like place I’ve ever visited in Germany. Nice, but a bit tatty around the edges. I was last here in 2015 as I cycled from Spain to Norway. You can read my thoughts at the time – as they subsequently appeared in the book – below, but first a photographic round up of my morning stroll around the city…
Then I headed into the cathedral, cranked up the ISO on the camera to max – 1600 – and had a wander. Can’t ever remember taking a set of photographs at such a high sensitivity level. Hope the loss in quality isn’t too great. It’s difficult to tell on my phone after having uploaded from the DSLR and edited them on this small screen as I sit here in the main shopping drag of Cologne… I hope you are a fan of stained glass windows.
Here’s what I wrote about my visit in 2015. I think I was in a bad mood. Read the full account of the 8,000 km journey in Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie.
Through hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance, from a nation that lay in ruins after the war, the Germans have recreated a country that is envied by many, including me. When I think of cities that have been destroyed beyond recognition in my own lifetime – Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and, more recently, Aleppo in Syria – I take crumbs of comfort from places such as Berlin and Hamburg, which have rebuilt themselves from the rubble. And not just rebuilt themselves as second-rate versions of what they used to be; the German cities of today may lack the historical vistas of Paris or Rome, but they have been reborn as vibrant examples of economic success and cultural diversity equal to any other European city of the twenty-first century.
However… from the perspective of a touring cyclist, Germany was suffering from not being either Belgium or the Netherlands. I had become accustomed to good quality segregated cycling paths and signage that was so easy to follow it could have been designed by cyclists themselves (and probably was). Germany was a lurch back towards how cycling could often be back in Britain. Only a moderate lurch, but discernible nevertheless. There was lots of segregated cycling but in urban areas this was often along pavements where all of the obstacles that weren’t really obstacles when walking – signs, flowerpots, curbs, as well as the pedestrians – became so when cycling. In the countryside, although many roads had an adjacent cycle path, this was frequently of low quality and ravaged by tree roots or simply by time. If I chose not to use the facilities on offer, this would incite some motorists (older men in Mercedes usually) to point out my ‘mistake’ in no uncertain Teutonic terms.
As for the Rhine Cycle Route signage, it was sporadic and confusing. When it appeared, it was a marvel to behold, with small blue squares clearly pointing in the direction of the Rheinradweg 15, but then it wouldn’t appear for several kilometres and I was left with just the occasional red arrow. Was that my cycle path or one of the many others? My love of all things Germanic was being severely tested. In the kilometres north of Cologne I had to contend with large building developments requiring complicated detours, two long flights of steps, poor quality cycling paths and, to cap it all off, a group of mocking primary school kids. You know you are at a low ebb when you have become the victim of pillory by seven-year-olds.
I stopped to sit on a dilapidated bench at the southern limit of a large Bayer chemical complex. Its position sucking water from the Rhine might have been for the greater benefit of the German economy but it would mean another diversion away from the river for me. On the ground below my feet was a discarded bicycle stand and stuck to a nearby post was a home-made for sale poster for an ‘Alu City Star Like’ bicycle. By ringing the number listed and paying €150, it could be mine. I wondered if it made annoying noises like Reggie. Above my head was an inexplicable triangular green warning sign: ‘Geschützter Landschaftsbestandteil’ it stated next to an image of a black eagle, wings fully extended, gliding and looking fearsome. Was I at risk of becoming someone’s lunch? Behind me was an Aldi supermarket and above everything was a slate-grey sky.
Cycling across continents wasn’t meant to be like this. I remained on the bench for about half an hour. I could have wept for no good reason but lots of little bad ones. I sensed a Mercedes day approaching. Was I beginning to feel drained by the whole Tarifa to Nordkapp experience? Had the enormity of the task only just become apparent? Did the prospect of perspiring my way north for another 50 plus days no longer fill me with unbridled enthusiasm?
North of the chemical complex, I rejoined the path beside the Rhine and, for the first time, the urban tentacles of Cologne loosened. The banks of the river were covered in spring flowers and pretty houses jostled for the best view over the wide expanse of water. I stopped once again about an hour after my earlier melancholic moment on the bench, but this time my view couldn’t have been more different. I was sitting in a tiny café that had been built inside the control box of a disused riverside crane. It was called, unsurprisingly, the Kran Café.
I ordered a drink from the woman in charge; our lack of a common language prevented conversation, but she smiled and I reciprocated. That simple gesture seemed to say many things, none of which I could list but all of which seemed perfect for that moment. I stared out of the windows of the crane café and watched the large barges ply their trade on the river. Those heading upstream moved slowly against the prevailing direction of the water, whilst those heading downstream did so at speed. My morning had so far been very ‘upstream’, fighting against the obstacles of the urban world and the wind but also against my own mid-journey malaise. I was feeling somewhat drained and my enthusiasm was somewhat diminished.
But did I question my chances of completing the cycle from Tarifa to Nordkapp and reaching my objective? No. I knew that there was no chance of me abandoning the cycle to Nordkapp voluntarily. That said, I did need to focus on short-term objectives that would boost my enthusiasm for life on two wheels. There were, after all, plenty to choose from – including Hamburg, where I planned to take a short break from cycling to stay with friends Dominic and Annet.