a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle
Sun, 24 Sep 2006
At about half past two yesterday, I left Brussels by train, headed for Berlin, via Cologne. Eventually the Belgian farms gave way to gently sloping hills, and then the train crested the slope and descended into the Maas Valley towards Liège, or Luyck, or Lüttich, depending on who you talk to, before crossing the border at Aachen, through pretty wooded country. At some point I fell asleep and woke up just as the train was getting into Köln.
European rail stations seem to be pretty much all of one or two kinds, and Köln's was the most typical, a series of low-ceilinged passageways, with stairs or escalators leading up to the platforms, pretty much rammed with people of every description scurrying in all directions, or else blocking traffic while they peer through travel-worn bloodshot eyes at the departure monitors, with the constant background rush of people chattering over the incomphrehensible overhead announcements made in three or four languages.
I had an hour or so before the next train to Berlin, so I made my way in the direction of the signs indicating "Centre - Dom," thinking to myself, "Dom, is that palace, like the royal palace in Dam Square in Amsterdam, or is it like the Rigas Dom in the heart of Riga, which would mean..."
And then I stepped outside. Holy crap. Apparently, "Dom" in German (and probably Latvian as well) means cathedral. Now, ordinarily, a tourist gets the runaround, because this is profitable. You get out of the train station in some dumpy part of town and have to board some overpriced bus or hire a piratical driver who doesn't apparently speak any language in particular to take you halfway across creation to see the local historical sights, except that instead they first take you to some gift shop owned by a cousin filled with similarly overpriced tat you don't want and don't have room for in your baggage anyway, but, no, this is not the way in Cologne. These Germans are efficient. No doubt when the Deutches Bahn laid the rails into town, they said to themselves, "Now why in his right mind would anyone come here?" and then, with practical and pure Teutonic abruptness, they plunked the crazy Köln Hauptbahnhof right down next to the cathedral.
Oh, yes, the cathedral. You get a peek through the windows of the train station but it might as well be an alien spaceship parked in the square. Then you come through the doors, out into the air, and it takes your breath away. This is a Gothic cathedral to make any Goth proud, a hundred feet high or more, all pointed arches and flying buttresses and rosette windows and saintly statuary guarding every entrance and all kinds of baroque whatnot. This is a cathedral that took 600 years to build. This is a cathedral that gets picked first when the other cathedrals choose up teams. This cathedral is not screwing around. I wonder exactly how it managed to avoid getting destroyed in the war. And you don't get to approach it with from a distance, with appropriate reverence, either; no, you come out of the train station as you are, bloodshot and travel-worn, a child of God, and there it is. Like a proper tourist, I took some photos.
(For those of you who prefer to let God provide in times of need, there is even a kiosk at the ground floor on the outside of the cathedral that sells photographic film.)
The other major attraction of Cologne as far as I could tell from the hour that I spent there is that it was in classical times a outlying Roman city of some importance. Indeed, like that of the English town of Lincoln, the name Cologne or Köln, or whatever you like to call it, is apparently cognate with our modern English word colony. There is in fact a Romanisch-Deutscher Museum out back of the cathedral which I would someday love to come back and visit, but there wasn't time on this trip.
A word about these German trains: The Deutches Bahn is for serious. The trains are ninja quiet, immaculately clean, and they run up to 250 km/h (~150 mph). There are smoking and non-smoking carriages, a cafe car, power in some of the seats for laptops and so on, garbage bins neatly divided into trash and three kinds of recyclables, little LCD readouts over every seat telling you whether the seat is reserved or not, and if so, for which leg of the journey, a totally separate compartment for families with kids (one assumes this is for the sake of the other passengers) and the whole thing, Brussels to Berlin, a crow-flies distance of 650km, cost me €125, and that's only because I bought it on the spot.
When the train pulled into Wuppertal, the conductor got on the overhead and informed us in a deeply contrite voice that they wished to apologize because the train was arriving at the station approximately four minutes late. Four minutes! Take that, Amtrak.
Wuppertal appears at first glance to be a typical sleepy German industrial town, except... wait, what's that thing hanging over the river? At first glance it appears to be some kind of exotic barge loading equipment, a long metal spine supported about ten or so meters above the river by huge metal legs. Except that it goes on kilometers. Is this some gigantic skeletal millipede marching down the river Wupper, eating small water craft and demanding bridge tolls? No, it's the Einschienige Hängebahn System Eugen Langen! What else could it be? The BBC's h2g2 has this to say about the Schwebebahn Wuppertal:
The first thing you should do after arriving in Wuppertal is to go and have a look at the Schwebebahn. This is a kind of tram hanging down from rails which are mounted about ten metres above Wuppertal's river Wupper. Literally translated, Schwebebahn means 'Floating Railway' which is exactly the last thing it actually does. Instead it is a rattling monstrosity that carries some 50,000 people per day from point A to point B while making as much noise as possible.
First thing? Heck, it might be the only thing. Wikipedia has more to say about the Schwebebahn Wuppertal, including that it's been in operation since 1901 (!), that construction involved 19k tons of steel, that it's been modernized since 2004, including rebuilding one of the stations was destroyed in the war, and blah blah blah. It's the strangest looking monorail I've ever seen in my life, and if you've ever ridden the thing, email me and tell me what it's like.
After Wuppertal, I slept through Hagen, Hamm, and Bielefeld, and woke up at dusk in some place that looked for all the world like Fresno, California, or more precisely, like Chico. I say Fresno or Chico, and not perhaps Kansas, only because I could still see some hills to the south. A long straight road intersects with the tracks at grade. In the distance, I can see a line of automobile headlights along a similarly straight road. WTF?
Apparently this is the outskirts of Hannover, and I must say I was disappointed because after years of associations of the name "Hanover" with the British monarchy and Pennsylvania German food like Snyder's (of Hanover) pretzels, I expect Hannover to come across as something more than a strong contender for Dullest Major City in Germany. The only thing of note in the town that I could see from the train is a sinister looking tower not far from the Hbf. with the Volkswagen logo facing in four directions, and the legend "Nutzfahrzeug" underneath. Nutzfahrzeug, indeed.
After Hannover, there is even less to look at apparently, so I didn't mind that it got dark. The train really hit speed and did the last 250km in an hour flat, and by 9pm the train and I slid noiselessly into Berlin Hauptbahnhof...
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