Get me to Germany as soon as Possible

Yesterday morning’s high speed train soon left Iberia behind for the remainder of this trip (sorry Portugal) and crossed into France, however, once we reached Perpignan it developed a fault and we sat around listening to apologetic announcements for over an hour. Not being on any particular deadline, I worked through the morning and then dozed into Paris, Gare de Lyon by the mid afternoon. I don’t like the “Grand Lignes” stations at the best of times but navigating my way by Metro from Gare de Lyon to Gar de L’Est during the rush hour while carrying a large backpack was tantamount to sticking a “pickpockets welcome” sign on my back.

Nor had I reckoned with the queues of discombobulated French people trying to buy tickets from a row of shiny new automatic machines. With some difficulty I managed to purchase the single ticket needed for my connecting journey and then clutched it carefully as I struggled with a series of barriers, underground corridors and platform changes. One wrong turn might have propelled me out onto the street, thereby invalidating my “billet” and leaving me to start the whole process all over again. Gare de l’Est is the one with the fancy paintings that they show in all the films but that wasn’t going to help me today. I got to the booking office to be told that no seat reservations were available for an onward journey going either North or East. “Nothing? What about going through the Netherlands?” Madame tapped at the keyboard and shook her head. “Hmmm….aha, what about Cologne at 0609 tomorrow morning?” “I’ll take it!”

There had been no plan to visit Paris on this trip because I have always had in the back of my mind to leave Versailles until Her Majesty’s reign finally outlast that of the Sun King, so what was I going to do? Five hours on Madrid Station was just about bearable but twelve on Gare du Nord? Unthinkable. No I wasn’t lost: Gare du Nord is only a couple of hundred meters from Gare de l’Est and, as dirty and forbidding as this part of Paris is these days, it wasn’t yet getting dark. What would any other self-respecting grandmother do? I just switched on the google locater and asked for the nearest hostel. St Christopher’s was just around the corner and there I found a safe, clean bed for the night even if extras such as laundry (which I could manage without) and spare toothbrushes (serves them right for forgetting) were exorbitant.

After quite a fight with the night porter to get a cup of hot water for tea as I was too early for the “free breakfast”, I made my way through the filthy streets to Gare de Nord where a thimbleful of coffee set me back 2.5 euros but my seat on the Thalys Express to Germany via Brussels Midi and Liege (sorry Holland, sorry Luxembourg) was waiting for me. Three hours later I was in Cologne, where the railway station is situated in the heart of the old city in the shadow of the old cathedral. But, “grazie a Paris”, I had no onward bookings so the first order of business had to be a visit to the booking office.

Oh God, how I love Deutsch Bundeswagon; it employs human beings and friendly, helpful, English speaking ones at that. “Where would Ms Interrail Ticket like to go? Copenhagen? If she can leave as early as 1309 she can have a seat on the express via Hamburg. How much? Five euros and fifty cents.” Several people looked around at my loud snort of disbelief. RENFE (Spain) & SNCF (France) have been charging me upwards of 20 euros for reservations on fast trains so it obviously really pays to go Deutsch. It only remained to check my luggage into a locker and set out for my three hour mini-tour of the city centre.

An English version of the cathedral guide explains that although it was begun in 1248, the whole edifice took over six hundred years to build and boasts the largest church facade ever built. I must admit to becoming a little sceptical at all these record holders but it’s certainly a neck-stretcher. Although much of the surrounding city was bombed to oblivion during WW2, the superlative work of those medieval architects meant that the greater part of this building remained standing amongst the rubble. Repairs, however, continue to this day. I took the whistle-stop tour: light a candle and proceed straight to the 10th Cent. wooden Crucifix of Gero, 12th Cent. gilded shrine of the Magi, 15th Cent. Altarpiece of the City’s Patron Saints and the South transept window, designed by Gerhard Richter in 2007. The latter was designed colours chosen by a random number generator and I overhead a guide explaining that it has its detractors as well as its admirers but, far from being out of keeping with its surroundings, I thought it harmonised with the dark interior rather better than the eye-watering Gaudi windows of the day before yesterday.

There are two perfume houses with museums open to the public in Cologne and I was determined to visit at least one of them. Directions from the tourist office sent me to the House of Farina, founded in 1709 by an Italian whose delicate blend of orange and lemon oils with just a touch of spice became all the rage amongst the aristocracy of Europe within no time at all. Of course they had an awful lot of bad smells to contend with in those days but the claim for the formulation’s effectiveness in warding off the plague had some grains of truth in it. Citrus oils such as citronella actually deter the fleas that spread such diseases and are used in insect repellents to this day.

As it happened, you would have thought that I was the bad smell that walked into Casa Farina from the way the “vendeuse” looked at me when I asked about visits to their museum. Apparently  one was expected to book in advance and anyway there would not be a tour in English until 4pm. This rail-thin lady may have been German but she was obviously channelling many generations of Frenchwomen with her jet-black hair, “Mon Rouge” lipstick and impenetrable “froideur”. Not to be defeated, I made my way to 4711 Glockengasse, where the more durable, if rather less exclusive, Kolnisch Wasser has been produced since 1799. There, I had barely time to snap pictures of exquisitely decorated blue and gold interior and several showcases of exhibits while the friendly staff assured me that I would be able to find the full story on line. But not the secret recipe, of course.

So now I’m back on the train and on to my next destination. I’ve just had a message telling me I’ve used up too much mobile roaming data so I’ll have to go back to some more conventional methods of navigation and save the app for emergencies

Categories: Europe

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