Only 3 hours away from Paris with the Thalys is a corner of Germany I did not have the opportunity to explore until now. So I packed for a one week trip through the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, or at least through a few of its prominent cities outside of the Rhur area.
I made a selection, but there are still 58 pictures in this article.
My first stop was Cologne. I arrived right after the carnival and the city was still cleaning itself from its joyfully messy festivities. Sticky streets and broken glass bottles everywhere.
First thing you can’t miss arriving in Cologne is the enormous Gothic cathedral which stands right outside the main station. As soon as the morning fog started to fade away, I climbed the many stairs of the south tower. Looking towards East, on the left of the cathedral roof you can see a part of the train station and the rails crossing the Rhine on the Hohenzollern bridge. On the right is the Ludwig Museum, a museum of modern art.
Looking south is the recognizable shape of the Groß Sankt Martin Church, surrounded by the older part of town.
The center has been bombed flat during WWII and calling a part of it « old » is always exaggerated. Some parts have been reconstructed identical, but most of the center is now a modern city which makes the two main pedestrian streets look like a shopping mall.
Looking West is the new neighborhood of mediapark with its lonely skyscraper and the TV tower Colonius.
The city hall has a very nice old octagonal tower from the XVth century, rebuilt after the war.
The city center was surrounded by a series of walls from the Roman and medieval eras. Some little hints remain like the gate of the Rudolf Platz. The carnival obviously went through it.
The Mediapark area is a modern corner of the city. It looks like the cathedral is not far and is reflecting on the glass building, but it’s only a clever painting.
On my way back to the center, I stumbled upon this strange sculpture of a golden car with wings. Even if there are bicycles everywhere, cars are still at the center of German culture.
The Hohenzollern bridge is a popular walk for both locals and tourists and is full of love locks. From there you overlook the Rhine riverside which is a pleasant promenade too.
The bridge leads to the Deutz neighborhood which offers the nicest views on the city skyline. You can recognize from previous pictures from left to right: the city hall tower, the Groß Sankt Martin, Colonius and the cathedral.
The cathedral main facade is at its best before sunset, when the golden light softens the very dark stones.
I was hosted by a really friendly couple of travelers. They were back from a 2 years bicycle trip from Europe to New-Zealand and had plenty of stories to tell. They let me borrow one of their old bike the next day so I could tour the city parks that form a green belt around Cologne, as well as the Rhine riverside.
The green belt stretches especially in the South and West of the city and there are nice forests and ponds there. I cycled back to the center through the Colonius and Mediapark area.
Then I visited the chocolate museum and followed the Rhine several kilometers upstream before riding back. It was a really pleasant journey through the modern harbor area and also along the beach.
Here is a quick map of my bicycle ride in the surroundings of Cologne.
The next day I left for Bonn, former capital city of the Federal Republic of Germany. The train ride between Cologne and Bonn is only 17 minutes.
Bonn is a lot smaller than Cologne and has a very different atmosphere. It looks richer with a lot of big houses and its center is really compact around 3 pleasant squares.
I walked West to the Poppelsdorf castle and its nice botanic garden. It was still early to find much interest in the botanic garden even if the weather was again very sunny and warm enough, but the place is really pleasant and peaceful.
I went on to the West up to the hill of the Kreuzberg Kirche. A baroque church with strange stairs inside instead of the usual flat interior.
I expected more views towards the city center from this hill, but the forest is too dense for that.
On the way back to town I stopped in the very interesting Landesmuseum. It hosted an exhibit of old photographs and I already saw part of it because they were borrowed from the Albert Khan museum in Boulogne. I liked the modern building with its wood and glass facade.
The most well-known kid from Bonn is the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. There are several statues of him scattered around the city. I didn’t visit his birthplace house but it seemed to be what tourists usually do because, without asking anything, that’s the only thing that the tourist office pointed out on the city map I took.
I don’t know exactly the difference between a Dom and a Münster. But the main church in Bonn is a Münster, not a Dom (cathedral) like in Cologne.
The most prominent building in Bonn is the university which is right in the center too. You can spot the Münster tower on the left.
The Rhine is also flowing through Bonn and the city stretches along it on several kilometers. In the southern part of the city are the two skyscrapers from the Post and UN and on the left you can barely distinguish the first hills of the romantic Rhine.
Among the center’s squares, the one in front of the city hall was one of the most pleasant.
I met my hosts in Bonn in the evening and we had a delicious dinner together. As it was the beginning of a very sunny weekend, we decided to go for a bike tour the next day along the Rhine and the Ahr valley.
South of Bonn starts the romantic part of the Rhine. Surrounded with hills and cliffs on each sides, sometimes topped with a ruin , the river flows in a sinuous way. Above the village of Königswinter are the ruins of Drachenfels and on the left the XIXth century castle Drachenburg.
Then we crossed the village of Unkel which has nice timbered houses.
On the other bank is the Appolinaris Kirsche. As you can see, the traffic stays busy on the Rhine.
A few kilometers further, we crossed a second village with timbered houses called Erpel. From there we crossed the Rhine to Remagen.
We crossed the Rhine on a ferry because the bridge that once linked both villages collapsed at the end of WWII and had never been rebuilt. I had never heard about this bridge before but I just saw the movie Monuments Men and there is a short passage in Remagen where you can spot the bridge in the background.
Under the cliffs of the Erpeler Ley you can still see today the piles of the bridge.
From Remagen we rode up the Ahr valley until the very well preserved village of Ahrweiler which reminded me a lot the wine route in Alsace. There were many tourists enjoying like us ice creams in the sun (first ice cream of the year), and buying also wine because the Ahr valley (Ahrtal) is also locally called red wine valley (Rotweintal).
After the village, the valley was getting narrower and we finally saw the vineyards, very impressively stacked against the steep hills.
The bicycle path followed an old railway tunnel and we stopped right after it in Mayschoß.
Here is a map of the ride.
We went back to Bonn by train and after leaving my hosts I took another train to Düsseldorf in the evening, only one hour away.
The capital of the Land North Rhine-Westphalia was a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t really on my route when I first thought about this trip in Germany but I don’t regret visiting this vibrant city.
I met my host upon arrival there and we went for a tour (on bikes again) to see what Düsseldorf had to offer on a Saturday night. I tried to take night pictures, but it was difficult to maintain focus. So here is the one that is okay. On the other side, the TV tower (Rheinturm) has lights that make a giant clock, supposedly the largest digital clock in the world.
After this first glimpse of the city we went on with what we can call a pub crawl in the Altstadt.
Sunday was the hottest day of this week in Germany, over 20°C. So I toured the city on the bike I borrowed from my host and he accompanied me for some time.
The Altstadt has some old buildings and a very lively pedestrian area.
South of the Altstadt is the modern neighborhood called the Media Harbor. And in between stands the Rheinturm. I went on the observation deck, 168m high, which gives very impressive views over the city. You can guess how great the weather was by the number of people lying in the grass.
On the other side is the Media Harbor.
This part of the city as really outstanding buildings and I enjoyed riding around the area.
The most famous buildings are the three dancing houses by architect Frank Gehry.
The « city gate » is also a very modern trapeze shaped building with a very large atrium which allows you to see through it.
The most famous street of Düsseldorf is the Königs Allee, or Kö, because of its luxury shops. I didn’t really like it despite the canal in its center that makes it a nice walk. But there are here also some interesting new buildings.
Later that day we rode to the remote Kiefern Strasse in which every single building is painted, making the all street a piece of art. A nice dicovery I wouldn’t have done without my host to show me the way.
Then we had dinner in a typical Düsseldorfer Brauhaus. Perhaps the most german meal I had this week.
The next morning I left for the next and last city of this trip: Aachen, more well-known for French people under the name Aix-la-Chapelle.
Aachen looks very different from the cities along the Rhine. Here, there is no river to open the city and the center is really compact with winding streets and a bit hilly because it lies at the northern limit of the Eifel mountains. So this makes the city a bit disorientating.
The main sight in Aachen is its cathedral. Charlemagne built an octagonal basilica first and over the centuries there were additions that make the cathedral a very unique building today.
The building is really worth a visit. It is an important pilgrimage destination in Germany and there are a few relics like clothes from the Christ and the Virgin and also the throne of Charlemagne made from marble stones from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. So that makes a lot of priceless holy items. The cathedral experienced major restorations since the 80s and is now splendid for celebrating Charlemagne’s death 1200th anniversary this year.
The city hall is also an interesting building adapted from the medieval castle.
At a corner of the city hall there is still a medieval inn, the Postwagen.
From its fortifications, Aachen has still a couple of standing gates.
The theater looks like a Greek temple.
I walked all day around the center and went up on the Lousberg, a small hill north of the city center. This is the only place where you have a view over the city. You can see the city hall with the cathedral behind it and the gate a bit left in the back.
I met my host, an enthusiastic new couchsurfer, in the evening and we had diner out with friends. I didn’t pay attention to that during the day, but next to the Elisenbrunnen fountain, one of the most prominent sign of the thermal activity in Aachen, it doesn’t smell good because of the sulfur concentration of the water.
The last day of my trip, I decided to go for a hike outside of Aachen (I bought a hiking map earlier in Cologne while spending too much time in the giant outdoor shop Globetrotter). Despite its 240 000 inhabitants, Aachen is really compact and you are pretty quickly in the forest.
I walked for two hours until I reached the Dreiländereck: the border point between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Unfortunately it was foggy and I didn’t had any views over the city in the morning.
I also reached another impressive landmark, located just 50m away: the highest point of the Netherlands (at least continental Netherlands). That’s 322.5m high, so you imagine how tough it was to climb up there.
Otherwise, the hike was mostly in the forest, with at some point a TV tower that emerged suddenly out of the trees like a giant UFO. It seems german have a thing for TV towers. By the way, Düsseldorf Rheinturm, with a 240m height, is only the 10th highest TV tower in Germany.
As you would expect, I made a map for this hike.
I took a Thalys back to Paris in the evening to end this German week. This was a great week with a terrific weather for March. My colleagues were a bit surprised to see my tan (Really? You’ve been to Germany?). I met great people there that were very friendly and hospitable and I have to thank them because they are for a large part responsible for the pleasure I had during this trip.