A couple of days before Christmas, I set off with Flea and my Mum for a 2 night trip to Cologne’s Christmas markets, courtesy of budget airline Germanwings, with accommodation provided by a website called 9Flats.com.
Now, I don’t have the best track record when it comes to travel, so the notion of us travelling on a budget airline and staying in someone’s apartment (9Flats matches travellers with rooms and apartments in various cities around the world) was fraught with alarming possibilities. But I have to say, for probably the first time, it went without a hitch.
The Germanwings staff were great, the seats bigger than BA or Ryanair, and the online check-in is a bonus, if you speak good German – otherwise you’re reduced to the gamble that is Google Translate. It’s a gamble that paid off magnificently on our return flight when I checked us in… sitting on entirely different rows of the plane. Still, Flea got to sit in the cockpit with the pilots while the flight attendants moved people out of their seats to make space for us.
We stayed in Olaf’s apartment, which turned out to be a period building with huge windows, high, stucco ceilings and underfloor heating. There was also a dizzying array of expensive-looking stereo equipment. I didn’t touch it, for obvious reasons. Besides, I’d already messed up the TV and accidentally erased the contents of the PVR. Sorry about that, Olaf.
Actually, 9Flats is my new obsession. You can search for rooms and apartments all over the world, and renting an apartment gives you a real feel for how natives live – as well as meaning you can cook dinner and relax in a way that isn’t possible in a hotel. I’ve been browsing over Christmas and was amazed to find you can rent a 2-bed apartment in the lower east side of NYC for £90 a night. How cool is that?
As for the Cologne Christmas markets themselves, what did we make of them?
Flea’s highlights of the trip were the markets themselves – she loved walking around, and each market has some traditional fairground rides – some of the carousels and Ferris wheels were over 100 years old! She also loved the kinderspunch (child’s version of the gluhwein) and the trip to the Lindt chocolate museum at the harbour was actually a really interesting museum – and you can get the staff there to make your very own personalised bar of chocolate with your chosen ingredients. This went down very well with Flea.
There was a lot of walking, but Flea never complained once, because she was so interested in what was going on. The city of Cologne itself isn't exactly picturesque but the markets are fabulous. Some of our favourite things were:
The atmosphere. The markets are bustling during the week but not uncomfortably crowded, and there’s a lovely social atmosphere, which may be related to the extraordinarily alcoholic gluhwein on sale at stalls across the market. At night, particularly, it’s a riot of fairy lights and twinkling trees that is just gorgeously festive.
The food. There are food stalls all over the markets and with no English translations on most of them, it’s a really fun way to play “dare and double dare” with your Mum, if you’re that sort of family. Which we definitely are. There are gorgeous potato cakes with apple sauce, wurst with sauerkraut or green cabbage, hot, fresh smoked salmon served in brotchen (bread rolls), and the most amazing cherry strudels, covered in custard.
The toys. Many of the stalls sell traditional wooden toys that are made in Germany, and Flea picked up some gorgeous wooden animals. We also saw some fantastic wooden swords and shields, puzzles, construction sets and gorgeous mobiles.
Crafts. The markets are all stuffed with hand-made and hand-painted pretty things, from lights and candles to mirrors, ornaments and jewellery. Each market has its own speciality, so it’s worth browsing more than one market – we visited four – and saw slightly different things at each one.
Disclosure: All our travel and accommodation costs were met by our hosts. Many thanks to Germanwings, 9Flats and Cologne Tourism for hosting us on this trip.