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October 4, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                        COLOGNE, GERMANY

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Guten Tag from Germany! Last week we left off in Sardegna, Italy after an amazing Costa Smeralda vacation (here’s the link to the archives). This week we travel to western Germany, for some history and culture in Cologne. If you’re up for good times, Kolsch beer and a 10- minute drive through three countries, then join us! If you’re in a hurry or have ADD, don’t worry; there’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.

Cologne (the two most common German spellings are Köln and Kölsch) is located on the River Rhine in the western part of the country. Yes, this is the city that gave its name to a men’s fragrance, when Italian expatriate Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766) created a new smell and named it Eau de Cologne ("Water from Cologne") after his hometown. But Cologne has much more to offer than cologne. It is Germany's fourth largest city (after Berlin, Hamburg and Munich), covering 156 square miles on both sides of the Rhine River. In a population of just over a million, 20 percent are non-German. Migrants come from 185 nations; the most represented is Turkey. I was surprised by how diverse and laid back the residents are. I had no idea what I would find; my only previous German experience came in the late ‘90s, when my mom and I briefly visited Frankfurt (a two-hour drive from Cologne). Frankfurt is the opposite of Cologne. Everything in Frankfurt was modern, with lots of banks and so-so food. Not Cologne!

INTERESTING FACT: Did you know Germany has Europe’s second largest population (after Russia)? Just over 82 million people live in this country, which is smaller than the state of Montana.

Cologne is an artsy town. There are hundreds of art galleries, and over 30 museums. Residents have a much different attitude than the rest of Germany. The locals are extroverted; they love to have a good time, especially while eating and drinking their famous Kölsch brewed beer (more on that later). Cologne has produced the most German songs, and locals love to share them. You’re sure to hear them during Carnival -- the city’ biggest party (over 1.5 million participants), which takes place seven weeks before Easter. Cologne also has a large gay population, and one of the world’s largest gay parades. Plenty of young people live here; 44,000 students attend Cologne University, one of Europe's oldest schools.

Thanks to discount airlines like German Wings and HLX, Cologne is very affordable to reach. Airfares to and from European cities can be ridiculously low -- if you buy in advance. For those who don’t like making connections from the U.S., Continental Airlines recently began nonstop service from Newark. Once you land, you’ll find Cologne to be a great walking (or biking) city. It’s laid out on a grid, is compact, and there are plenty of signs. If you don’t feel like exercising, hop on the Stadtbahn (tram), part of an extensive light rail system. The trains (S-Bahn or U-Bahn) in Cologne costs from €1,30 ($1.65) to €2,20 ($2.80), there is a day ticket for €6 ($7.60) and a day ticket for five people for €9 ($11.40). You can even take the S-Bahn to and from the airport, for only €2.20 ($2.80). The trip to the center of the city takes just 15 minutes. Taxis, by contrast, cost about €25 ($32), and take longer in traffic.

Cologne was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D., making it one of Germany’s oldest cities. Its Roman name was Colonia Claudia Are Agrippinensium. In 310 Constantine built a bridge over the Rhine. During World War II the city suffered major damage and casualties. The city lost 95 percent of its population (mostly to rural areas). But as soon as the war ended, Cologne quickly rebounded.

Hohe Strasse is a popular shopping district. In fact, last year it was named the number one shopping street in Germany, with over 17,145 visitors passing by per hour. That’s a lot of shoppers! I walked down it too, but the only things I bought were delicious pretzels. Shopping actually plays a minor role in this city. The most famous attraction by far is the Cologne cathedral (also known just as the 'Dom'). Its towering spires (515 feet high) can be seen from almost anywhere. The Dom, located in the heart of the city, is Germany’s most popular monument: over 6 million visitors a year. (Notre Dame in Paris greets just a million more guests.) One reason for this Gothic cathedral’s popularity is because it is believed to house relics of the Three Wise Men. In addition, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church was built in 1248 and completed 642 years later, in 1880. Though the church was bombed during WWII, it was not completely destroyed. It is now undergoing constant reconstruction. Surprisingly, this church is not even the oldest in Cologne: 12 nearby Romanesque churches are all older. Be sure to attend either daily mass, take a guided tour, or head up to the top for a bird’s-eye view. Cologne Cathedral, open Monday – Sunday, 6 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.

Cologne has so many museums, I could not visit them all. My first choice was the Chocolate Museum. But I wanted to save the best for last, so I waited until the day I left. I learned the hard way that in Germany, all museums close on Mondays. Fortunately, early in my stay I visited the Roman-Germanic Museum. It’s located in the heart of the city, right next to the Cologne Dom. The Roman Art includes mosaics with scenes from the world of Dionysus. There’s a reconstructed tomb of the legionary Poblicius, and a large collection of Roman glass vessels and early medieval jewelry. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Roncalliplatz 4, D-50667 Cologne; tel.: 49-221-221-22304. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission: € 6.45 ($8.20).

Cologne has over 250 hotels and 25,000 beds, so finding a place to sleep should not be a problem. I stayed at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, conveniently located across the street from the Cologne Dom. This 5-star, 152-room hotel has been in business since 1863. All rooms are decorated with precious antiquities, rich fabrics and beautiful paintings. I was fortunate to score the Excelsior Suite for one night. When I walked through the double door marble hallway entrance I felt like a movie star. The living room was most impressive. The view of the Dom was incredible – breathtaking, actually. In addition, it was a bright, warm room, with comfortable furniture and a plasma flat screen TV. There was also a large desk so I could get some work done. (Wireless internet is available, but it’s free only in the 24-hour business center.) The walk-in closet was bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve seen. Outside the bedroom was a completely complimentary mini-bar –that’s one mini-bar you don’t feel guilty raiding.

The bed consisted of two mattresses pushed together to form a king. I never understood why many European hotels have two mattresses in rooms that everyone knows will be occupied by couples. I always thought it was because they could make twin beds up for non-couples -- but I realized when I pulled up the twin-size (not king-size) blanket that the idea is for couples to sleep better at night. If your partner tosses and turns, you don’t feel it in either the mattress or covers. How clever is that? A bathroom that I wouldn’t mind being trapped in was as luxurious as it gets. In fact, it too was large. There was wall-to-wall marble; a shower with two built-in marble seats; strong water pressure; relaxing soft lights – and it doubles as a steam room. To top it off, the whirlpool bath’s outer wall was made of thick glass, giving a sexy fish tank affect. The expensive Bvlgari toiletries will make great stocking stuffers. After a good night’s sleep, a sophisticated breakfast is included in the rates, which range from € 245.00 ($310) to € 1,850.00 ($2,342.20). Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Trankgasse 1-5/Domplatz,50667 Köln; tel.: 49-(0)-221-270-32-20.

Cologne has tons of good restaurants and it’s not expensive. I didn’t think I would like the food, but boy was I wrong! I loved it all -- and there is a wide variety, plus some friendly setups. As in many pubs, diners share tables -- that’s one reason this town is such an easy place to strike up conversations with strangers. Two of my favorite places were:

Früh, just a couple of blocks from the Cologne Dom, is probably the most popular brewery/restaurant in the city. It serves great local dishes, ranging from Rievkooche (grated potato cakes) to Halver Hahn (half a chicken). Brauhaus Fruh, Am Hof 12-14, Cologne; tel.: 49-0221-26 13 0.

If you don’t want a typical restaurant, try Taku. Located in the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, it features Asian delicacies. The best part (besides its location) is the design of the restaurant. It’s in the basement so it lacks windows, but when guests first walk in they pass over a glass-covered river with live koi swimming below. Diners reach their tables by crossing over a frosted-glass illuminated bridge. It’s all very chic, the service is excellent and the food is quite tasty. Taku, Trankgasse 1-5/Domplatz,50667 Köln; tel.: 49-(0)-221-270-39-09.

Even if, like me, you’re not a beer drinker, be sure to take a Kölsch pub tour -- or at least stick your head in one of the historic breweries. Kölsch beer -- which can be traced back to the 15th century -- is a light, top-fermenting brew that can only be created in the city. It is served by traditional Cologne waiters called Köbes, and comes in tall, skinny glasses that keeps the beer fresh and cold. The price of a beer is between €1.20 ($1.50) and €1.55 ($2), depending on whether you’re in a tourist area or not. For more information on the Kölsch Tour (€141 for 2.5 hours) or other places to visit, stop at the Koln tourist office near the Cologne Dom. Tourist Office, Unter Fettenhennen 19, Köln; tel.: 49-(0)-221-23388.

Like a typical tourist, I took a 1-hour Rhine River cruise. I figured, what the heck – it was a beautiful day out, and the cruise would be relaxing. Wrong! Things would've been different if I had not waited until the last minute to buy my ticket and board. While waiting in the long line for my ticket, I saw that all the good seats on the open air deck were already filled. By the time I boarded people had set up chairs everywhere, practically on top of each other. I got stuck downstairs with all the other slackers, but at least there were window tables. I was one of the few people stuck at a middle table, with not only no view but people smoking all around me. If I hadn’t worried about getting arrested or drowning in the strong currents, I probably would have jumped overboard. KD River Cruises: €6.80 ($8.65).

One of the highlights for me was driving on the autobahn (freeway) for the first time. For years I’d heard all sorts of rumors about driving on it. Now I know. I discovered that at some places on the Autobahn there really are no speed limits. Is that crazy or what? I also learned very quickly that it’s best to drive in the right lane. The left lane is used only to pass other cars. Usually I was the one being passed. It’s amazing: I was driving very fast (about 100 mph), yet people still flew by me. The first place I visited with my friend Anabel was Düsseldorf, to see her brother Frankie. Düsseldorf is 35 miles from Cologne, and feels completely different. I was there only for dinner, so I can’t say much about it other than that it looks and feels like a great city, with some cool Gehry buildings. The city, regarded as the economic center of western Germany, is located on the Rhine River. We had dinner at Riva, where the food and ambiance were excellent. Riva, Zollhof 11, Düsseldorf; tel.: 49-211-209-50-50.

Now for the kicker! After Anabel and I drove 50 minutes to see her friend Bena in Aachen, we decided to take a side trip. Aachen looked like another neat city, but we were there on a rainy Sunday when practically everything was closed. There was not much to see or do, so we decided to drive 10 minutes to Vaals, Netherlands. There, the shops were open. First we went to a grocery store, to stock up on my favorite Dutch cookies and other fattening sweet treats. We also filled up the car, because gas in the Netherlands is a bit cheaper then Germany. But it’s still no bargain, as gas in Europe costs about $5 a gallon! OUCH! On the way back from Vaals I stopped to get a picture next to the German and Netherlands border signs. Anabel said we could add Belgium, because it’s just around the corner. It was only 15 kilometers (9 miles) away. We stopped at a café to get the best hot chocolate ever -- seriously. To get to there we had to drive back through Deutschland. When we arrived at the gateless old border (now a coffee shop), only 10 minutes had passed. We traveled to three countries in 10 minutes -- how sweet is that?! All three countries are members of the European Union, so driving across the border is the same as driving from one state to another. Of course, crossing countries is a lot cooler.

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Cologne. If you want to view past videos, here’s the link of all JohnnyJet Videos ever made. Remember: With high-speed the video takes about 1 minute to load; with dial-up, it could be 3 weeks.

Next week we fly back to the States via ?, and have a big movie screening for our TV show. Stay tuned!

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

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Copyright 2006 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Map of Germany


Johnny Jet In Cologne


A Nice Day


Try And Score A Goal Urinal


Hen Party


Train Station is in Center of the City


Roman Wall With My Hotel In Background


Hohe Strasse


Cologne Cathedral


Roman-Germanic Museum


My Room


Opposite View


Hotel Staircase


You Don't Need To Pay Right Away


What Fred Flinstone Would've Ordered


Früh Waiters




How To Toast In Cologne


Rhine River Cruise


Get There Early


Driving On The Autobahn




Germany Has The Best Bread


Netherlands Border


Belgium Sign



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