Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Our trip to the Cologne Christmas Markets - a bit of a mega post!

Christmas markets seem to be all the rage. Every major town and city has its own Christmas Market to attract shoppers into their centres rather than go to out-of-town retail parks. We've only been to Manchester twice - two years ago, with the children, when it was just too packed and they were too small for it to be enjoyable, for them and for us. Last year, with both of them in school, we snuck in on the train early in December and got time to wander round all the stalls, enjoy a (little) gluhwein, and snaffle some wurst. (No sniggering at the back, please.)

Ask anyone who has been to the original Christmas markets in Germany and they will tell you they are better and more fabulous. I've always wanted to go but never had the time and, now we have children and our circumstances have changed, the budget to do so.

Then, Germanwings invited us to experience the Christmas markets in Cologne. Of all the German cities, this is the one I wanted to visit, to see its cathedral, which is vast. It took me no time at all to know I wanted to go, but a bit longer to fit it into our pre-Christmas schedule. This was partly because their Friday flight from Manchester is scheduled so late. And, inexplicably, there's no Saturday flight, so the option of going Saturday to Monday was not available to us. We had to go on the Friday, meaning a very late night for Monkey and Missy Woo. Because of this, we really could have done with a third night, especially as the children were too tired to stay up to see the markets at night so we didn't get to see them lit up in all their glory. If you're further south or in Scotland, Germanwings also fly from Stansted and Edinburgh.

I'd never heard of Germanwings before but they are a budget airline owned by Lufthansa and fly all over Europe, with Cologne-Bonn airport one of its main hubs. I was impressed that when I went to check in online (I love web check in, as I hate check in queues) I could pick our seats, meaning the scrum to get on is less stressful, so better for families. I should have done both check ins earlier (it opens 72 hours before your flight leaves) as I would have liked to be a little more forward. As it is, the Best seats at the front cost an extra 15 euros each way so our Basic seats started from halfway back and needing 4 seats together meant we were further back than that, but it wasn't a biggie as it wasn't a big fligt. I chose our seats and all we had to do at Manchester was go through security although I forgot to take our liquids out of the hand luggage and we got both bags searched! Oops.

The planes were comfortable, smart looking (all grey leatherette) and clean, as you'd expect. Thankfully, the children were really good both ways on the flight so we got none of those looks from other travellers. As we'd only taken hand luggage and we zipped through passports in no time at all, we were off our flight and in a taxi within about 20 minutes of landing. And a great taxi it was too, with back seats that converted into booster seats for the children. Shame I tried getting in the driver's seat. I'd say I was tired but I was just stupid!

Our accommodation in Cologne was arranged for us by 9flats.com, a new website which allows you to find accommodation all over the world in private houses. It can be just a room, or it can be a whole place. The site is like a cross between social media and eBay as you can add people as friends, and after you've stayed with someone, you can review both the host and their place, and they can review you. Gulp. Children on best behaviour.

Because of the configuration of the apartment we were staying in, the owner offered to move out for the duration of our stay so we had the run of the whole place. As a result, we never did get to meet Olaf, our host, which was a shame. A friend of his met us from our taxi, let us in and showed us around. I felt a bit odd staying in someone else's place - especially when he said the fridge was full and we could take what we like from it; we barely took a thing (so British!) but it felt homely. The apartment we stayed in was on a busyish road near the entrance to an underpass and I was worried that it would disturb the children as the room that they slept in was on the front, but they slept well both nights. To be fair, they were shattered as we didn't arrive until nearly midnight German time but were still awake by 9 the next morning.

As a family, I hate staying in hotel rooms. Whoever designed most so-called family rooms obviously never had a family, or didn't think through the practicalities of them. Putting children to bed means you can't really watch telly, or indeed do anything, unless you have really heavy sleepers because there is no separate space for them to sleep so you are in for an early night - which is so not me. In the morning, your early risers giggle and disturb your sleep. Having your own apartment meant that this was much, much more relaxed. The children had their own room off the living room, meaning we could stay up and not disturb them. The children had somewhere to go once they got up in the morning - they sat in the living room drawing and reading, and even watch the police recover a car that had crashed into a wall, so they told me (They are nosey little blighters!). We could have meals when it suited us and we didn't disturb anyone else. And we fell in love with both the underfloor heating and the coffee machine!

So, Cologne. Christmas Markets. We had a whole two days to explore them. That should be easy, right? It would be - but there are seven across the city. Seven! After a breakfast of German bakery products, some as large as the children's heads, we wandered into the city centre on our first day and made a start. We started with a brief visit to the Cathedral which, up close, is breathtaking. It's over 500 feet tall. I tried to take a picture of the facade but I still couldn't fit it all in, which you can see in the slideshow below. The fact I'm a rubbish photographer may have a lot to do with that. I did not take the photograph above. Nuff said.

The first market is in the shadow of the cathedral. It being a Saturday, it was incredibly busy in places. It was a sunny day so we couldn't appreciate the starlit tent draped from the central tree but what we did appreciate the sheer variety of the stalls. Lots of handcrafted items, foods and drinks on offer - everywhere you turn was colourful and beautiful, smelt fantastic or you wanted to reach out and touch. It was pretty hard not to spend all your money right there and then, but we had to be mindful of having to get it all home. The baubles were particularly gorgeous but being made of thin glass, they would have shattered easily. Here, we had our first taste of proper gluhwein - so alcoholic and warm that it caught your throat and went up your nose as you put your mug to your mouth, making you cough. Attractive.

After fortifying ourselves on Weinachtwurst (Christmas sausage) and frites smothered with ketchup, we headed off to our second market, the market of the gnomes in the Old Town. Again, this was very busy - so busy that we headed out after a short while to avoid the crush, only to discover the next day that we'd only seen half of it. The chalets were lovely but the food and drink stalls were rammed although it was better around the edges and the children found a carousel which they loved.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

We then made it to our third market of the day. The children were getting tired at this point but Monkey cheered up when he saw where we were going, for it was a floating market on a Rhine cruiser. This was the only market that cost to enter - 2 euros per adult - but the money goes to Unicef. Monkey loved this market because he got the double whammy of being able to watch the massive barges sailing down the Rhine and the trains crossing the river on their way to and from Cologne's central station. It was hard to drag him away, and it was nothing to do with the craft stalls. He spent most of the time on the boat utterly mesmerised by what was beyond the boat.

We noticed that a fourth market was near where we were staying and so took the underground to the market at the Stadtgarten. This was much, much smaller than the other markets and we went round it quickly, partly because the children were beginning to flake as the light faded. Because of this, plus the fact we misjudged where the nearest biggish supermarket was and that not many restaurants were open early evening near where we were staying, we ended up eating in Pizza Hut. Credit to them, the service was really friendly and we had a really nice pizza that you would never have in the UK. That, combined with good value and happy children, meant it really was a winner for us. I would have loved something more typically German but we would have had to wait or travel back to the busier areas. We spent Saturday evening chilling in our apartment, whilst the children slept like logs next door. I think I've found the perfect way to travel and still feel at home.

On our second day, we had still to visit 3 markets. On this quest, we ultimately failed as we never did make it to the market at the harbour, which was near the Chocolate Museum (Oh no!) so were unable to call house on our Cologne Christmas Markets bingo card*. We did however get to our favourite markets of the weekend. Firstly, there was the fairytale market at the appropriately named Rudolfplatz, where Missy Woo loved the decorated chalets nestling round the towers of one of the old city gates, which looked like a castle to a five year old girl. It was here that we bought sauerkraut to try, as well as grunkohl - boiled green kale with onion, which was really nice - with some mettwurst. The kids thought the sausage slicing machine was funny  and it certainly was a genius piece of equipment!

But our sixth and final market of the weekend was also our absolute favourite - the Angel market, in a square near the main shopping area, was truly delightful. Slate covered white chalets trimmed with lights, completely charming and looking totally different to the other markets, with lights and stars in the trees surrounding the square. Among the chalets was our favourite of the weekend, a little shop packed to the rafters with Christmas baubles and other decorations, as well as people. I would have loved to have taken all of it home. The children had hot chocolate and we had Kinderpunsch (non-alcoholic gluhwein; yes, we are lightweights). We did, after that, wander back through the Gnome and Cathedral markets again and they were just as busy on the Sunday but we at least discovered the ice rink at the former, which was being cleaned so we couldn't try it.

Soon enough - too soon - it was time to return to the airport. Monkey was happy because we took the train back to the airport, and he got to cross the bridge across the Rhine and see the floating market from the other side.

We crammed an awful lot into two days - possibly too much for the children. The lateness of the flight on the Friday put paid to that. Tiredness didn't spoil our trip, but it was certainly a factor we had to take into account. With another day, or an earlier flight, we would have been able to do more and the children would have been able to get more out of it, although they did have a fantastic, magical time and couldn't wait to tell their friends at school about it the next day. There is so much on - like the Christmas Crib Trail, of which we only saw a few stations - that you could probably go for a week and not get bored, although by then, you'd be broke from all the retail therapy and your liver pleading for mercy from all the gluhwein.

Pick your time right and as a family with small(ish) children, you'd have a great time at the Cologne Christmas markets. I'd really love to go again with the children and it is quite the loveliest thing we've ever been invited to do through blogging. Germanwings were great to fly with, and as a family, we will definitely be using 9flats again because you are able to experience living in the city rather than staying in a boxy hotel room, and it's so much better for families. Huge thanks from all of us go to Germanwings, 9flats and our host Olaf for arranging a weekend to remember.

This post is so long, yet I still have more to say. Come back tomorrow and I'll share some tips about travelling with children on short breaks and for visiting the Christmas markets in Cologne. There will also be a competition with a fantastic prize, so you really shouldn't miss out.

*may not exist

(Germanwings kindly paid for our return flights and taxes, and 9flats.com our accommodation for two nights. 9flats gave us a small goody bag. We also received 4 free Cologne Welcome cards for free travel on the underground for 24 hours. I have not received any further payment and we met all other costs ourselves. Logos and some pictures have been provided as well as some suggested links but I have not been told what to write and all opinions and words are my own.) 
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