Germany is known for its good beer and business. But what about tourism? DW's Eesha Kheny joined a group of Indians visiting Cologne to find out.
On a wet autumn day, a group of smartly-dressed tourists— taking many selfies and crossing the streets on a red pedestrian light — could be observed in Cologne. This typical tourist behavior, a mix of curiosity and cluelessness, is commonplace in Germany's fourth most populous city. Located on the Rhine River in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the 2,000-year-old city of Cologne welcomed more than three million visitors in 2018. Although Germany's tourist season peaks in the warm months of summer and festive moods of winter, some cities are known to see visitors throughout the year. I met such a group, in this case Indians visiting Cologne for a trade show, and who in turn were also playing tourists for the day. Trade shows attract crowds of professionals — from all over the world, including India — who over the years have streamlined into a younger age-group, which is better-traveled, digitally savvy and open to new experiences.
Welcome to Germany!
Undoubtedly, the single most important sight in Cologne is the cathedral — or "Dom" as it's called in German. The cathedral, whose construction was halted in 1880, is an acclaimed masterpiece of Gothic architecture. At a height of 157 meters (515 ft) it is Germany's second tallest steeple — the Ulm Minster in southern Germany at 161.5 meters just beats it. Having survived the bombing raids of World War II, the Dom to this day towers over the city in all its originality, almost forcefully imposing its omnipresence. Located right next to the central station, it never fails to make people pause — if only for a second — to take in its magnitude.
Our bus, loaded with passengers full of expectations, slowly maneuvered its way through the busy weekday streets of Cologne. While our driver-cum-guide shared facts about the city, I chatted with Vikrant Save: a first-time visitor to Germany who had only good things to say. Over a packet of chocolate chip cookies from India, he told me about losing his way on his very first day in the country and meeting a friendly German lady who offered to drive him to his hotel. This encounter left him feeling welcomed and accepted, setting a positive tone for his trip.
Fellow traveler Ashish Jogi joined the conversation by recollecting his own first day, now some years ago. He had been looking for an ATM cash machine on a Sunday and had wondered why everything was closed. Laughing at the memory he said, "Coming from an extremely crowded city like Mumbai, I was actually frightened! I felt like an alien in a deserted place. I just went back to the hotel and slept." Ashish didn't venture out again that day but since then he has often been to Germany, spending time with friends and visiting tourist sights.
Symbol of Cologne: the Dom
Our light-hearted conversation was interrupted by the looming presence of Cologne Cathedral — its Gothic appearance on this day amplified by a thick cloud cover. Our group split up at the cathedral with some wanting to make use of its free entry while others wanted to admire its exterior. The inside of the cathedral is a sharp contrast to its darkened sandstone outer body. Marked by 43-meter-high (141 ft) arches, colorful tinted glass windows and the striking golden Shrine of the Three Holy Kings or Wise Men — "Magi" in German —, Cologne Cathedral is truly a celestial pilgrimage. According to history, Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa gave the relics of the Wise Men to the Archbishop of Cologne in 1164, after which the elaborately decorated 300-kilogram (661 lbs.) shrine was designed and completed in 1225. Around this, the present-day Cologne Cathedral was constructed — starting in 1248 — and taking an impressive 632 years, when construction was halted, though never officially completed. And if these astounding historical facts don't take visitors' breath away, the 97-meter-high panoramic view from the top of the south spire — costing 3 euros (3.33 US $) — surely will. As for me, having already made the grueling climb up the 533 steps in the past, I opted to tag along with the latter half of the group, those looking at the exterior of the cathedral. We walked around the circumference of the building, enjoying a good look at the grotesque gargoyles protruding from its facade. In 2018, the cathedral made headlines all over the world when it carved a decorative gargoyle of Pope Francis at its entrance. In many ways, this also reflects the fun-loving spirit of Cologne itself.
Introduction to Kölsch
The relentless downpour continued, dampening not only the city but also the spirits of our group. Since a river cruise on the Rhine — which in good weather is an absolute treat — was unfortunately not an option, we decided to explore another aspect of Cologne: its local beer. Stepping through the doors of a traditional "Brauhaus" (brewery tavern) near the cathedral, we were enthusiastically greeted by servers, known locally as "Köbes". We found ourselves in a spacious yet cozy chandelier-lit restaurant, seemingly itself seeped in century-old history. No sooner had we taken our seats, than a round of slim cylindrical 20-cL (0.4 US pint) glasses — or "Stangen" — were set before us. Kölsch is a bright, pale top-fermented beer with a clear yellow hue and refreshing taste. Its brewing process is strictly defined, protected and restricted to breweries within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the city's limits by the Kölsch Convention of 1986. The beer is named after Cologne's local dialect "Kölsch" and is an integral part of the city's identity. Watching the members of this group taste their first Kölsch, I wondered if they would also become Kölsch fans (like me). As it turned out, I didn't have to ponder that thought for long because a few minutes later we were already on our second round.
Indo-German cultural differences
After some beers, our conversation flowed easily during which everyone mentioned the daunting language barrier as the biggest hurdle when visiting Germany. Despite being in a metropolis like Cologne, the lack of English on signs, menus, and transport tickets posed an immense challenge for tourists. This also added to the sense that the cultural gap was being intensified between the two nationalities: Indian and German. From the perspective of the former, the German straight-forwardness was a welcome change, but the service industry was deemed to lack the warmth and flexibility that is needed when dealing with tourists. Coming from India myself, I knew what they were politely hinting at. Culturally, Indians are accustomed to high levels of hospitality in daily life back home, which is taken even further in the tourism industry. This creates a cultural gap when traveling abroad. "As a visitor, you carry memories and smiles back after a trip. So, what people say and how they treat you really matters," Vikrant explained. He also said he thought most problems usually centered around culture and to ease the potential cultural shock, tourists should come well-prepared. And I must say, I couldn't agree more.
Taste of India in Germany
After a quick stop to buy some souvenirs, we walked through Schildergasse — Cologne's busiest shopping street — lined with rows of high-end stores. Along the way, group coordinator Sunil Singh touched on another major challenge faced by Indian tourists: food. Being a vegetarian myself, I was very curious to know how others adapted while traveling. Apparently, adapting wasn't much of a solution. Through his many years of experience managing group trips to Germany, Sunil had connected with local Indian restaurants to prepare customized meals catering to his groups' needs. Many other tour companies from India have made similar arrangements. As a population, Indians can be rigid in their eating habits owing to dietary restrictions. While vegetarian Indian food tends to be available in most big German cities, there are other diets that need to be taken into consideration. For example, Jain food which comprises of meals prepared without onion and garlic — two primary ingredients of Indian cuisine.
Feeling the pang of hunger after all this food talk, we headed to a popular Indian restaurant in town. Over a table overflowing with dishes of spiced curries, fragrant rice, and oven-baked Indian bread, we made a real effort to understand Germany and its people. Near the end of our meal, we reached a possible verdict. Perhaps the intense wish to preserve their unique heritage reflects on the personality of Germans, making them, in turn, seem stern or inflexible to outsiders. Something that could be overcome by mutual respect, communication and compromise. Sharing my own positive experiences as an expat in Germany, I realized that no truer sentiments could have been spoken at a table by a group that was clearly also very attached to its own cultural roots. Maybe the two nationalities were more similar than either realized and maybe exposure through travel could help to bridge the gap.