The Rhapsody of Steam. Day 3. Drachenfels and Cologne

An old trope suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It might or might not be so from the health perspective, but a good breakfast definitely sets the mood. The recipe is simple: beautiful setting, delicious food, good company. And – for me, at least – lots of coffee. The breakfast in Maritim Hotel Bad Homburg was almost perfect, and I use the word “almost” to leave a little space for other breakfasts I will enjoy in the future, although I’m not sure what can be improved in particular. A wide variety of fresh food – cheese, charcuterie, eggs, even fish (which, I get it, may not be everyone’s preference early in the day) – in a restaurant overlooking the street descending towards the Kurpark served with an engaging conversation set the stage for the day.

After breakfast, we left for Drachenfels, or “Dragon’s Rock,” a hill in a place of astonishing natural beauty and cultural significance. Once the border of the Roman Empire, this part of the Middle Rhine became the backdrop for the myths of the Germanic Heroic Age, which made Drachenfels a part of the people’s collective unconscious. The name comes from the story of the legendary hero named Siegfried, who killed the vile dragon Fafnir at this exact spot (he proceeded to bathe in his blood to become invincible as one does).

Siegfried slaying the dragon.

Drachenfels also had a military significance. In the 12th century, Archbishop Arnold I built a castle on top of the hill to protect the nearby city of Cologne from potential invasion from the South. Yet, the danger came from the North. During the Thirty Year War, the castle was destroyed by the Swedish army and never rebuilt.

The castle’s ruins overlooking the Rhine resonated with Lord Byron, who mentioned it in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

The castled crag of Drachenfels

Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine.

Whose breast of waters broadly swells

Between the banks which bear the vine,

And hills all rich with blossomed trees,

And fields which promise corn and wine,

And scattered cities crowning these,

Whose far white walls along them shine,

Have strewed a scene, which I should see

With double joy wert THOU with me!

Lord Byron, the ultimate Romantic hero.

You may think I’m getting too far in the weeds with obscure cultural references here. But let me explain: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was a 19th-century version of “Please Please Me” by The Beatles – a singular work of art that completely captivated the culture. However, instead of funny haircuts and religious fervor that characterized the Beatlemania, Childe Harold created a whole generation of cynical, melancholic, defiant, and misanthropic young men traversing Europe, repeating the journey of their romantic hero.

Caspar David Friederich. Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. Ca. 1817.
Although the landscape is different, I think it perfectly reflects how the European youth imagined themselves standing on top of the Drachenfels.

That mention of the “castled crag of Drachenfels” in Lord Byron’s novel was enough to turn it into a destination. In 1883, a tram railroad was built to bring the growing number of tourists to the top of the hill to observe the winding Rhine, including a group of banya lovers from America 140 years later.

The top of the hill was lit with the sun shining through a few scattered clouds. Two small towns, Rhöndorf and Königwinter, added human presence to the idyllic landscape. The river below calmly flowed, forming an apostrophe-shaped island, all the way to Bonn, then Cologne, their skylines disappearing in the haze. The view was breathtaking, overlayed with layers meaning that made it feel more significant than just a vista. This is the Rhine.

Lower on the Northern slope of the hill, a pointy roofs and limestone walls of a castle were rising from the sea of green. Built as a private villa in 1884 by Bonn financier Baron Sarter, Schloss Drachenburg served as a tourist destination, a residence (ironically, never for the baron, who mainly built it for the bragging rights among his Parisian friends), nursing home, school (original catholic school was shut down and replaced by Adolph Hitler School in 1942), and, finally, again, a tourist destination.

Neo-gothic and somewhat Disney-ish from the outside, the interior was lavishly decorated with carved wood and period furniture. The showstopper was the elongated gallery with gorgeous stained glass windows honoring people who made essential contributions in various fields of endeavor: art, physics, navigation, politics, and much more.

After lunch in the cafe on the riverbank, the group was on its way to Cologne. The fourth largest city in Germany, celebrating its 2,000th birthday in just a couple of decades, met us with a drizzle that suited it well. Yet there was something more that I have been struggling to put into words. A particular type of energy? Spirit? The quality of being a place where things are happening. A sort of dynamism. Having been in quite a few places around the world, I noticed that some just have it, whatever it is.

Such cities are few and far between. New York – I’ll never forget that freezing January morning when I walked out of my student dorm on 92nd and Lexington and felt as if the air had particles of Adderall in it. Moscow, of course. And now – Cologne. Steel clouds blocking the sunset, pierced by the colossus of the Cologne Cathedral, modernist crane-shaped buildings hanging over the Rhine, which now dropped its romantic costume in exchange for practical workman’s overalls, döner stands and chocolate museum, the rough and the sublime, all of it made Cologne feel like a concentration of reality, a place to be.

The day ended in Malzmühle Brewery. I confess, I saw this 160-year-old beer spot on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and, precisely like those 19th-century romantics climbing up Drachenfels because Lord Byron told them to, I had to visit. The rest of the group was kind enough to indulge me.

The waiter, a middle-aged man in a white shirt, brought us the food menu and asked a simple question: “Who wants a beer?” We raised our hands; he counted and left. I thought it was brilliantly utilitarian: no questions about the type of beer, none of the “I’d like something hoppy, but not too bitter” waste of time. No IPAs. Just beer, Kölsch, to be precise, which simply means “from Cologne.” It’s a brewery in Cologne; for God’s sake, what else do you want?

The beer is brought in tall thin glasses on trays that resemble a vial rack with a handle. It is cold, light, and refreshing, so you don’t want to nurse it. Every time you’re empty, the waiter masterfully slings you the new one and makes a mark on the coaster, counting beers for the table. Again, no redundant “Would you like another one?” Of course, you do.

Closer to midnight, the food was eaten, the coaster was covered in pencil marks, and the waiter brought us a parting shot of schnapps. It was time to end the day, but not our stay in Cologne.

%d bloggers like this: