Thursday, 15 September 2011


The older grey-haired busker is already at his spot, where he'll play a David Byrne song about ten thousand times, and noodle nice blues and chat to anyone and drink a lot and witness several dogfights and about ten thousand roller bladers in his day. It's about ten and the area in front of the cathedral is filling with paddle-led tour groups and the genuinely curious and lots of English speaking kids who may be on an Erasmus or a college swap or a who knows?

I've been trained well in going to art and know that in the next city, Dusseldorf, I have eight Kiefers that will take up the best part of a day; and Beuys...So I am not going near Cologne's very good art galleries.

I sit and write on the river front with with my Cologne geography now enhanced by last night's wanderweg. Somewhere in the middle, betwixt river front and punk bar, is Friesenstrasse where Cologne enjoys itself in the more bourgeois ways. I block out the brass bands for a while with a run through on the IPod, then give in to the mood and enjoy the pleasure (clearly expected) of the hundreds who line up, then drink out, on the disco boat that's going to be their life and the Rhine's for the next few hours. God, the music is miserable, matched only by an unfortunate sighting in Dordrecht on television of Jennifer Lopez's new single: I would have divorced her if I'd heard that features some old Eurotrash melody and includes the line "put your glasses in the air" and incites people in Ibiza, Paris, LA and Worthing to get onto the floor. Ok, not Worthing.

I scrub up; which means change, and wander to Friesenstrasse, which is the usual suspect collection of All Bar One, other place, and a bunch of chic-er places that are empty, so far. There's an Irish bar, that's full of oom-pah-pah and so I order my aperol spritz and sit back to watch the "other" promenade. I am missing the river's protean People's debaucheries almost immediately. It would be no different in Lyon or Manchester, it's just that it's not me: I try the KGB bar, somewhat masochistically, and witness the world's worst burlesque for eighteen seconds. Ask the nice barman at my cafe is there is a bar with music, he sends me to the Irish bar's karaoke. Serves me right. I taxi to the deep suburbs and Underground, where heavy metal blares outside and from two discrete internal rooms, which I never make.

Hans is an architect, works in Dubai - has done for five years. Aggressive at first, suspicious of strangers - especially older English ones, "with their presumptions about Germany." Soon we're joined by chefs, gamers, programmers, a Freudian practicing in Paris; bar staff chilling out after long nights elsewhere...what do we talk about? Cologne mostly, those not living here are from here, and are here - as I feel in Stipel - in a kind of nostalgia-ridden return. "It's not as good as when..." is an almost constant refrain, and there's a lot of chat about computer games I don't know: I flannel badly, name drop Wired and tell a few stories about why I am walking. Don't get a standing ovation but Hans apologises and hopes I have a great time in Germany. I get it, he says; says the English in Dubai still behave as if they rule the Empire. And won't listen to anyone else. Forget the collapse in Dubai, there's still work. The Freudian is a Seberg, and as she talks I think only in Paris could you get away with this, but there, working with the banlieu kids, she does. Not even Lacan. The keanu-hair gamers take a shine to me and in a kind of Bill and Ted way we navigate the night and then the sun is coming up and back home the kebabeee smells, if possible, even worse.

In the morning I meet the gun clubs...

It doesn't sound like a Grand Tourist kind of day, but I'm tired of the galleries; they are they new cathedrals and the cathedrals are malls and digital flashlight and avoiding H&M is an almost impossible task. I have met some locals, tried to talk and found that Cologne can suffer nostalgia like a Tory politician. Did I mention the gun clubs?

Post Chamberlain, the Clash Years

Cologne at 5.30am for geo-spatial reasons which don't involve being a Time Lord, though I have been in conversation with a pair of Afrikaans who tease me about the riots and the rugby. It is a good time to see the Cathedral, which I know quite well. Tom Coryat devotes ten pages to its splendours and it was only half finished when he saw it. There are no tourists, just the very early workers emerging from the hauptbahnhof and the old streets behind the kunstmuseum are deserted all the way to the river, which is lacking its usual oom-pah-pah, but is nevertheless full of cafes and bars that will wake up soon enough. Always guilt in Cologne, the bombing and all that, and taking a very early morning wrong turn soon finds me in canyons of brand worship and modernity and it's hard to be a believer.

I take a kebab-smelling room in a hotel on the river, sleep a while and wake up for coffee outside with bright sunshine and an Aussie at the next table who's just flown in, via Singapore, for a show at the Messe. Hasn't slept yet, his Europe tip. Biggest Outdoor Equipment show in the world (just as walking from Dusseldorf, I'll experience the biggest shoe show in the world at its messe). These shows clog up the lone traveller's hotel options, closing down towns - which is good for business but bad for planning. So I am in the hotel kebaberee, where the phones don't work and the wifi is wilful and from my room, which keeps changing for no obvious reason the back street bar by my window echoes to karaoke 80s rock....I am a saint.

Soon we are onto sport and how, even when we have a good sporting team in England, we don't have the "arrogant, killer touch." No surprises for the country that does. I mention the Ashes; Robert mentions the number of South Africans in the England team. We move onto rugby, but Robert is an Aussie Rules guy. I say I've seen Irish Rules, hurling. "Yeah we play an exhibition game against those guys, but last time it got out of hand...they don't do blindside tackling off the ball there. There were a few the end we had to tell the guys stop the blindsiders or we'll ban you back at home."

Robert's company is Chinese; he spends a lot of time there. In the next hour I learn more about the economy, and the Chinese take-over. "You know we were in Vegas for a show and I walked over to an American company and the guy said, we're not talking to you, you're with them." Well, them seem to be doing nicely. its hot, I feel I am burning, so wander off for art, but get weigh laid by just watching the Cologne riverside, on a Thursday, as the small patches of grass fill with people catching the last days of summer. Buskers sing in English....and soon enough men in identical shirts, stags who knows, are singing songs and the music is blaring. Over the next two days I'll watch this part of Cologne a lot; as the brass bands and the rockers, and the disco boaters, and the generally soused enjoy this part of town. There is never a hint of trouble, except when dogs get a bit frisky.

Often, for large swathes of the day, there isn't a cafe seat to be found. "Empire State of Mind" does well with the punters, and there is a gymnastic healthy vibe to the small stretches of grass; not a description for those who lounge the cafes knocking back the local beer, the Kölsch, which I've known from other Time Lord Lives and will ignore all weekend in favour of enigmatic red wine (a conversation starter later in the outdoor club Underground). But the booze kicks, the brass band romps (generously) through Neil Diamond and that song about Alice that I thought had died out in 1608, and well, you know the repertoire. There is much singing along; later a rockabilly band does some decent Elvis...

This is the populist core of Cologne, but I am now obsessed, and not because of Rory Stewart, with the spaces in between.

Thomas Coryat may have had many problems on his walk, but he didn't have to find the coolest cocktail bar in Cologne, with the beds downstairs and the best vibe etc etc. And as it is on Mozart street, a schlep and a half even for such a seasoned walker in the humid evening, he wouldn't have found it even if he'd had Latin GPS. It is literally, well not literally, thousands of kilometers away and I walk across town for two hours, past malls, then into residential districts, dodgy estates; I ask local after local and decide this place must be in Copenhagen, so cool and discrete it obviously is. I try again in a park where some guys are fooling' around and others playing boule and I find Beethoven street, but not Mozart. I find hosts of places, a KGB club (always bad). I console my heavily sweaty self that I now know another Cologne, but of course I'm wrong. I've passed student places and Charles Eames stores, and then finally when I hit - after more directions and bemused looks - Mozart street my bar is deader than Leninism. I end up back in the park with the boule and the university crowd talking cultural materialism and conferences in Dublin and drink very bad red wine thinking: I could do this in Bloomsbury, which is not the objective. I wanted to see "Media Cologne." Across the river the satellite dishes and steely modernism of "Vox" channel declares its power, so where are its players? It's not unpleasant, but really Russell Square sur Cologne? There are, perhaps, one too many sets of red clogs for my liking. Tom probably went boozing about 20 metres from the cathedral, where if my nose for this sort of thing is good, which it is, he'd now be singing Take Me Home Country Roads, in Latin of course.

Hair is un-reconstituted here, which is a blessing, and discussion on the intense side. One of the downsides of academic globalism is that the lingua-franca English that glues the Germans, Irish, English, Danes etc. is the inevitability of conversations about world music...I know, sorry. It must have been the same with Tom, not surprised he was hooked up with fellow Latin speaking Englishmen by now, there is only so long you can tap your foot to pan pipes. I could wander back to the self printed group t-shirts of the riverfront, but I am in a sort of post Chamberlain mountain English guilt, post riot, hacking, mood. I keep going in honour of smorgasbord Cologne. I am lucky not to have found the Friesenstrasse demimonde, tomorrow is that joy, as by now I am a middle-aged sweaty, and would look strange taking an aperol spritz and noodling on my IPad. Luckily my wanderweg takes me to a student street that shouts: "No" and texting, but there is Stipel: ancient monument to German's punk movement and in the space of a couple hours with pierced social workers (drugs, teenagers, "not here in Cologne, the smaller towns, that's where the problems are") I learn a little about another Cologne. The artist who graffiti-sprayed the front of the bar wants to talk about success, which he feels is corrupting - for everyone. "They become arseholes," he reminds me, talking first of Damien Hurst, but then moving on to pretty much everyone. There's a game of pool which is pretty intense and then I think well sod the cocktails. I have found a tiny part of Cologne. Later I will watch older Germans passing the Stipel (the boot). They always - always - smile in recognition of earlier days when they once came here, when their generation had hope - and kein cocktail. But by then they are playing The Clash, perhaps for me as I have met the DJ, though I cannot remember his name. And maybe my memory is playing a few tricks. I have recommendations for tomorrow night, some institution of metal and otherness...By the time I get back to the river even the oom-pah has gone to bed. My room smells like a group of Oil riggers have speed vomited a kebab house. I paint my nose with "Kiehls" shaving foam and fall asleep. In the morning I have culture to consume.

Anarchy in the old Capital

If Bonn was Washington, then Petersburg was Camp David, incidentally a fashion label worn unselfish-consciously around town by sturdy, short cropped men who would be horrified by the camp thing; Sontag readers they do not look like. In its marble men's bathroom the Peterburg is piping Sinatra singing, It Was a Very Good Year, one of those yearning oh Christ I'm getting old songs that shouldn't be heard by men of my state in the hall of the mountain king. It's like the BBC in Manchester.

I write:

I wonder if Chamberlain danced the cha-cha-cha
In the ballroom, Clinton inhaled by the terrace?
Did Byron look down on Drachenfels from here,
The hills echo to Prince Phillip's German jokes?

I call it:

A Large Hotel Near a Small Town in Germany.

Then I walk back down to the Konigswinter riverside and on towards Bonn.

It is a sign of the moving on that the Bonn Kunstmuseum is so full at midday there is not a seat inside or out that is free. Housed down among the renovated ruins of modernity that is the new town, it is grand and white and offering Pop Art; I don't have the will. A lot of runners and cyclists and roller skaters use the Post Office tower nearby as a turn-around, and I bone up some history for another day, then copy the roller bladers. My hotel is in the Boho-ish student area and nice restaurants and fancy-ish bars are flecked among the streets. A media town, I think. I chat wine with an estate agent and watch a bunch of young bankers Blackberry cheat their way with Google on some bet; a red-braced Mohican of impeccable Bauhaus (the band) taste makes an entry or two and I leave for bed; then wander to the river where some thrash punks have set up for an impromptu burst of anarchy. When the police arrive it's all polite conversation. What did they say, I ask the lead singer. "they were just worried it might get like London..."

Boom Boom.

There are plenty of plasma screens and Adidas sneakers in the shop windows of the new town, but no sense of trouble. In fact my only brush with intolerance comes at the river, in a terrace close to the opera, where a young businessman has such trouble keeping still he makes my table wobble, ADD or something. I cant write, I say. (true for much of this trip). Businessman, because his casual was too slick. He takes his party away to another table with a hissed "have a nice day." The late night punk rockers surprise the bar staff. But everyone smiles away...why not, nothing wrong with a little lite anarchy. Probably wouldn't get this in Speyer, but then Speyer seems a long way away now, a happy memory of conversations about the Royal Family, and the Kings of Leon...

Bonn seems to have got the post politics blues over; though I suspect for fun people zoom off to nearby Cologne. I'm sure there's a little more anarchy there.

Where Britain Lost its Morality (1938)

You're only here once, so you've got to get it right
- no time to fuss and fight -
Coz life doesn't mean much if it's measured out in someone else's time

XTC, King for a Day, 1989

A lot of IPod this time, walking; speeding the pace and breaking out the sweat. Standing on the bow, staring Byronically into space. The walk back to Konigswinter is a sign of what it is to come in Bonn, capital between 1949 and 1989 and reunification. There is a nice old town, riverside bars, a sense of fun. But there's also Alphaville down the road, where now the Post Office Tower dominates. Politics is gone; though there is a healthy amount of marxist merlarky in the bookshops near where I've been sick in Bonn.

So down through Alphaville, without stopping, that's for Bonn when I'm back, then a twist to cross the bridge and a four hour romp to Konigswinter. A two street town in once sense; that's where the cafes and restaurants are, but looming behind, the Seven Mountains, the Siebengebirge, where the dragon was slayed by Siegfried. Dragon is Drach, see various plays on this in Bram Stoker and indeed Ian Fleming, Moonraker's villain is Drax. And Fleming always said his plot was George (Siegfried) versus the Dragon.

The hills merge and at their peaks, inevitably, castles or ruins. Drachenfels, which gets its own stanza in Byron, is the daily tourist schlep. Most go by the mini-railway, stopping off at the late 19th century industrialists' house cum castle, half way, or going straight for the top and what is, very often, a foggy day in Konigswinter town. It seems fitting that the view back down the way I've come is clouded and mysterious; This is a new phase, moving into the Ruhr, and expected industry. I can cope; quite like the bleak industrial. From the peak of Drachenfels a view backwards reveals an imposing building on the Petersburg. What's that? Hmm, a huge hotel; that would have been the state residence of the President, had the hotels refurbishment not been completed in 1990. Bad timing. Anyway, I make a note to walk up there tomorrow.

There's a wedding going on in the industrialist's ex-haus. Cameramen and women in hats. Inside there's a lot of late 19th faux frilly art, which was once so popular books were published so that arriviste Germans could copy the style in their own houses. The place is monstrously large, and became a catholic boys college in the 1930s - what they must have made of the largely naked Greek-ish art....anyway, then it was a Nazi college of some kind, but details are thin these days. I wander back down to the river, order some schnitzel and download John Le Carre's A Small Town in Germany. A mini classic of espionage from 1969, which benefits from Le Carre's having lived here; in fact I think he wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold here. God it's a bleak book; the back drop is a suspected rise in the German far right; and Britain's general impotent uselessness. I read the whole thing in a riverside gloom of red wine as the tourist boats pull away from the bank in search of more fertile excitements.

The facial type I keep seeing is Putin and Harrison Ford. Strange. The world of Bonn and Konigswinter found in Le Carre makes me weep tears of joy I wasn't an adult for the 60s; grey, brutish and run by Etonians. Er...and that's the other thing: the riots in London are playing out their political aftermath and the London hacking scandal lurches on in more - no, they didn't hack thems... - and it is impossible not to follow this real-time on Guardian or Telegraph feeds, how The Times must wish it wasn't behind a firewall....not. So it is a curious triangular experience, the real, the fiction and the Siegfriedian, and what's happening in the world. I've got the Skype app now as well, so London can be calling anytime. The world grows small. The Petersburg Hotel, I learn from A Small Town is where Neville Chamberlain stayed when he signed off on the last vestiges of morality that Britain owned in the 1930s, that we call the Munich Agreement. As I climb the windy forest past a series of 18th century stations of the cross that have been restored now, I think about the car driving the British delegation up here; and I've just read of anxious meetings over lunch here between the diplomats and the Bonn hacks, trying to get a story in the cold war 60s.

The Petersburg is restored now, but a conference centre; the Clintons, Mandela, the Queen twice have stayed, but I am able to wander into the deserted ball room without meeting anyone. On the terrace I imagine the intrigues, then, and during Bonn's prime time. The choice was Adenauer's, a local, who signed the treaty in 1949 that restored some forms of German autonomy. There's a party of Americans and Brits taking a quick tour; most interested in the hotel chapel, where Michael Schumacher married. One of the kids, rotund, aubergine'd in the Cameron mode, throws rocks over the terrace wall with thuggish entitlement; a moment later a cry in german. He's hit an elderly woman walking back down the Petersburg with her husband. The kid does nothing; his mother shouts down in Home Counties: "He didn't mean it." A few minutes later I am in the same place as the walkers and the next Prime Minister but, say, three, is by my side throwing more rocks. "What the fuck are you doing?" I say. He wanders off, probably 9 or 10. His parents give me the full diplomatic diss as I walk past them.

History up here; but not many arrive; there's a far more modern spa half way up the hill, golf not so far away. Once all these towns housed the diplomatic teams from around the world; now they are away in Berlin. So what now for Bonn?

On not getting started, again

Dordrecht, September 15.

Above me on the wall in green faux handwriting a long quote from Francis Bacon's "Of Gardens". It begins GOD Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures...

This has been a different mode of travel since August; less the spiritual philosphe-weg through the vineyards of the mid-Rhine, more a series of exercises in how people live. It began in Koblenz this time, as it ended last year. I am still walking, but these pieces are in a surge of recollection and Moleskine sitting in a converted Water Tower on the outskirts of Dordrecht.

In late September 2010 I took, following Tom, my first boat, from Boppard, location of the Chinese beer-garden, at dusk, standing on the prow like one of those wooden statues from the 17th century brig, amazed at how much faster, how changed the perspective when moving with a little more speed. The colours change as well, purples and mustard yellows replace the fertile greens; the river is lead, then blue; the moon is out.

The trip ended last autumn because of stolen credit cards; and began where Koblenz let off last time in a chorus of people. Last year it was students doing a pub crawl which made my bar, Mephisto, heavenly quiet and then hellishly fully. The bar features old movie posters, plays punk - especially Richard Hell - and a plenty of Wombats, and though later in Cologne and Dusseldorf I'll be told the place is "far too commercial" it suited a need last year; this year I stay for one drink.

Albert Speer spent a great deal of time after his release from Spandau in Koblenz, pouring through the archive to prove he didn't know what people said he must know. Ultimately Gita Sereny proved that Speer's actions were in vain.

In the main square around midnight a group of strange zombie like characters in white bathrobes, but look for all the world like members of the Klu Klux Klan. Tourists from America, off a cruise liner and told to wear the outfit so they didn't get lost because these were (though hardly Chandler's) mean streets. And I am Moose Molloy.

This time it is a few weeks earlier and there are thousands of tour parties in many languages, the new spin being head-sets for each member and a guide speaking into their cell phone. No more palatable. Rain too, as before; Koblenz was then and leads this time, the sense that the sunshine of the mid-rhine is over. I wander around at night, visit the archives, really try, but can't get started....

Tom must have been exhausted by now, unlike me he hasn't had breaks, years passed, in which to regroup and make sense of his experiences. It is not a surprise to hear that he began rowing now, and picked up some other Englishmen who had been studying in Heidelberg. I think his heart was on Cologne - the last biggie, with its famous cathedral - and then London. I didn't want to be in this frame of mind, but couldn't quite connect. I wrote poetry instead....hmm.

The first walk was to Andernach and on the way I got sick; and Andernach was small and not unlike Boppard. Then I got really sick, took a train to Bonn and slept off the languor for two days. Travel wimp.

Germans had shown surprise I was walking on from the glorious mid-Rhine. It gets ugly they said. I was about to see.