Operation Weinachtfest 2008
(Heritage Articles reflect the experience we have in planning and execution of International events)
Unlike most International Scout trips there were no specific training events, we had all known each other for some time and were all part of the same Group. So we set off for the weekend knowing the personalities and the mini-challenges they might create.
The event looked loosely organised but once we left Leeds Bradford International Airport, it went mostly to plan. There was a bit of taxi chaos at Dusseldorf International as we had managed to get two people carriers to take us all into town, and the first one was hijacked by a German couple which left part of the group at the airport whilst the other half shot off into town. However, taxis are never in short supply and we had a speedy carriage to the Hotel.
The first evening was supposed to be just an evening meal and a familiarisation visit to the Altstad. However, we were earlier than expected and after a meal at the Maredo on the Konigsallee we wandered down to Flingerstrasse, where we found Busch’s Killipitsch bar devoid of custom.
Killipitsch is like adult Calpol, it is a herb liqueur created as the result of a promise made in an air raid shelter in WW2. It is now an icon of Dusseldorf culture. The tradition is that you do not actually enter the bar, but knock on the old fashioned window. A pane opens and the barmaid serves a small measure through the open window, which you sip down on the street, bringing a nice warm feeling, and freeing up the passages. The name, Killipitsch translated means , roughly, Kill or Cure.
15 of us laughing and joking outside the famous window soon attracted an even larger crowd and we knew that we were really in Dusseldorf.
We then had a quick familiarisation trip and since John Bull’s Jazz Band was playing at Dr. Jazz we popped down and spent an enjoyable hour or two listening to this old time jazz band led by the irreplaceable John Bull. ( Ewan and Fiona had met John three years ago and he really is a character worth seeing and talking to).
Thursday was our day in Koln , and we learned that destination boards at the Hauptbahnhof don’t always give the exact information. We got the slow train to Koln instead of the Regional Express – well they are both red… and we took a tour of the industrial areas of Dusseldorf , Neuss and Koln before arriving at a bitterly cold Koln Hbf.
I don’t think the cathedral was a disappointment and the sarcophagus which is reputed to hold the remains of one of the three wise men is an incredible work of art. It was amazing that there were so many UK schools on trips to Koln and most of them seemed to be in the Cathedral.
There are images of Koln in 1944 and the majority of the city is razed to the ground, very few landmarks survived but they included the Dom, which although it suffered bomb damage, was not too badly affected compared to the Hauptbahnhof right next door.
The next stop was the Christmas Market at the Dom, where we had a Gluhwien, and then on to Globetrotters, where everyone agreed the spectacle of this cathedral to outdoors goods was well worth a visit – even if we only picked up a few odds and sods. How many stores do you know which have a colony of leafcutter ants resident in the clothing department, a climbing wall high above street level, a wet room, a cold room and a kayak pool?
The Neumarkt Christmas Market has been tarted up and has arguably better quality stalls, but fewer of them. One stall we were all taken with was one where they were cooking salmon, backwoods style over an open fire. Ruaridh and Lewis reckoned it was excellent. I have noted how it was done and will have orders for our resident welder to knock us up a frame!
Back down towards the Koln Altermarkt there were more stalls to be seen and a visit to Papa Joe’s Klimperkasten, where we warmed up whilst feeding coins into “die pneuphoniker” das erste tuba-orchester der welt. (The first (only?) Tuba Orchestra in the world) playing chart hits Ooopah Ooompah style.
The choice was then a visit to the Ludwig Art Museum , or free time in the Christmas Market at the Dom. Everyone opted for the latter. It happened that perhaps it was just as well. We caught the end of Theo Teabag’s act.
Theo Teabag is a Koln institution, a street artiste with a bit of an edge. He is a clown, a juggler and an observer of people. He plays to the crowds in tee-shirt and shorts, summer and winter. A trip to Koln is nothing without seeing Theo do his stuff. (Fiona and Ewan have seen him three or four times, and every time there is something the same, something a little different.) Theo watches the audience and involves them, makes them either part of, or feel part of his show.
We had missed the bulk of the act and he didn’t look sure whether he was going to do another. So Ruaridh and Callum started talking to him and asked if he was going to do his routine again. We said that he had to, we had brought a crowd from Yorkshire just to see him. The conversation turned to how he was able to perform as he does, and he explained there was no license required to busk in Germany an more. Why? “Oh, my God!” he says, “Don’t mention the War.” Off he goes doing his Basil Fawlty impersonation. Apparently, since “that little man” killed so many artists a few years ago, art has been free in Germany.
Theo then went on and did another round of his act, which had the tears rolling down our cheeks. If you go to Koln, go visit the Cathedral, but do take time to stop and watch Theo Teabag, and do pop a couple of Euros in his bag after the show.
Back in Dusseldorf that evening we were too late for the restaurant we had planned to be at, but managed our second choice. It was amazing to be sitting out in the street in our shirt sleeves in December eating excellent food whilst others walked by wrapped in three layers of clothes, hats and gloves.
We finished the day with a visit to Dr-Jazz. This time to listen to a local rock band play cover versions of classic rock anthems – and very good they were too.
Saturday was our Dusseldorf Day. We spent the day touring the markets and the shops. No-one seemed keen to visit the museums. The range of goods at the Christmas markets was extensive and we all saw things that we would perhaps want to buy, but the logistics of getting the stuff home was an issue.
Lunch was taken, on the hoof, and 10 Euro buys a lot from the market stalls. Bratwurst, flammenkuchen, kartofel puffer, riebkuchen, waffles, baked salmon, Grunkhol and Schinken and Saurekraut.
The evening meal was planned to be traditional Rheinische food and we had booked a table for 15 at Zum Shiffchen, one of the oldest brewhouses in Dusseldorf – though the traditional Dusseldorf Altbier is no longer brewed on the premises. The restaurant seats some 450 people in its various rooms, all at pine topped tables scrubbed clean every night and worn with use. The meals are served by male waiters in their blue aprons. Unlike table staff here these guys are professionals who know their menu inside out and manage large stations of hungry guests, with a turnover of maybe three or four seatings per table per night.
The brave went for the Haus Schweinhaxe – a roast knuckle of pork served with sauerkraut and sliced roast potatoes. Callum cleaned his plate, as did Lewis - who also finished off Maria’s Hax. But kudos goes to the skinny girls – Jess, Amy and Leanne polished off their Hax – though they did decline ice cream. James though had to have his ice cream, and after our visit to Em Pootske, one of the oldest jazz venues in Dusseldorf , he topped the evening with a kebab on the way back to the Hotel.
At Em Pootske we listened to a good New Orleans Jazz Band, the Jolly Jazz band – well, they did get jollier the longer the evening went on. It was a pity that it hadn’t been the expected Powerkraut. Anyway, there we were in a German Jazz Club, in a city bombed out by the allies and the band struck up some very familiar notes.. It’s A Long Way To Tipperary … In no time the whole bar was singing along to a British WW1 marching song. It seemed slightly incongruous, but at the same time a sign of how perhaps the European Union has at long last buried old hatchets.
Since there was no way that we could allow the younger members of our party out on Bolkerstrasse on Saturday night we planned to take the younger ones back to the hotel and let the older ones loose. But Mhairi and Sarah felt that was unfair so they decided to have a pyjama party in their room, and whilst us oldies went off to bed at about 2:00am, some stragglers held out till after 3:00.
Sunday was a quiet day - and a learning day for us. In the past the Kauf Haus chain has been open on a Sunday and we had left buying there till the last day. So off we went to ascend the Rheintrum, the vast tower that dominates the Dusseldorf skyline, we toured the Media Hafen, and popped into Mic Mac where Mhairi and Lewis spoke to the iconic Dusseldorf artist and we picked up some ideas for crafts for the Group – Fiona decided that she has to go back with the car next time so that she can buy some Mic Mac artworks.
And then on to the markets, lunch and the Kauf Haus. Lunch was at Arcari, a clean German Bistro where they serve portions big enough to sink ships. All was going well – and then we discovered that Fiona and I had only ever been to Dusseldorf in the winter on the
weekend before Wienachtfest, and that was the only winter opening of the stores on a Sunday! So next time, we will be going a week later.
We finished the trip by hopping on a train to the airport and with a quick flight back to a bitterly cold Leeds where we had to scrape the ice off the windscreen. It was colder than it had been in Koln.Will we do it again? Maybe one more time. Then perhaps we need to find another challenge. (In fact, we have done a trip to the Christmas Markets every year as an adults only event).