Cologne visit like stepping right into a Christmas card
WELL IT'S only the second week in December and I'm all Christmassed out!
I am suffering from a rather pleasant but exhausting syndrome called Christmasitis; symptoms include sensitivity to twinkly lights, dizziness when hearing 'White Christmas' and a rush to the head when faced with the smell of cinnamon!
You see, I have just returned from a weekend in Cologne, Germany, where no-one does Christmas markets better.
From the minute you set foot into one of the many Weinachten Markt, you are dropped right in the middle of a Christmas card, which would knock Disney, Coca Cola and Hallmark into a cocked Santie hat. It even snowed on the first day, to complete the fairytale.
There is a powerful array of everything you could possibly want (or not, as the case might be) for the Yuletide season, from baubles and bells to handcrafted nativity scenes which would set you back a small bailout.
The choice of food is incredible, with stall after stall offering every kind of meat imaginable, as long as you don't mind eating it off a stick or in a lump of bread.
I am positively waddling after sampling waffles, crepe's and Reibekuchen – a sort of scallop with apple sauce.
You are constantly faced with the danger of slipping into a diabetic coma, especially when everything is washed down with hot chocolate, or the syrupy sweet, but outrageously delicious, Gluhwein (mulled wine).
One of the largest markets is in the shadow of the Koln Dom (the Cologne Cathedral), the impressive but rather spooky looking Gothic cathedral which over-shadows most of the old city.
Enjoyable during the day, they really come into their own at night, when the millions of sparkling festive lights can undoubtedly be seen from a passing space station. As you round each corner, you are hit by a fresh blast of Christmas smell – pine needles, cinnamon and probably elf BO – and a cacophony of carols from competing oompah oompah bands.
Ice skating (a fantastic word, 'schlittschuhlaufen') is a must at the Heumarkt, with my own children taking to the rink three times in as many days. (The video evidence of my own Bambi-like expedition onto the ice will remain in a locked vault for perpetuity)!
If there was a down-side, it was the sheer volume of people, forcing you to partake in what became known to us as the Cologne Shuffle – a painfully slow treadmill of bodies, which meant you missed nothing, but got nowhere fast.
Overall it was a dream break, but it would be remiss of me to not comment on the general lack of friendliness we encountered.
Whilst some made up for it, in the main, customer service was abysmal, bordering on aggressive, rude and confrontational at times. It was clear why so many people come to Ireland, and remark on the warmth and friendliness, as well as excellent service.
Plus we would have more to see of heritage significance in a ten-minute bus tour of Drogheda than in a 90 minute trip around Cologne.
Food for thought when looking at our own tourism plans for the future.
* We arrived at the airport on Friday morning at 5.30 a.m., to see the front of all the newspapers carrying the news of Nelson Mandela's death.
Many people have their own recollections of this great leader - from the pages of this paper, you'll see some were profoundly affected by meeting him in person.
I recall the day in February 1990 when he was released from his incarceration as though it were yesterday. An air hostess with Ryanair at the time, the crew was on a lay-over in Kerry, and we all gathered round a communal television to watch.
He had been the stuff of our teenage years, when he became an anti-hero, and then a hero, the anthemic reggae song 'Free Nelson Mandela' a soundtrack to our first discos.
Little did I imagine that one month later, whilst visiting my sister in Lusaka, Zambia, I would hear him speak at an ANC rally.
I won't pretend I could hear everything that was said – I was about a mile from where he was speaking with then President Kenneth Kaunda, watched by about 30,000 assembled Zambians.
One of only a handful of white people there, I was too nervous to move closer, Mandela's groundbreaking work yet to be done.
I went on to live in South Africa later that year.
I would imagine the country now is greater for his presidency than my own time there.