Our experience at CSD Cologne, our second stop with the #mygaypride crowd after CSD Berlin. Are you curious to know what city we liked better, and what we learnt during the weekend?
We got to Cologne after a long, sweaty train ride across Germany, after having left Dresden early in the morning. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and the air con on our train didn’t really work. We were hungry, sticky, hot and bothered – but as soon as we exited the Hauptbanhof, our moods lifted.
Across the square, we saw two huge twin towers. Spires and pinnacles, Gothic stained-glass windows, a symphony in stone that reached high to the heavens, as if it wanted to touch them, to say that we may be humans, but we are capable of something that is truly divine.
We were so stunned that we didn’t recognise it at first. Is it a castle? Is it a church? It was – of course – the world famous Kölner Dom, the Cathedral of Cologne, and largest Gothic church in continental Europe. It stands just across the main train station, a stunning welcome to a city that over the next couple of days took us for an unforgettable ride – of learning and discovery, of tolerance and understanding.
First Impressions of Cologne
To be honest with you, save for the amazing Kölner Dom, I wasn’t impressed with Cologne at first. After having visited Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg in recent times, Cologne looked a bit like an ugly duckling. True, maybe it was due to the extreme heat, or to the Eighties-style architecture, kind of like what you find around the Ku’Damm in Berlin.
As we made our way from the Neumarkt area (where we were staying) to Heumarkt (confusing right?) in the heart of the old city, I started to change my mind. The city was alive, young, buzzing with energy. Unlike Berlin, where Pride seemed to be a marginal event, Cologne was all about CSD – short for Christopher Street Day, the way Pride is called in Germany.
In Heumarkt, performers sang on a stage and people danced under the boiling sun, surrounded by food and drink stalls – it was Friday afternoon, and the actual CSD parade wasn’t due till Sunday.
Thousands of people were in the street. Drag queens, with spotless makeup under their gigantic wigs despite the temperature touching 39°, tottered around the backstage area. Leather-clad men downed tiny Kölsch, Cologne’s own beer, served in 200 ml glasses. The rainbow family had taken over Cologne, painting what I thought was a grey, concrete city with all shades of colours.
Sunset came, and then night, and the party kept going. We walked along the banks of the Rhine and around the Old Town, where people in rainbow wigs crowded the tables of breweries, pubs and restaurants, and waiters hurried back and forth carrying Kölsch glasses on a curious-looking tray with holes, to keep the tiny glasses upright. Kissed by the light of the stars, caressed by the warmth of the summer night and made sparkling by the laughter and happiness of people – over a million of them – that had come to Cologne to celebrate diversity, the city was indeed beautiful.
If there ever was a city that I would call welcoming and friendly, that’s Cologne. I have been to several Prides, but I’ve never seen a city where the lead-up to Pride completely transforms the city. In London, Milan, Berlin, you can avoid Pride if you want to. Even the big stage in Brandenburger Tor, at the end of the Berlin Parade, only took up half of the square. In the back half, tourists snapped pics of the gate, completely ignoring the party on the other side.
In Cologne, there was no escape. Everything was about Pride. And what a day it was going to be.
Some cool things to see in Cologne
Strangely enough, two of the coolest things we saw in Cologne actually had a rainbow theme.
One of them was a window in the Kölner Dom. The massive cathedral survived WW2 with little damage, but many of its precious stained-glass windows were shattered. Recently, the local artist Gerhard Richter was asked to come up with a plan to replace one of the lost windows.
The artist surprised locals, critics and politicians when he unveiled his project – there were going to be no Jesus and Mary, no Three Kings, no modern-day martyrs. The window was going to be decorated with a pixel-like pattern of glass squares in 72 colours, randomly arranged. The meaning is meant to be abstract, with a nod to light as an inspirational force behind Richter’s art.
The window received mixed reviews, with some people saying that such an abstract design was not appropriate to a church, and others – including Cologne’s clergy – loving it. ‘Let there be light’ says Genesis, and Richter painted the severe, rigid interior of the Kölner Dom with 72 shades of rainbow, that after all is what light is made from.
Deep into the Old Town, just next to where the green-blue Rhine flows, there’s one of Cologne’s most picturesque corners, the Fish Market. There are no fish these days, just a fountain and fish restaurants, in memory of the times when barges unloaded their catch on this square, fishmongers gutted lamprey and boys pushed wheelbarrows with oysters and cockles. Five narrow houses facing the Rhine, now housing fish restaurants, look like they were painted to celebrate CSD – green, orange, blue, yellow and pink, a giant rainbow flag.
Other places that are worth a visit are Kolumba, an art museum on the ruins of a church now housing the Diocese’s art collection, and the shop at 4711 Glockengasse, selling the original Cologne water, with a perfume fountain running just next to the door.
If you find yourself stuck in the sweltering Cologne heat, or you visit in winter and fancy a mug of hot chocolate, head to Fassbender, a patisserie serving delicious cakes and coffee in an elegant room with rétro decor. We had a giant iced coffee made with vanilla ice cream, before facing the boiling temperatures of the city for an afternoon walk.
It’s pretty during the day, but Cologne shows its best at night, when the streets around Rudolfplatz are full of people drinking Kölsch outdoors, dancing in the street, or simply relaxing and enjoying the summer night.
Being Pride weekend, there were lots of LGBT parties happening, especially along Schaafenstrasse – there are bars, but the parties spilled out in the streets, and most people just grabbed a beer from one of many späti.
Our experience at CSD Cologne and what we learnt
The actual CSD parade in Cologne takes place on Sunday, starting from the Deutz area across the Rhine from the old town, and making its way back towards the centre of town and Neumarkt, before finishing at the Hauptbahnhof under the spires of the Kölner Dom.
Compared to Berlin’s, CSD Cologne is massive. There are more than 300 floats, and over a million people – alongside Madrid, it’s the largest Pride in Europe and one of the oldest, having been celebrated yearly since 1979. Our guide told us that the very first Prides took place in a square in the city centre, and there were only a few hundred people attending. When I asked him what the rest of the city though of Pride at the time, he curtly answered: ‘They didn’t care. And we didn’t care whether they cared.’
Well, these days it looks like Cologne does care. This city loves a good party – I’ve heard amazing things about Cologne Carnival, when the whole city takes the streets in fancy dress. I know that three days are a very short time to wage judgement, but Cologne looked fun-loving and alternative to me, so it was no surprise to see how massive Pride was.
Our Berlin and Cologne experiences couldn’t have been more different. In Berlin we stood on a float for a bit, then walked off and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the parade and enjoying the music and atmosphere. There was me and Nick, and another blogger named Raphael, who is also straight. I was a passive observer – eager to understand, but unlikely to let my hair down and dance.
In Cologne, we spent the whole parade on a float, as it slowly made its way across the city. The float was hot and crowded, skins rubbing against one another, the float feeling as if it was going to explode or capsize from feet stomping, bodies bouncing, arms waving, chests pumping.
All around us, the world went by. People kissed in front of the Rhine. Glances were exchanged. Laughter bounced off the floats, jumped off the steaming tarmac. It was twice, ten times bigger, happier, more intense than Berlin. I danced – I never dance. I sang – I never sing. I let go, albeit briefly.
What does Pride mean? It means being able to be who you are. Laugh, smile, kiss, love. Live.
Another reason why the experience was a lot more intense than Berlin, is because we were the only straight people in our group. Some people we met during the weekend wondered why, as a straight couple, we went to Pride. Well, because it’s a good party, I said. To me, it sounded pretty obvious. But why do you want to be here! I mean, it’s not your place, they asked. Admittedly, I was disappointed. I had participated to several Prides before, and never felt like ‘it wasn’t my place’.
Spending time with the rest of the Cologne #mygaypride group, I understood I knew very little about LGBT culture. Because it is a culture. LGBT people have their own slang and their own icons – people I had never heard of.
Most importantly, they are a family, a community. A community that is one, and many at the same time – LGBT is made of four different letters, representing communities that oftentimes don’t know much about one another.
For instance, I overheard a conversation between Meg from Dopes on the Road and our local guide asking if femme lesbians usually only liked butch lesbians, and viceversa. ‘Even I know that’ I was about to shout. I was stunned to discover how little, as a gay man, he knew about gay women.
So, I asked Meg a question that I wanted to ask for a long time. Why do you, as LGBT people, go to Pride? She didn’t stumble or search for words. Because it’s my community. I wanted to shout that to the world. See, it has nothing to do with sex and debauchery, it’s about being together.
In a world that is still largely hostile to them, LGBT people instantly have something in common. They have all experienced the clash between their identity, and a society that wants them to conform. They have experienced fear of coming out. Some have found love and acceptance – many have found hatred and rejection. ‘I can meet a lesbian in Cologne or Kathmandu, and I know we have something to talk about’ she said.
I saw her point. But I don’t feel different from you, I replied. ‘But you are’ was her curt reply. And she is right – I am. I never had to battle with my identity. I was never rejected. I haven’t lived through it all.
You are different, but it’s OK. Whoever said differences were bad, she added, while I was still thinking. One mistake that the straight community makes about LGBT people is thinking that they want to be accepted, allowed into the grey soup of mainstream society.
‘Marriage equality is political, it’s not a priority’ I heard during the weekend, coming from the mouth of an LGBT person. The priority is making sure that LGBT teenagers are not kicked out of their homes, that LGBT people can access employment without having to hide their identity for fear of bullying.
‘Everyone is equal’ doesn’t have to mean ‘everybody is the same’. Because if there is one thing that CSD Cologne and the #mygaypride project have taught me, is that differences should be celebrated. I’m sure we’ll all agree that conformity is boring. Or let me rephrase – if conformity is not for you, and it’s forced upon you, then it isn’t just boring, it’s flat-out cruel.
Grey is just grey. There are seven colours in the rainbow, seventy-two in Gerhard Richter’s window in the Kölner Dom. A world with colours is a lot more beautiful.
Travelling around Germany with a Eurail / Interrail ticket
If you checked our CSD Berlin post, you’ll know we travelled to, from and across Germany on a Eurail / Interrail pass. Nick, being an Australian, was using a Eurail pass, while I, a European resident, had an Interrail pass.
Both passes were great investments. In Germany, a 7-hour trip (like Berlin to Munich, or Dresden to Cologne) can cost up to €15o in second class, if not booked ahead. The Interrail pass I had, 10 day within 22 days, cost just £273 in second class, and £429 in first class – a couple of long trips and you’ve already got your money’s worth.
We thought that travelling around Germany with these passes was great, as most trains do not require reservations, so you can just go to the station and hop on when you feel like – there’s no need to schedule everything in advance, great news for people who don’t like planning (us).
For instance, when we found out we had a few free days between the Berlin and the Cologne events, we decided to spend some time in Dresden – and we loved the city! Check out our Dresden in Summer article if you want to know more.
This article is part of the #mygaypride campaign, organised by Two Bad Tourists and Gay Star News in collaboration with Cologne Tourism. We would like to thank Eurail and KLM for looking after the transportation of participating bloggers, and Hostel Koln for accommodation. THANKS!
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