Walk this way

When I was online researching what to do during our time in Germany, I came across the American Women’s Club of Cologne, a group of English-speaking ladies that organizes regular meetings, coffees, playdates and such. I emailed for more information and got the goods on this week’s coffee, as well as a couple of mommy and me gatherings. After finding the address for the coffee, hubby offered to help me suss out the location ahead of time so I’d know where I’m going come Thursday’s event. The destination? An upscale coffee shop/bakery called Bastian’s Cafe, within an easy walk of our hotel.

Quick digression: everything is within a quick walk of our hotel. We have not used a car once since getting to Germany. From the airport in Frankfurt, we took the train up to Cologne, then a taxi to our hotel. That’s the only time we’ve been in a car this whole trip. Cologne, like the vast majority of European cities and towns, is extremely walkable, which I love. Everything you need is just a quick stroll away – groceries, restaurants, shops, whatnot. And if it’s not accessible by foot for whatever reason, all you have to do is hop on the tram and get to wherever you need to go that much more quickly.

From our hotel, we can walk to the Dom in the center of town in about 15-20 minutes. There’s so much to see along the way, the journey itself flies by. The streets are built as much for pedestrian traffic as they are for cars. Since the roads here are not laid out in grids as they are in many American cities, finding your way around can be confusing at first. Streets and alleys shoot off of other streets in crazy directions like a maze and it’s easy to get quickly disoriented. I find the best way to go is to simply memorize a few major landmarks. Fortunately, there are city maps posted on kiosks every few blocks or so just in case you hopelessly lose your bearings.

Bikes are also serious business here. You see all sorts of people riding them, from crunchy granola types to well-dressed women in the latest fashions. There is a bike lane alongside the streets and you’d better stay out of it if you know what’s good for you. We were almost run over a couple of times for not paying attention.

In short, the public transport (especially the train system) and the general walkability of European cities is awesome. If only America could get with the program and realize this, I daresay our obesity problem would quickly diminish. Germans eat some heavy food and drink a LOT of beer, but not many are overweight because exercise is so ingrained in the lifestyle here. I could go on, but that would be a whole other blog entry entirely…

Let’s get back to Bastian’s. This is one of those trendy-bordering-on-snooty coffee shops – a big, light, wide-open space full of heavy wood tables, chrome trim, a spotlessly clean glass counter full of cakes and pastries, and jazzy music playing in the background. The wait staff is all young, attractive and dressed in black. For Indy residents, it was kinda like Taste before the remodel, only much bigger.

We found a seat (table-service only) and checked out the menu of breakfast and lunch fare. Hubby ordered a croissant that came with jam, cheese and butter. I recounted and realized I’d eaten pretty much nothing but bread and sweets the day before, so I ordered the omelet of the day to get some protein and fiber – three eggs with diced zucchini, peppers and feta. It came with a small side salad; hubby and I shared a big basket of fresh-baked bread and rolls. They make their own coffee, too – no machine java here, thank God!

After a horrendous night’s sleep marred by a three-hour stretch of crying, the baby didn’t want to cooperate very much and much to our dismay, started tuning up just as the waiter set our plates down in front of us. Efforts to distract him didn’t help, and we knew our time was limited. Hubby always eats faster than I do, so he ended up wheeling our son out in his stroller, leaving me to finish my omelet and pay the bill.

As soon as hubby exited, I realized I didn’t have any change for a tip (we feel the need to tip generously anytime the baby is involved), so I texted him to come back. Tipping isn’t as big a deal here as it is in America because servers’ wages are so much better, but it is still customary to round up or leave a euro or two. Hubby returned, tossed me a few coins to pass over when the time came and left again.

I finished my food, asked for the bill, (in German no less! Right on!), and started to hand the waiter my credit card to pay when he informed me the place is cash-only. Great. I only had ten euro on me in cash and the bill was 20. Out came the phone and I texted hubby again. A few minutes later, here he came, wheeling back in like a broken record. I’ll bet those people thought they were never going to be rid of us.

Hubby dug through his pockets, found the extra cash we needed and we were finally good to go. Or so I thought… no sooner did we get out the door and down the block when I realized we’d left my son’s “Wonder Pets” book sitting on the table. Hubby flat out refused to go back again, so I returned to pick it up. We thus dubbed Bastian’s the Bermuda Triangle of cafes; once you get in, you just can’t ever get away.

The late breakfast tided us over until dinner. In the mood for more traditional German fare, we were disappointed when we discovered the pub/restaurant hubby keeps trying to take us to is closed on Mondays. A few other false starts later, hubby remembered a place called Bier-Esel that seemed worth a try. Lo and behold, it was open and could accommodate us with the stroller in tow.

Our server was a lovely older woman who paid us just enough attention and played along with our botched attempts to speak German. Most servers and store clerks immediately switch over to English the second they realize you’re American. I was pleased that she didn’t.

The restaurant itself is pretty old-school. Nothing fancy, just a bunch of tables, a few German tchotckes lining timbered shelves and mantels, and a bunch of locals drinking beer. Mussels seemed to be a featured item, as many diners were sharing huge bowls of the critters.

My first choice for dinner was going to be gulaschesuppe, but I worried a serving of soup wouldn’t be enough to fill me up and considered the full dinner choices as well. Hubby ordered a chopped steak with gravy, french fries and a small salad. I opted for the sauerbraten, another traditional German dish I’ve been meaning to try. This seemed as good a place as I’d be likely to find.

Hubby’s food looked ok, but mine was fabulous. The sauerbraten is a plate of extremely tender roast beef slices drenched in a rich brown raisin sauce. I know what you’re thinking right now. Raisins!?!? Ew! Ok, before you start judging, let me ask you this. Ever had A-1 sauce on your steak? Enjoyed it? Guess what one of the ingredients of A-1 is. Raisin paste. So there ya go.

My sauce wasn’t anything like A-1, though. It was thicker than a jus, but not as thick as a gravy, with a sweet and sour vinegary tang. It was DELICIOUS. The meat melted in my mouth; I didn’t even have to use a knife. If you like pot roast, you would like this dish. Hubby’s fork kept wandering over to my plate again and again. The dinner also came with a bowl of homemade chunky applesauce and two large potato dumplings, which confused me a little bit at first. I saw them and expected them to be creamy mashed potatoes, but when I tasted them and realized they were doughy, I couldn’t get my brain around it. When I realized they were actually dumplings, hubby pointed out that they served as a perfect vessel for all that yummy sauce. He was right.

Sauerbraten with potato dumplings

Sauerbraten with potato dumplings and applesauce

We tried a different tactic with the baby for this meal and brought his dinner along with us instead of feeding him first before going out, which seemed to work well. He was happy enough to nibble away and let us actually enjoy our meal at a leisurely pace for once.

We strolled back to the hotel, full of fantastic German food and beer. Still keeping my eyes open for that gulaschesuppe, though…

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