“Two gin and tonics please,” I say loudly to make myself heard over the pounding music coming from the dancefloor right behind me.
“Noch mal?” the bartender asks, looking slightly confused.
“Gin and tonic. Two. Please.” I am almost shouting the words, and for good measure am leaning halfway across the counter so my mouth is only inches from the bartender’s right ear.
He disappears to the far end of the bar, then returns and slides two brimming glasses across the sticky wooden counter.
“Zwei euro bitte,” he says brightly.
I hand him the cash and take the two tiny cylindrical glasses of Kölsch, barely bigger than test tubes, readying myself for the crowd filling the exit leading onto the street where the rest of my posse is waiting. It seems regardless what you order in Germany, you always end up drinking the local brew. When in Rome… Or Cologne for that matter.
Beer clearly doesn’t just reign supreme in Bavaria, when in Cologne you drink Kölsch. Back on the cordoned-off street outside the Ex-Corner bar I give my other half his 100ml glass of Kölsch, muttering an apology for the failure to deliver a G&T as instructed. A local tells me these special glasses are called Stößche, and are really only good for one big gulp before you have to head back to the bar for another round. Judging by the by the packed crowd around us, this is clearly the correct drink for the occasion.
For the past two decades it’s been a case of Berlin versus Cologne for the title of Germany’s gay capital. But now, as I look down Schaafenstrasse, crammed with hunky guys and the occasional German celebrity all the way down the block, there is no doubt in whose favour the scale swings tonight. Especially when considering this street, home to a mere handful of the city’s forty-odd gay clubs and bars, isn’t even the epicentre of today’s 2010 Cologne Pride festivities.
Two tube stops from here at Heumarkt, right next to the river Rhine, the city is showcasing local acts on multiple stages. Hundreds of thousands of gay boys and girls are spilling into the clubs, bars and party venues in the surrounding streets. In fact just shy of a million spectators were expected in the city for this year’s Pride festivities (known locally as Christopher Street Day, or simply CSD). And right now a good few thousands of them are bustling around us in a street party of epic proportions.
The two week-long Pride festival started mid-June, culminating in the Pride weekend from July 2nd-4th. A staggering 46 parties and events were scheduled for these three days, catering for all tastes and persuasions. From the Xtreme! fetish event in a former factory or Sex im Dreck, a decidedly non-mainstream party in the suburbs, to the brilliant mega Colour party at the Rheinterassen, with its four dancefloors, an erotic maze and jaw-dropping views from the VIP area, Cologne has something to satisfy even most demanding of gay party animals.
In the first week of August, Cologne will again throw its doors open to the international gay community as it welcomes athletes from across the globe to the VIII Gay Games. Over the course of the week more than 12,000 athletes will battle it out across 35 sporting events – from badminton and body building to triathlon and synchronised swimming – as well as five cultural disciplines, like cheerleading and chorus singing.
Although the Gay Games isn’t anticipated to attract anywhere near as many spectators as Cologne Pride (only about 30,000 are expected to attend the opening and closing ceremonies at the RheinEnergieStadion), a trip to the cathedral city will still be well worth the effort. In addition to the sporty side of things, several parties are scheduled throughout the city during the course of the Gay Games, including a White Party to wrap up the festivities.
It is hard not to smile at the paradox that Germany’s gayest city is also its most Catholic. Indeed it is virtually impossible to go anywhere without being aware of the city’s majestic cathedral, the Dom, and its impossibly tall twin spire – said to be the tallest of its kind in the world.
But for those looking to get their fill of culture, the city offers much more than the Dom and its gothic splendour. Just around the corner from the cathedral is the Romano-Germanic museum which traces the city’s history back to 50AD when it was first established as a Roman city, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.
Classical music lovers are also well catered for by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. Based at the zinc-clad and shed-like Philharmonic Orchestra Building and performing under the baton of principal Finnish conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the orchestra plays like a well-oiled machine with true Germanic warmth and precision. Their recent performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, the Titan, conducted by Jakub Hrusa, was a truly electrifying experience with the audience exploding into a standing ovation when the baton came down for the final beat.
Cologne is a city that is surprisingly easy to fall in love with. And fall in love in. As the thousands of “love locks”, fastened around the fence on the Hohenzollern Bridge and inscribed with lovers initials (including quite a few same-sex names!) attest.
True, it doesn’t quite boast the grand magnificence of Berlin, and thanks to massive destruction in WWII its buildings can’t match that of Munich for twee perfection. But maybe it is exactly as a result of this that the city feels as open, accessible and welcoming as it is.
As I scramble up the airstairs of my homebound Lufthansa flight and am greeted by a cheery “Schön guten Tag”, I find myself automatically scheming my next trip to the Rhein city. By the time we’ve reached cruising altitude my new itinerary has already taken shape. I’m even looking forward to my first glass of Kölsch back in the city. Though maybe next time I will look for a bar that serves the local brew in glasses bigger than Barbie-size.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of first-class hotels in Cologne to pick from, with several of them flying the rainbow flag high. Especially highly recommended is the Le Meridien Dom Hotel and the Hyatt Regency. The Dom Hotel is situated in an enviable location directly on the cathedral square, with rooms overlooking the Dom’s intricate gothic architecture, and just a stone’s throw from the city’s most exclusive shops and boutiques. During the summer months breakfast is served outside on the square under large umbrellas, with the Dom almost within touching distance. The Hyatt Regency was one of the official hotel partners of Cologne Pride and the Hyatt group currently also runs a special Pride Welcome Package across its worldwide properties. Situated on the banks of the Rhein, the hotel is within short walking distance to the city and provides excellent access to the city’s Messe exhibition centre.
How to get there
For hassle-free direct flights, Lufthansa should be your first stop. To sweeten the deal, the airline is also currently running a promotion which gives you £20 discount towards winter and autumn trips. Lufthansa flies daily from London to Cologne-Bonn Airport and from several UK cities, including Manchester and Edinburgh, to Dusseldorf (situated 45min by train from central Cologne).
Where to party
Cologne’s gay district is rather spread out across the city, but the largest number of rainbow-flag-waving establishments are situated near Rudolfplatz. For detailed listings on Cologne’s gay bars, clubs and restaurants have a look at the Gay City Guide on TomOnTour