I met my friend B on the camino just after Sarria in 2015, when she was finishing the Camino Francés from St Jean. We stayed in touch, and she has often talked about wanting to take a 6 month sabbatical to do an Epic Walk – from her front door in Germany to Santiago and the sea, several months on the road through Germany, France, and Spain. We met up again in 2017 to walk the Inglés and in 2018 to walk from Sarria to Santiago together one more time, always talking about our next walk, and the next. This year, after some nervous waiting when covid threatened to rip her dream away, she yanked it back and finally set off from home to walk to Finisterra. So of course I booked tickets for the first available week+ gap in my work schedule to come to Köln – that’s Cologne – and meet her to join her for a small part of her big adventure.
We met in the afternoon, sharing a tiny room close to the impressively beautiful and impossibly tall Kölnerdom, the Cologne cathedral, and went out to sightsee a little while it was light and also find our route out of the city centre for tomorrow. We visited the cathedral, got a stamp as we went in, and heard a quartet warming up for their concert in the beautiful space later that evening. Unfortunately it would be late for us so we decided to give it a miss and have some Flammkuchen – like a very thin pizza with crème fraîche instead of tomato sauce, and traditionally topped with chopped onion, bacon pieces and cheese – for dinner instead.
So I took my first steps along the Via Coloniensis, and found our first shell stickers after a few steps.
We continued past the city hall, into first one square and then another, called Heumarkt, where we sat down in the last of the sun and had our first ankerbier together. Then on the way back we had our Flammkuchen and a night cap, and had an early night.
The next morning we discovered to our great joy that the breakfast was fantastic, so we feasted on breads, cereals, yogurt, cheeses and hams, even hard boiled eggs, and lots of good coffee. (And yes, we did make a packed lunch to take with us). Then off we went, walking past the Kölnerdom again, and followed the city streets for kilometers and kilometers. And suddenly, as we were standing on a corner waiting for the green light to cross, someone behind us said hello – or as I remember it now, he said Buen camino. We turned, and there was a young couple with daypacks, and the man wore a Buff around his neck with a camino stamp pattern on it! You can guess the rest.
It felt just like on the camino, people talking excitedly in different languages, the conversation flowing easily in German and English about plans and memories and cities and foods and dates and feet – and stamps, which we found in a church on the way. Then we sat down at a bakery café and had a cold drink in the heat of the sun, and planned the rest of the day’s route. We stopped for another stamp in another church and had lunchbox lunch in the shade on the steps behind a community centre, it was that hot.
B and I were going 5 km further than our new pilgrim friends, but we stayed together until we reached the outskirts of Brühl, where they were stopping or possibly staying the night. We wished we were… We stopped one last time for ice cream and cold drinks and wished each other safe and wonderful travels. We would happily have stayed and explored Brühl with them – the historical town was very cute – and I wouldn’t have minded sitting down for a meal at this stage. But it was getting late in the day and hot, and we still had over an hour left to go. So go we did.
On the way to Walberberg, which made me giggle every time someone said it out loud, we walked past a house with an unmistakeably pilgrim decoration on the corner. It said they provided stamps, so we stopped and looked around, and found a clear plastic document wallet folded over and stuck to a metal garden door with magnets – inside were stamps on stickers, so we could help ourselves and peel and stick them into our credencial. But as we were hanging the wallet back on the door with a clang, the lady of the house came out and told us she had a real stamp, so we put the stickers back again (great idea though!) and chatted with her for a bit.
She had walked a pilgrimage with her husband, but not to Spain, and now she couldn’t go, she said, because she had no one to go with. We did say she would find company soon enough on the camino but she just smiled sadly. I guess her walking companion was gone. But then she asked to take a photo of us for her scrapbook, and we dutifully stood in the other camino corner and were turned to scraps and memories. It was hard not to hug her as we left.
Then at last we arrived in Walberberg, to our lovely hotel with a big and busy restaurant for such a tiny and sleepy village – there were little wood panelled nooks and corners for us dusty folk and a huge formal dining room for the large family gatherings that were clearly held there. After showing our covid QR codes, getting our stamps and ordering our breakfast for the next morning, we were shown through the restaurant and up to a narrow door mid-stairs, leading into a long corridor that joined the restaurant part to the hotel part. Our room was large and lovely, and though we arrived late – it was past six – we were very happy with our first pilgrim day, and agreed it felt just like being on the camino again.
Then downstairs to one of the little nooks for dinner, a turkey steak with tomato and pepper sauce and a lovely salad that arrived instantly instead of on the plate. We wolfed it down; it was so cool and crunchy and fresh. Then we wolfed the meal down too, sat back in the padded seats and decided it was time to go back up and organise things for tomorrow. On the way back to the room B almost tripped on a little step just inside that narrow door mid-stairs, which gave us both a fright. Luckily she managed to right herself and not damage her knee, which is dodgy anyway. We agreed that when you can’t even watch where you are going anymore, it was definitely time to call it a day. So we did some packing, some planning and set the alarm, and had an early night.