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Eau, Cologne!

Cologne, Germany

Cologne, Germany, isn’t the city you might expect. The name conjures up images of grim medieval fortifications mixed up with the high-tech efficiency of modern German industry: rather a heavy place you take a break, you might think.

But it’s not like that at all. The city is dominated, of course, by the huge medieval pile of its own cathedral, the Kölner Dom. It’s a building that sits with strange lightness in its surroundings: close up its fine gothic traceries and columns look strangely delicate – as if the place would blow down in a strong wind. Clearly this delicacy is an illusion: Cologne cathedral has survived all kinds of weather and adversity – including Allied bombs during World War II. The cathedral is also not quite everything it seems. Although work on it was started in the thirteenth century progress was only fitful for centuries. In the middle of the sixteenth century, short of cash and in the middle of Europe-wide religious tensions, the people of Cologne gave up on the cathedral altogether. Work did not resume for three hundred years and the mighty edifice was only officially completed in 1880. Hidden in the apparently ancient vaults of the cathedral’s roof are steel braces. The nineteenth century architects may have stuck to the original medieval plans for the building’s exterior, but they made the best use of industrial technology to ensure that the church would remain standing for millennia. For four brief but glorious years between 1880 and 1884 the completed cathedral was officially the world’s tallest building – the structure that finally knocked it off its pedestal being none other than the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

The interior of the cathedral is calm and serene – even on the busiest days, when the place is packed with tourists, it’s not hard to believe that you’re in the building all by yourself. The rich oak pews and slender, towering columns seem to emanate peace and a sense of sanctuary. If you have a good head for heights you can climb the spiral staircase to a viewing platform slightly over three-quarters of the way up one of the towers.

Whatever it’s like inside, outside all is business and bustle. On the square (or ‘platz’) outside the cathedral you can usually find parties of schoolchildren being hustled to and fro, as well as scores and scores of the city’s ubiquitous pigeons. If you’re lucky enough to be in the city around Christmas time, this is the location of one of the best Christmas markets in all Germany. Dozens of small wooden stalls are set up, each selling food, drinks, clothes, trinkets, art, handicrafts or souvenirs. A wonderfully festive atmosphere dominates.

South from the cathedral runs the city’s ‘Hohe Strasse’ – (literally, ‘high street’). If you like shopping, this is the place to be. Cologne’s reputation as the shopping capital of Germany is well-deserved: just about every major international chain and brand is represented here, as are a wealth of smaller, local stores and boutiques. The Hohe Strasse is almost a mile long – ardent shoppers may just complete the distance in the course of a long weekend! Cologne is a great place to buy luxury goods, especially – as you might expect – eau de cologne. This rich, masculine scent has been one of the most famous products of the city for a couple of centuries now, and you can barely walk a hundred yards down a shopping street in the city without passing a store that advertises it for sale.

Eating and drinking in Cologne is also something of a treat. German cooking doesn’t really enjoy the reputation it deserves. If you want to enjoy the authentic German experience you should try visiting a Brauerei – a local brewery. These establishments are rather like English pubs in character, with the crucial difference that each one brews its own beer on the premises. Your beer (or glass of wine, or soft drink) will be served in large glasses to you while you sit on benches at long wooden tables. Most beer brewed in Cologne is known as ‘Kölsch’ – which, oddly, is also the word for the local dialect of German. The related adjective ‘Kölsche’ is used to describe all things related to the city. The local breweries are also great places to sample local traditional cooking – though make sure you know what you’re ordering, as the names can sometimes be a little confusing! ‘Halver Hahn’, for example, means ‘half chicken’. But if you order this particular dish what will turn up on your table will not be poultry at all, but a thick slice or rye bread with cheese and coarse mustard. The most truly ‘Kölsche’ of dishes, though, is ‘himmel un ääd’ – fried black (blood) pudding with potatoes and applesauce – not a dish for those of delicate disposition, but undoubtedly a small taste of the robust, lively city which has produced it.

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