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
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.