Cologne: Cathedrals and Chocolate

Cologne Cathedral

A 5 hour trip by train transports us from Munich to Cologne. This time our apartment was far more what I am familiar with when staying in Europe. An old building with a narrow winding staircase. Puff puff, pant pant, we lugged our luggage up, assisted by some kindly German chap who noticed us struggling to get into, as it turns out, the wrong apartment. Of course we were on the third floor. Not ground. Also this was the apartment of the collapsing bed. On my way to bathroom on the first morning I glanced in at Ann’s room. It was empty, no Ann, no bedding, no mattress, just the wooden bedframe tilting at a jaunty angle. I had flashbacks to the wilder parties of my twenties. I did what I had to, then checked again on my way back to the room. Turns out Ikea is not infallible, rather in the case of this particular bed it was very fallible. ..it had collapsed during the night and whilst we slept on unawares Ann had dragged mattress and bedding to the lounge to bed down there. Luckily mom-in-law turned out to be more resilient than the bed.

Just like the building we were staying in, Cologne has a long and complex history dating back nearly 2000 years in 50 AD when the Romans first founded a village on the Rhine naming it Colonia (Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinesium according to Wikipedia) During the Middle Ages under the Franks it was an important trade route. For a large part of its history it forms part of the Holy Empire. The French were occupying it by 1801. Its seen fierce conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants and a great deal of industrialisation. There was a period just after the First World war when Cologne was a thriving city of 700 000 citizens. Sadly 90% of the inner city was destroyed during the Second World War during the course of 262 Allied airstrikes. The twin spires of the Cologne Cathedral made it an easy target, from an aerial view it forms a huge cruciform, and it was hit 14 times! Yet by some miracle the cathedrals twin spires and most of the church remained standing in an otherwise devastated city.

Cologne on the Rhine
Cologne on the Rhine

The Cologne Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Cologne is indeed a venerable and imposing structure. Its construction began in 1248, stopped partway in 1473, then resumed in the 19th century and was completed to the original plan in 1880. Repairs post the bombings of the Second World War were completed in 1956 and today it stands the biggest Gothic church in Northern Europe. I am no architect but certainly it was imposing, looming above us in a way that Bram Stoker would have approved of.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

Yet it drew you in with its towering spires, it’s incredible detail and it’s sheer size. Inside was beautiful, its cavernous space divided into various areas some with seating where people could meditate or pray, some clearly holding shrines with candles below.

Cologne Cathedral inside
Cologne Cathedral inside

Opulent stained glass windows threw prisms of light into the cold interior. Looking around at the beauty and faded resplendence confirmed what I suspected. RC. Roman Catholic churches unlike many other Christian belief systems, do not see statues or images of holy figures as idolatry…and often their churches are filled with beautiful art in the forms of carvings, stained glass windows and statues.

Cologne Cathedral stained glass windows
Cologne Cathedral stained glass windows

They however are not alone regarding not wanting their faithful to not get too comfortable, at least that is my impression from every chilly church where I have sat on flat cushions and hard benches. Still, the beauty did distract me from such mortal frailties. …at least for awhile. On then for a bite to eat and here at last in Cologne we moved on a bit from the pork, beer, potato, pork, cabbage, pork….(that did remind me a lot of living with my father) While Cologne wouldn’t necessarily be described as vegetarian friendly, there is generally at least one option (excluding potato chips), though often it is just literally one option like a baked potato the sole item under the “Vegetarian “ heading. And if you’re vegan its just potato for you because it’s served with butter and cream. * still I have it on good authority that it is not that hard to be vegetarian in Germany, though perhaps one must know where to go and it’s possibly easier if you cook for yourselves. To be fair we really stuck to the tourist routes and so we’re of course offered lots of local cuisine…..ooh come to think of it I did find a Mexican place in Cologne which is awesome for a vegetarian option. And fear not fellow food freaks and those with lactose intolerances. ..Berlin cuisine is truly cosmopolitan, catering for nearly every diet, allergy and palate preference. But back to Cologne. The fact that it was pretty much devastated after the war has left it with an odd collection of old and new architecture.

Along the Rhine Cologne
Cologne Rhine architecture

Sadly very little of the old remains, however in 1947 a decision was taken to rebuild the Old Town though post-war architecture still characterises the face of Cologne today. The Rhine metropolis is now apparently one of the most prominent travel destinations in Germany and Europe, however to see the sights doesnt’t take long and with proper planning you could comfortably cover the sights in 2 days and, while we were there for three and a bit the time would be better put in in Berlin for instance.
Although we only did this on day 3, I would suggest one begins with a cruise down the Rhine river. Since the cruises don’t start very early you can have a relaxed start to the day and can take a leisurely walk along the river bank with its wide pedestrian (and bike) lanes. Our cruise took an hour up and down the Rhine and gave us an opportunity to really see the layout of the fourth largest German city.

Cathedral Gross St.Martin peeping up behind Alstad
Cathedral Gross St.Martin peeping up behind Alstad

In the past the Rhine divided the Franks and the Romans year and even now there is a distinct difference between the left and right banks and how they’ve been developed. It also gives you a chance to view the various post war architecture with the odd pocket of old warm charm still popping its head up, very high in the case of the old cathedral, particularly where the Alstadt has been restored. You can hop off the boat, cross the road and be in the rebuilt Alstadt, with its cobbled streets and quaint pubs and restaurants, it’s small but loaded with places to enjoy a beer, coffee or a bite to eat. There’s a pub, which judging by what I heard when Pierre and I wandered past one evening, plays great upbeat jazz and swing. This was after a couple of drinks at the Hard Rock so I decided not to stop for ‘one more’ …
Assuming you enjoyed a late lunch in Alstadt and have walked it off a bit its time for dessert ! Catch one of the Bimmelbahn” Mini Trains which run every half an hour, conveniently stopping at the tourism office every half an hour. It was here that a tour operator recognised us as South African sine he himself was. Small world. Likewise these small brightly coloured changes bring out a sense of childlike full. There are two ones, both taking in the Cologne Cathedral of course, and one going past the zoo, while the other goes past the chocolate factory.

Lindt Chocolate museum
Lindt Chocolate museum

Even for a non-chocoholic the Lindt Chocolate museum makes for a pretty interesting tour and isn’t too long. I also learnt I have been mistaken to believe that there is little difference between the coffee and chocolate beans, while history of chocolate is more interesting than I imagined and I found the different moulds enchanting. You can watch the whole process in a mini factory there’s something hypnotic about watching chocolate being stirred in a hug vat. If you are a chocolate addict, this may test you. Then, sweet tooth sated you can catch the mini train back into town.
Perhaps another day for a run along the Rhine and through the park and you have really experienced a great deal of what is unique and special to Cologne and our time there was pretty relaxed. Next…Berlin!

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