And why Cologne city should be on your list…
As the train crosses the Rhine, strain for a view of the iconic twin spires of the mammoth Cathedral towering over the narrow gables and high slated roofs of Germany’s 2000 year-old city, Cologne or Koln. You fight the urge to walk into its hallowed interiors directly from the station that’s just 20 meters away. But the moment your wheeled baggage is out of the way, you’re back. This is ground zero…all roads start and end here.
Its not unnatural to feel dwarfed while you stare at the nearly 160-metres high Cathedral dominating the small square of Domplatz. This monumental masterwork of Gothic architecture and one of the tallest churches in the world lays claim to being the longest ever building site – 632 years (1248 to 1880). While reminders of Milan’s Duomo flash through your mind, chew on this. Cologne was the first city the Pope visited after Vatican. That says something!
On the west facade, (the largest church façade ever created), soar the two imposing 157-metre spires crowned with magnificent filigree spires. Statues, pinnacles, gargoyles, flying buttresses and other complex decorative details fill the exterior of a relatively simple structure, which is completely covered with black soot (from extensive coal burning in homes and factories over the centuries). Doesn’t the blackness make it more endearing?
Entering the sacred tranquillity, take in the details slowly…what a miraculous survival through the extensive bombing during the World War II. Two aisles run on either side of the main nave, and your neck almost gets a cramp from looking up what was one of the highest Gothic vaults in the world. Natural light floods in with rainbow colours through the large stained glass windows covering a sprawling 10,000 square meters expanse. Gape at the real treasure…the Sarcophagus of the Magi, dating to around 1200, glittering with seven feet of silver and jewels, images of the Old Testament prophets lining the bottom and the 12 apostles decorate the top. Inside, are three golden-crowned skulls believed to belong to the Three Magi. Also on display is the Gero Cross, carved in 976 AD and said to be the oldest surviving monumental crucifix. Watch, study and tread on in revered silence, like everyone else.
Outside, a few steps from the Cathedral on the right, spot the famous Ludwig Museum…it contains many important works of art from the 20th century, including works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as contemporary art. Nearby, is the Cologne Philharmonic Hall, and a little further ahead, crossing one of the narrow streets, is the arch-shaped Hohenzollern Bridge stretching across the Rhine. It is lined with statues of the rulers of the House of Hohenzollern – Friedrich III and Wilhelm II – who give the bridge its name. More popularly called the Locking Bridge, it has hundreds of locks placed by couples in declaration of their love. Make a declaration of your own.
Explore the streets of the old town…typical German pubs crammed with noisy, playful crowds. Fit into the canvas of quaint old houses, cobbled streets and little squares, every now and then, an Eau De Cologne (‘water of Cologne’) store with the familiar gold and turquoise ‘4711’ fragrance bottles. At the Printen Schmitz, Cologne’s most famous traditional pastry shop, you are besieged by armies of candy-studded gingerbread men, mountains of spiced loaves and hordes of edible mini houses…spicy and sweet, flavoured with honey, coriander, cloves and cardamom, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and even candied fruit. “Run, run, fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” the song resounds in your head, amidst the lively music of the shop. Compelled enough to complete a small purchase?
Roam around the old town, lapping up little details, poking into the quaint by-lanes. A bright red-coloured building announces the enticing menu of Ponchos, an Argentinian steakhouse. Next door, outside the historical beerhouse, a boisterous crowd prepares for a late night of partying. A few steps away, is a group of men dressed as clowns in what looked like multicoloured post-it pyjamas and matching top hats with bright blue long coats. One of them is fixing a camcorder onto a tripod. A crazy bachelor party, perhaps?
Close to the Rhine river promenade (Rheinauhafen), soak up the atmosphere of the historic breweries, taverns, and traditional houses that stand in neat rows. Pose by the two statues of Tünnes and Schäand representing the typical original inhabitants of the city. Find the famous Schmitz Column – a homage to the most common name in the city and the modest Willi Ostermann Fountain, memorial to the much-loved carnival singer-songwriter and composer. Wander into the Alter Markt, thinking about its evolution from a weekly market and a place of execution in the Middle Ages, to the annual Cologne carnival parade spot it is now. Locate the Jan-von-Werth Fountain associated with the legend of the unfortunate love affair between the soldier Jan and the maiden Grit. Think of other classic love stories from around the world and the towns that rise to fame because of them. Love endures beyond space and time!
And finally, indulge in the penultimate Cologne experience… a day-long river cruise to Mannheim along the widest and longest river valley in Europe. The calm luxury cruise ship steadily navigates the 800 mile-long mighty river, and within minutes, the chargrilled black twin spires of the cathedral fade into the background. Sit back and skim along the Rhine, silently savouring the spectacle of everyday life.
Riverside promenades dotted with joggers, cars, cyclists and camper vans. Rows of lovely houses with glass walls and manicured lawns lined up high over the banks. An intermittent castle crowning a hill, a solemn church spire hiding between the trees, a private villa nestling in the wooded environs and green terraced vineyards decking the steep hillsides. Several few towns huddled along the shoreline. Glide along…taste the restful, leisurely pace.
The ship’s loudspeakers hum on pleasantly with local tales. Medieval castles owners who raised heavy chains across the river to stop merchants boats for taxes. A pontoon bridge built by the Prussians while confronting Napoleon. The Ludendorf bridge pillars, where American soldiers had marched across during the World War II. You cross Bonn, the university city, capital of Germany till 1999 known for the Central Bonn museum mile and the annual Beethoven festival (Beethoven was born here). Further ahead, lies the Wesseling church, and the colorful town of Linz with its 14th century castle and half-timber houses. Ahead, where the Bach River flows into the Rhine, the character of the river changes, the waves get fatter and the waters rough. Buses, cars and tempos are getting transported in massive barges across.
The river is the central theme here, the main lead in this play, leading the story along. And what a role it has played, for centuries at a stretch! So when you finally disembark at Cologne, I bet the one word in your mind would be ‘encore’.
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