Germany Stories and Tips


The other day I was in Köln am Rhein, the fourth largest German city with nearly one million inhabitants, Cologne on the Rhine for you, Colonia Agrippina for the Old Romans; the wife of Emperor Claudius was born on the banks of the Rhine and elevated her ’colonia’ to the status of a city in the year 50 A.D.

I don’t know any other city where the main attraction is right beside the train station (or rather vice versa), you leave the building and there, smack bang, is the Cathedral, the two towers are 157m high, it‘s not possible not to be impressed. You cross a square and walk up a flight of stairs on which people sit - and unfortunately also eat and drink and leave their rubbish. I read in a paper that the stairs are cleaned twice every day (imagine the costs!) and that now the city of Köln considers to forbid eating and drinking there, they have my blessing!

After reaching the top you can enter the Cathedral from a side entrance but I didn’t do it, I walked round the building until I’d reached the main entrance opposite which there is the tourist information office where friendly staff hand out a (free) brochure about the city with a map and short descriptions of the sights (in German and English). Now into the Cathedral!

The last time I was in Köln was sixteen years ago, the odd thing was that I couldn’t remember if I had visited the Cathedral then, but as it jumps into the tourist’s face, so-to-speak, it’s nearly impossible not to do so. After entering I knew what the problem was, I was ready to be impressed, overwhelmed even, after all the Cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and was recently voted Germany’s most popular tourist landmark, but I wasn’t, I had simply forgotten it, no lasting impression had stayed with me. It’s huge, yes, it’s the biggest German church, 4000 people can get in (seated and standing), but the grey sandstone makes for a cold and un-intimate atmosphere, and then the windows! The lives of Jesus and various saints in horrible, shrill colours, pink, poison green, violet, the only window worth looking at is the new one which was revealed only last month, Gerhard Richter, one of the most important living German artists, designed a kaleidoscope of 11,500 squares of glass in 72 colours.

The style of the church is Gothic, it was begun in 1248 but only finished in 1880! The church wasn’t being built for 632 years, of course, lack of money and also lack of interest stopped the building for long periods, during many years it even served as a warehouse. This is surprising considering the fact that in 1164 the relics of the Magi were brought to Cologne and the Cathedral became one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Europe, the original shrine can be seen in the underground Treasure Chamber (4 € / concessions 2 €), a gilded copy of the shrine stands now in the centre of the Cathedral.

When I got out, I turned left and went to the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Romano-Germanic Museum) (5 € /concessions 3 €). From the number of artefacts exhibited there you get the impression that you only have to dig a hole in the ground in Köln and out comes a Roman glass vase or an oil lamp! The Roman mosaic with scenes from the world of Dionysos (around 220/230 A.D.) and the reconstructed tomb of the legionary Poblicius (around 40 A.D.) are probably the best known exhibits, the collection of Roman glass vessels is the largest worldwide, all is presented very nicely.

Back across the square in front of the museum, across the Roncalliplatz and then into the street Am Hof and there is the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen (for you: Haynselmannchen) showing two flights of stairs with some dwarfs falling down the steps and a woman with a lantern at the top. The Heinzelmännchen were dwarfs only to be found in Köln, they did all the work for the lazy craftsmen at night while they were sleeping, during the day they couldn‘t be seen. When they helped a tailor, his wife became so curious that she put dry peas on the stairs one evening, and as she had imagined, the dwarfs stumbled and fell making a lot of noise, she came out of her room with a lantern and saw them. But that was it, after that night the dwarfs were never seen in Köln again. As you can see curiosity doesn‘t only kill the cat, it also drives Heinzelmännchen away!

Near the Roncalliplatz the Hohe Straße begins, a traffic free street only about 10m wide with shops on either side, I don‘t travel to far away cities to shop there but I find the street fascinating nevertheless as it has been Köln’s main street for over 2000 years! The buildings aren’t very old, however, as more than 90% of the city centre of Köln had been destroyed by the end of the war, after the liberation by the US army, one of the first newspapers summarised the situation, "The city is one of the biggest heaps of rubble in the world."

I follow the Hohe Straße only for some metres and then turn right, my destination is the Glockengasse and there the parent house of 4711, the famous Eau de Cologne, a mildly perfumed toilet water, you can find the whole product range in the shop. What does the brand name 4711 mean? It was the house number given to the factory during French occupation of the Rhineland in the early 19th century. Inside, right beside the door, is a basin with a tap out of which a continuous stream of Eau de Cologne is running, you can put your hands in!

Every hour visitors look up at the façade where some figures dressed as French soldiers come out of an opening and march across the front while a carillon concert is playing the Marseillaise.

Still smelling nicely I moved on towards the Neumarkt to look at the modern glass building on whose roof the artists Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen placed a ‘Dropped Scone’ of gigantic dimensions (39 ft. 10 in./ 12.1 m high x 19 ft. / 5.8 m) diameter, very funny, I like it.

From there into the Schildergasse which despite its name (Gasse means ‘alley‘ in German) is a wide traffic free shopping street, the department store of Peek&Cloppenburg, the ‘Weltstadthaus‘, (literally world city house) was designed by the world famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. From the net: "The idiosyncratic jacket of the building, made of glass and wood, is both architectural vision and technical challenge." Even for people who‘re not interested in shopping this is a store worth visiting!

From here it‘s not far to the town hall with its Renaissance façade, in front of it there‘s an archaeological site showing remains of the former Jewish quarter, opposite in a corner house another shop selling Eau de Cologne! ‘Farina‘ is the name, "the original one" as the shop assistant proudly told me. From what I‘ve found out she‘s right, 4711 is more famous, but Farina is the oldest Eau de Cologne (founded in 1709). I let her spray my wrists, I *did* smell good on this day!

Behind the town hall is the Alter Markt (Old Market) with one beer pub beside the other, in Köln people drink Kölsch, it’s only brewed here, (from Wikipedia): It is a clear beer with a bright straw yellow hue, and it has a prominent, but not extreme, hoppiness. It is less bitter than the standard German lager beer, Pils. Furthermore, it is a top-fermented beer (an ale), meaning that it is fermented at 15 to 20°C (60 to 68°F) and the yeast tends to collect at the top, as opposed to bottom-fermented beer (a lager) fermented at much colder temperatures." Brits should like it!

And then, behind a row of houses, we see the river Rhine at last, Father Rhine, as it is called in German. The riverside has restaurants, cafés and more pubs and lawns on which people are allowed to lie (worth mentioning in Germany) and a footpath running parallel to the river. The Rhine is a ‘working river’ with barges going upstream and downstream and also the white passenger ships of the Köln-Düsseldorfer Rhine shipping company. The sun was shining and I enjoyed the view for some time. This is not the romantic Rhine which you may have heard about, the Lorelei rock is farther south, nevertheless I had to think of the song *all* choirs sing when visiting the Rhine (and loads of choirs do so): "Why is it so beautiful on the Rhine?" (repeat three times) - "Because the old Germans drank until they sank quietly to the ground." - "This is why it is so beautiful on the Rhine" (repeat once).

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