So there we were, in the famous cathedral town of Cologne (or Koln) in Germany. And what were we doing that cool morning? We were counting cars, and fast discovering that sometimes clichés do come true! Virtually every car that sailed past us was either a BMW or an Audi. Followed by a Volkswagen, a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz. Sometimes, the order was reversed: a Merc went past, followed by three Audis, then one solitary Porsche, two BMWs and half-a-dozen Volkswagens bringing up the rear. And if we kept our eyes peeled, we could and did spot a handful of Opels, too.
Just why were we counting cars in Cologne? Well, it was one way of taking our eyes and thoughts off the Dom, the High Cathedral of St Peter. Just for a while, mind you.
It is everywhere, people told us, there is no getting away from it. And indeed, when we got off the train from Brussels, the looming twin spires of the Dom was the first thing we saw. Mouths open, we just stood and gazed awhile at the soaring, skeletal, sinister structure. I am sorry for the alliterative construct of this sentence, but there it is.
Rounding the train station in search of our hotel (which, of course, happened to be a stone's throw away from the Dom), we came to the ornamented front of the cathedral, and stopped to stare some more. This is when feelings of awe slowly started to creep in. Not the shot-with-sunlight awe that comes over you as you look upon the Notre Dame, the Chartres Cathedral, St Peter's Basilica or St Paul's. This is the awe you feel when you are confronted with a show of austere but majestic power.
Then again, that should come as no surprise because the Cologne Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and a renowned representation of both German Catholicism and Gothic architecture. In 1996, it was declared a world heritage site. What is more, it is also Germany's most visited landmark, seeing footfalls of more than 20,000 a day. Oh, and those two huge spires shooting up 515 feet from the ground, the second-tallest spires after the Lutheran Church in Ulm, give it the largest façade of any church in the world. The cathedral has eleven church bells, four of which are medieval.
This Gothic structure is over 750 years old. Cologne came under heavy fire in the World War II but it is now part of the cathedral's mystique that it survived total annihilation despite being hit 14 times by aerial bombs only because bombers used the immediately recognisable structure as a landmark to aid navigation when flying over the city.
Visitors willing to climb 533 steps up the South Tower get to see a breathtaking view of the city and the river Rhine but the tower was under scaffolding (an occupational hazard with most European monuments, alas), so we had to give it a miss.
The Cologne Cathedral is home to the famed Shrine of the Three Magi; their bones are believed to be housed in an intricately-designed, 13th century gold sarcophagus inside the cathedral. Other treasures include the High Altar, a solid slab of black marble dating back to 1322 with its front and sides overlaid with white marble, and the Coronation of the Virgin at the centre, a Treasure Chamber, and the Gero-Kreuz, a large crucifix carved in oak, painted and gilded over which is the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps from the medieval period.
There was such an icy draught inside the Dom that I asked a passing priest in a resplendent red cassock about it. He was entertained by the question's inherent stupidity but told me with a straight face that the stone walls and very high roof is what keeps the place at a cryogenic temperature. Luckily, he does not stop to see the blush that mantles my cheek. Duh, of course.
Cologne city has a 2,000-year history dating back to when it was a vital Roman city. There are museums and galleries galore dotted all over the city but I would recommend as many walking tours as you can fit in during your stay. Cologne's star attraction is the Dom but the city also has a dozen churches of Roman antiquity—St Andrew's, St Aposteln, St Cecilia's, St George's, St Gereon's, St Kunibert's, St Maria im Kapitol, St Maria Lyskirchen, Great St Martin, St Pantaleon, St Severin and St Ursula. If you concentrate on seeking out and finding those Roman churches, a few of which are in ruins now, it will be a couple of mornings well spent, I assure you.
Above the Rhine river hangs a most impressive bridge with its ubiquitous glittering locks. This is the Hohenzollern Bridge or the Padlock Bridge. Seen up close, there were padlocks, apparently 40,000 at last count, in every shape and size fastened to the bridge's iron railings, put there by hopeful lovers who turn the key in the lock as a sign of their commitment, then throw the key into the river. The charm of that tradition tends to overshadow the fact that this is the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany.
When it came to food, we headed to the Alt Markt (the old market), a charming area with its multitude of shops and pubs, where we systematically partook of the admittedly meat-heavy dishes the place is famed for: Schnitzel (meat batter-fried and served with a satisfyingly huge pile of fries on the side and creamy potato salad), Himmel un aad (apples, potato and sausage mash), Mettbrotchen (meat on a bun), Leberwirst (known as liverwurst to the world, meat with sliced red onion and a bun), all washed down with Kölsch beer, of course. The walk back to the hotel after dinner was wonderful because the lights of the monuments slowly came on and then the lights of the Dom lit up, holding us transfixed to the spot. Again.
Cologne is famous for the eponymously named Eau de Cologne, 305 years old this year. The Farina 4711 Fragrance Museum named after the father of modern perfumery, Giovanni Maria Farina, is a modest fronted building that has tourists trooping day in and day out. Visitors are given a potted history of the scent's origins, the beautiful flagons, how the scent, a mix of lemon, orange, bergamot, mandarin, lime, cedar, grapefruit essences, spawned many imitators… and the ubiquitous gift salon where they get the chance to buy up a whole lot of 4711!
One other cliché that turned out to be true concerned the Germans. They were a bit on the dour side but ever so helpful.(It's a bit disconcerting though not to have one's tentative smile returned, though). Another plus point—there is none of that clutch-your-purse-to-your-bosom feeling of lurking danger here, as there is in many parts of Europe.
Cologne has the dubious distinction of having housed the dreaded local Gestapo headquarters and a tour through the pale beige rooms inside EL-DE building is a chilling one. The building survived the Allied bombing of Cologne during World War II. After the bombings, the basements of the building, which had been used as prison cells and torture rooms, were used to store wartime files and paperwork. Restoration work in the 1980s uncovered more than 1,800 inscriptions made on the walls of the prison cells by inmates in pencil, chalk and even lipstick. The building was the site of many executions and the walls hold a pictorial record of the most normal looking families ever, families that had the misfortune of being Jews at a time when the word was an epithet. There was a large group of noisy schoolchildren the day we were there and their laughter served to dilute the starkness somewhat. We watched them with wonderment. Was their light-heartedness due to ignorance or because their generation had truly moved on?
We took the Rhine river cruise and found that there were stretches when those now familiar twin spires were lost to sight. The Schokoladen Museum where Lindt has a neat presentation on the history and evolution of chocolate was a fun stop. Back in the boat, we scanned the horizon and there it was: the twin spires that seemed to reach for the sky. These may not be the archetypal dreaming spires the poet Mathew Arnold talked about but, in their own way, they emit a strange sense of security, of corporeal and spiritual substance. We were reassured; no more counting cars. If it is Cologne, it has to be the spires of the Cologne Cathedral.