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Fun-loving Cologne is the greatest of all western Germany’s cities, though – given that it was visited early and often by the RAF during World War II – perhaps not its most beautiful. Nevertheless, it has a unique architectural inheritance from its long history which creates a powerful sense of continuity – above all in the instantly recognizable shape of its cathedral, one of the most famous religious buildings on the planet and the seat of Germany’s Catholic primate. Cologne also has a highly developed sense of its own distinctiveness, expressed through the strong Kölsch dialect, the beer of the same name, and a hedonistic approach to life most apparent during Karneval. Though its museums and galleries are first-rate, there’s nothing museum-like about Germany’s fourth city: it’s the nation’s television centre, home to the major broadcasters WDR and RTL, and is also – despite rivalry from Berlin – still an important centre for the art world, with small commercial galleries peppering the inner city.
For centuries COLOGNE was the German metropolis. The city’s origins are Roman: the Emperor Claudius’s fourth wife Agrippina – Nero’s mother – was born here, and after their marriage he raised the city to Colonia status, from which it derives its name. Later, while upstarts like Munich or Berlin were still a twinkle in the eye of their founders, early medieval Cologne was the largest city north of the Alps, ruled by powerful archbishops and benefiting economically from its strategic location astride the Rhine.
The twentieth century brought harder times for Cologne, occupied by the Allies after World War I and bombed terribly during World War II; the Dom was spared yet much of the rest of the city left in ruins. In the postwar years, Cologne radiated moral authority as the hometown of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and of Heinrich Böll, the Nobel Prize-winning author who was dubbed the “conscience of the nation”. Yet it was also the scene of one of the bloodiest episodes in Germany’s terrorist war of the 1970s – the kidnapping by the Red Army Faction of the industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer at the height of the “German Autumn” of 1977, in the course of which Schleyer’s driver, bodyguard and two policemen were shot dead. Schleyer himself was subsequently murdered.
The local tourist office’s slogan Köln ist ein Gefühl (“Cologne is a Feeling”) neatly sums up the city’s appeal. This is one of Europe’s most liberal and diverse places; one in ten of its one million residents are lesbian or gay, making it a pink citadel to rank with Amsterdam or San Francisco. Another tenth of its population is Muslim, with a splendid new mosque currently taking shape in the Ehrenfeld district. You could tick off Cologne’s sights over the course of a long weekend or so, but to get the most out of your stay you need to get away from the tourist haunts by the river and explore at least some of the quarters where the locals live and play.
Cologne’s biggest festival is without doubt Karneval, which is celebrated with as much ritual and dedication to frivolity here as it is in Rio, filling the streets and bringing normal life to a standstill, never mind that the February weather in the Rhineland is nothing like as tempting as in Brazil. The so-called “fifth season” is officially launched each year at 11.11am on November 11, but Karneval (karneval.de) doesn’t really get underway properly until the New Year, with around six hundred Karneval-related events – including balls and Sitzungen or sessions, where Bütten or carnival speeches are made – taking place between then and Ash Wednesday. The season reaches its climax with the Tolle Tage or “crazy days”, beginning on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday with Weiberfastnacht or Women’s Day. This is a bad day to wear a tie if you’re a man, because it will get snipped off, the symbolism of which is somewhat obvious.
The Rosenmontag procession on the following Monday is the undoubted highpoint of Karneval, with wonderfully silly costumes and floats, presided over by the Prinz (the master of ceremonies), the Bauer (a farmer) and the Jungfrau or maiden, who is represented by a man in drag (though this aspect was suppressed by the Nazis). Around a million people turn out to see the Rosenmontag procession, which takes around four hours to wind its way through the city centre, as sweets (Kamelle), bouquets (Strüsjer) and other goodies are thrown at the Jecke – the “fools” or spectators – from the passing floats, and all and sundry cry Kölle Alaaf! – the carnival greeting, which is a dialect derivation of “Köln über alles” or, freely translated, “up with/long live Cologne”. In parallel with the official carnival events, there’s a lively alternative scene, including a gay and lesbian element.
Kölsch is not only the name of the local Cologne dialect – one of the strongest regional accents in all Germany and positively mystifying to foreign visitors – but also of the city’s deliciously refreshing, hoppy, top-fermented beer, traditionally drunk in tall, slim 0.2 litre glasses known as Stangen, though these days there’s a certain amount of glass-size inflation going on to please German and foreign visitors accustomed to drinking their beer in larger measures. Brewery-owned or -affiliated Brauhäuser (or Bierhäuser) represent the traditional core of Cologne’s eating and drinking scene, and there’s a whole range of colourfully named local dishes to accompany the Kölsch, from Kölsche Kaviar (in reality blood sausage) to Halver Hahn – a cheese roll rather than the “half a chicken” the name suggests – and Hämmche, pig’s trotter. The characteristically self-aggrandizing behaviour of the cheeky Köbes or waiters rounds off a highly distinctive, regional beer culture.
You first notice them almost by accident, as the sun catches the pavement and something glitters underfoot. Yet once you’ve spotted your first Stolperstein (stolpersteine.de) – the name means, literally “stumbling block”, you’ll keep stumbling over more. The little brass plaques, memorials to individual victims of the Nazis, usually stand in front of the house from which that victim was taken, and are the work of Gunter Demnig, a Berlin-born but Cologne-based artist. Since 1996 he’s laid 30,000 Stolpersteine in Germany and others in Poland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands among other places. They are particularly thick on the ground in the Zülpicher Viertel and Belgisches Viertel, close to the Roonstrasse synagogue; you’ll sometimes stumble across a dozen or more in front of a single house. Incredibly moving, they’re the antithesis of the big, official monuments to the Holocaust: they record the name, birth-date and fate – as far as it is known – of an individual. Chillingly, in many cases, the story is the same: deported and verschollen – missing, presumed dead. The placement of the stones outside the homes of the victims means the fate of entire families is often recorded. While many of the individuals remembered by the stones are Jewish, there are also Stolpersteine for political opponents of the regime, for the murdered Sinti and Roma, and for the Nazis’ gay victims.
So iconic, so perfectly realized does the profile of Cologne’s awe-inspiring Dom appear that it’s a surprise to learn that the familiar silhouette lacked those soaring, 157-metre spires for most of its history. Construction of the Dom – whose design was inspired by the colossal French cathedrals of Beauvais and Amiens – was prompted by the transfer of the relics of the Three Magi from Milan in 1164. Work began in 1248, with the fifty-metre-high choir consecrated by 1322, but stopped in 1560 and the church remained incomplete until the mid-nineteenth century, when neo-Gothic architect Ernst Friedrich Zwirner finished the job. It’s only when you get up close you appreciate its sheer size, at which point the sooty towers resemble vast waterfalls of Gothic sculpture. You can climb the south tower though be warned – there are 509 steps, and no lift. In the run-up to Christmas, a traditional market fills Roncalliplatz on the south side of the Dom, with others on Alter Markt, Heumarkt, Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz.
Once inside, the downside of the Dom being Germany’s most famous church is apparent, as grumpy, red-robed officials struggle to maintain some sort of ecclesiastical decorum amid the seething mass of visitors. But look up and you’ll forget the crowds, for the genius of the design lies in the way sheer height lends such delicacy and elegance to the structure of what is, by any measure, an enormous building. Five windows on the north side of the nave date from 1507 to 1509, though the Dom’s oldest window, the Bible Window, dates from around 1265 and is in the Chapel of the Three Magi in the ambulatory. The cathedral’s treasures include the very Shrine of the Three Magi that first inspired its construction; gorgeously gilded and bejewelled, the reliquary dates from around 1190 to 1225 and is behind the high altar.
Close by, the so-called Plan F is one of seven surviving medieval drawings of the cathedral. It depicts the design of the towers, and was of great help to their nineteenth-century builders. On the north side of the ambulatory, the Gero Crucifix is the oldest remaining monumental crucifix in the western world; it dates from 970, and originally stood in an early predecessor to the Dom. The most recent addition to the Dom’s artworks is the striking 19-metre-high abstract window by Cologne-based artist Gerhard Richter, installed in the south transept in 2007. Archbishop Meisner is not a fan, and ruffled feathers when he suggested it might be more at home in a mosque.
The partly subterranean Domschatzkammer is accessed from the exterior of the cathedral on the north side, and has something of the air of a bank vault, which is hardly surprising given the priceless works of religious art it contains, or the fact that one of them – the jewelled, seventeenth-century Sumptuous Monstrance – was badly damaged by thieves in 1975. The treasury occupies a series of thirteenth-century vaults, and its artefacts are beautifully lit and presented: particularly eye-catching are the gilded silver bishop’s crosier dating from 1322 and the so-called St Peter’s crosier, which is Roman and dates from the fourth century AD. Also on display is the original wooden structure of the Shrine of the Three Magi, while on the museum’s lower level it’s possible to see a fragment of the Roman city wall and the finds from two sixth-century Frankish tombs.