Cologne city guide

Tourists often dismiss Germany as a travel destination, unless we’re talking about history buffs, who often have this country on their bucket list. I think it’s because of the wide range of things to see and do. As a consequence it’s hard to pick one thing or place to visit in Germany. There’s beautiful nature, the medieval towns, and the Oktoberfest. The seaside is nothing to scoff at either. Which city captures the essence of Deutschland and scratches all the right spots? That would be Cologne (Köln in German), hands down. Cologne is one of the oldest and largest German cities. Yet it somehow achieves the fragile balance between a busy beehive metropolis and a small village vibe. Ancient battlements implanted with steel beams and glass panels like architectural cyborgs. The Krane Houses (Kranhauser) are an example of this modern architecture. Their constructions are based on the actual harbour cranes used to load cargo onto ships. The harbour eventually lost its function and was turned into a hyper-modern residential district. Cool stuff. Sadly, there is no large medieval “core” in Cologne as most of it was heavily bombarded during the war.

Cologne Cathedral illuminated by sun, view from below

As conceived by the creators, the Cologne Cathedral was supposed to surpass all the temples that the world had seen before, and they more than succeeded in it; the construction process of Cathedral took more than six centuries

The most important sites are literally next to the train station. It is a very walkable city and a pleasure to explore on foot. The Altstadt (Old Town) is what remains of pre-war Cologne. It might not be the largest, but it should scratch that European fairy-tale itch. The Dom (Kölner Dom), or the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter is the most visited landmark in Germany. 20 000 people every single day is a very impressive number for a church. The Shrine of the Three Kings is its most prized treasure. It’s a huge gilded sarcophagus, supposedly holding the remains of the Three Magi. I don’t think anyone opened it to check, though. This World Heritage Site is enormous. I think that if you’ve seen one Gothic Cathedral then you’ve seen them all. They almost look identical, but the one in Cologne is very special. Not only a unique specimen in this part of Europe, but it’s also miraculously durable. The Dom used to be the tallest building in the city and served as the beacon for World War 2 bombardments.

Everything outside of the Cathedral was absolutely obliterated. What if it wasn’t there in the first place? Would Cologne be in better shape after the war? Possibly. One thing is for sure: the famous Christmas Market wouldn’t be the same. Germany has elevated these seasonal events to a whole new level. Cologne Cathedral Market (at the Roncalliplatz) hosts over 150 stalls and 4 million visitors every year. What’s so special about these festivals that draws in such crowds? They’re like your very own Christmas movie. There’s nothing else quite like that atmosphere. Ride a carousel; drink spiced wine and snack on grilled meats. These markets are the best place to buy presents if you’re lagging behind with that. I recommend buying one of those handcrafted nutcrackers. An absolute peak of human engineering that hasn’t changed its form in centuries.

What came first: the chicken or the egg? The city of Cologne or the perfume? It’s the former of course. The fragrance was invented in 1709 by Johann Maria Farina who named it Eau de Cologne (Kölnisch Wasser). You can still buy it in certain shops. It’s a very classic set of aromas, maybe a bit out-dated though since I also associate with presents I used to buy for my granny during my childhood. Kölsch is a different kind of scented water originating from Cologne. Scented with hops and brewed. A beer so local that it’s regulated by law and can only be made within 50km from the city. A detailed brewing process is also a must for a product to live up to the name.

No better time to get into all the intricacies of this beverage than during the Carnival. Carnival in Cologne (Kölner Karneval) is almost as old as the history of the city itself. The municipality of Cologne declares Carnival even the "fifth season" in its city. The Carnival season traditionally kicks off at 11 minutes past 11 on November 11 but most festivities take place in February or March of the year after. The feast was assimilated by the Catholic Church, while elements from ancient pagan spring festivals have been taken on board as well. As a consequence, the Carnival dates follow the Christian liturgical calendar, which differs every year. The absolute peak of the festivities is taking place during three days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) prior to Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday the Carnival is over and the Lent starts; a 6-week period that ends the night before Easter Sunday. Traditionally for Catholics this period is meant as a sign of sacrifice and to test their self-discipline. On Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent, adult Catholics over the age of 14 are supposed to abstain from eating meat. Doesn’t sound like a big offer to me when more and more people turn out to be part-time vegetarians these days. But nowadays, only hard-core Catholics respect the Lent tradition, while the Carnival has many followers and “believers”. Maybe the Catholic traditions have become less attractive to the new generations? Maybe Catholics believers have les endurance and discipline when it comes to follow religious instructions than the average Muslim or Buddhist? Probably all are true. But I guess above all it’s symptomatic for modern times where people like to enjoy the benefits but cannot deal with the burdens.

Two glasses of Kölsch beer to the backgdrop of Cologne's Old Town (Altstadt)

Cologne is famous for its local beer: Kölsch, which is not only consumed in high doses during the Kölner Karneval (Cologne Carnival) but popular throughout the year, since beer reveals its aroma at a certain temperature, they drink it not ice cold, but at a temperature of 8-10 °C

Many cities in the catholic part of Germany (and the Netherlands and Belgium alike) celebrate Carnival. And every city or region will claim its own Carnival is the best. But is fair to say that Cologne is the undisputed king of Carnival, at least as Germany is concerned. Being originally from the South of the Netherlands I have been raised in the Carnival tradition. And since Cologne was very close to my native town I hopped over so now and then. I can confirm the hospitality and kindness of its inhabitants is infinite which makes it very easy for a foreigner to connect with locals. And they definitely know how to throw a party. The high dozes of alcohol consumption and the flavours of spring in the air definitely do their work. They even say Cologne Carnival is the wildest and outgoing one with also a lot flirting and messing around. And rumour has it that many relationships break up and new love affairs start during these crazy days. Sounds tempty, doesn’t it? In any case, think of colourful street parades, balls and stage shows all over the place. Children and adults dress up in the most weird and creative costumes, parties take over the streets and the Kölsch flows freely. Most popular and busiest day of the festivities is Rose Monday (Rosenmontag). It’s without doubt the highlight of the Kölner Karneval when a huge street parade draws up to a million visitors from all over the world.

When you think of Germany, you also think of the Oktoberfest. Here, obviously Munich is leading the league. Cologne joined the Oktoberfest elite club only recently in 2004, but that doesn’t mean the festival is lacking. You can eat all the Pretzels and Weisswurst with mustard you can fit in your mouth. A 3200 sq. meters large tent filled with sounds of live music and friends to be made. Visit the Chocolate Museum for a desert. You can learn how the famous Lindt pralines are made, or even take different courses and make your very own treats.

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