Perfume, beer and the Three Wise Men: a visit to Cologne

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The word “Cologne” means one thing to most people: perfume. But to those of us on my Viking Rhine cruise, a visit to Cologne meant discovering a place that was nothing like we were expecting.

First of all, if you expected the whole city to smell like perfume, you’d be disappointed. The distinctive eau de Cologne was indeed invented here, by an Italian perfume maker back in 1709. And while you can see the history of Cologne’s perfume industry in the Farina Fragrance Museum, smelling good is not really what the town’s about.

On the other hand, if you expected it to be an ultra-modern, industrial city, you’d be at least partially wrong there, too. Despite being bombed heavily in World War II, Cologne – or Köln, as it’s called in German – has a historic district where old buildings, many of them meticulously reconstructed, still dominate on cobblestoned streets lined with old-time beer halls.

Cologne love lock bridge

The day’s walking tour led from our downtown berth on the waterfront past the huge Hohenzollern Bridge, which is adorned with one of the biggest collections of love locks I’ve ever seen. Apparently the city, alarmed at all the extra weight on the bridge, proposed to take them down a few years ago, but a public outcry stopped the plan in its tracks.

Along the way, we passed a row of buildings adorned with dates from the 1200s. Watch out for those dates, our guide advised: they’re a sure sign the building is a recreation. But beside the reconstructed buildings, where locals sat enjoying an early-morning beer, some real history did survive: the ancient St. Martin Church, built on Roman foundations, and past it a square commanded by the city’s 600-year-old town hall.

Koln waterfront buildings

Our walk took a different route, however, past Cologne’s ultra-modern philharmonic hall, and up to the front windows of the Germano-Roman Museum. And through the glass, we saw an amazing sight: an original Roman mosaic floor, discovered in 1941 by workers building an air raid shelter. The mosaic, which depicts the Roman god Dionysius, dates to around 220 AD. And it was so well preserved when discovered that the city built the museum around it, rather than trying to move it.

Roman mosaic koln

(It was the Romans, by the way, who gave Cologne its name: Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. I won’t attempt to translate: suffice to say the name we know today is actually a form of the Latin word for “colony”.)

Cologne’s real showpiece lies across the square from the museum. The huge and famous Köln Cathedral is one of the prodigies of Christian Europe. The church is a UNESCO world heritage site, and no wonder. Its sheer size is staggering: the building covers almost 8,000 square metres (86,000 square feet) and can hold more than 20,000 people.

Outside, its enormous façade leads up to a pair of twin spires that soar 157 metres (515 feet) above the city, visible from almost everywhere. You can climb the south tower for a panoramic view, if you’re not afraid of heights — or the 533 steps you have to negotiate.

Koln cathedral exterior

The cathedral is almost as impressive inside, its forest of graceful stone pillars reaching up 43 metres to rows of baldachin-style arches. There are beautiful stained-glass windows and a pieta, and below ground, a treasury with artifacts dating back to the fourth century.

Koln cathedral interior

But it’s behind the altar where the story gets interesting. There, in a golden reliquary, lie the bones of the Three Wise Men – at least, according to the church. And they’re the reason this prodigious cathedral exists.

Three Wise Men reliquary Koln

In 1164, Archbishop Rainald von Dassel brought the relics back to Cologne from the conquered city of Milan. Cologne already had a cathedral, but it was considered too modest for such exalted guests, so it was razed and a new one designed.

The cornerstone of the new cathedral was laid in 1248, and the site became a magnet for pilgrims from across Europe. However, the building itself progressed in fits and starts, at one point standing unchanged for 280 years. Finally, in the 1800s, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV decided to finish it once and for all, and the building was declared complete in 1880. The next day, the stone masons went back to work restoring the parts that had been deteriorating since 1248.

Back outside, we walked past one of Cologne’s smart shopping streets, highlighted by the House of 4711, the famous perfumery named after the firm’s original address. Beyond, the narrow streets led past the city’s other specialty: beer halls, or brauhauses, as they’re called in German. These are a common sight in most German cities, but none has as many bars and clubs as Cologne – you could call it Germany’s party town.

beer garden koln

Many of the beer halls and pubs are centred around old town squares like the Heumarkt (Hay Market) and the Alter Markt (Old Market). The latter is home to the old town hall, or Rathaus, a complex building with towers and chambers built at different times dating back to the 14th century. But the most remarkable part is the main tower, which features 130 stone statues of local figures.

The feature most people come to see, however, is the famous Platzjabbeck, a black-bearded fellow who sticks his tongue out at the folks across the river when the clock strikes the hour. That’s pretty saucy in itself, but the reply is even more impudent: on a wall across the square, a little fellow shows his rear end to all the rats in the Rathaus.

Koln rathaus Platzjabbeck

Koln ass statue

There’s more to see in Cologne, like the city’s 12 Romanesque churches, the convention centre with its great views of the city, and the toney Belgian quarter, a mecca for high-end shoppers. Our visit to Cologne lasted only a day. But before we cast off, I managed to fit in both a visit to the chocolate museum on the waterfront and a tour of some of the famous Cologne beer halls.

And as we sailed out of port, I climbed to the sun deck to take one last picture of the cathedral, lit up for all to see — a lovely sight.

Cologne Cathedral night view

I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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