ONCE upon a time, they say, the citizens of Cologne did not have to work.
A brigade of elves would come into the city at night and do the baking, brewing, butchering and carpentry. The craftsmen merely had to sell the produce the following morning. Why this blissful existence came to an end is the subject of a sculpture in the city centre and a beautifully illustrated children’s book. There is no point in spoiling the story if you plan to visit the city and find out for yourself.
What is interesting about this piece of folklore is the ring of truth about it. There is a laidback, knees-ups nature to Cologne. Its proximity to France, where the finer things in life are relished, and its predomin-ant Catholicism, which does not share the Protestant work ethic, give Cologne a slightly different character.
Certainly, its Christmas market, which introduces you to the Germany of fairytale, roasted chestnuts, gluvin and wood-carved toys, is a world away from the stock market and banks of Frankfurt. Cologne is a media city where business has a slightly more creative edge. It is home to the broadcasters WDR and RTL, which feed off a host of independent production companies and all the allied services that make up the television business.
Even Cologne’s elite business circles are bizarre. Whereas our top brass might don their golf jumpers and take to the greens of Mount Juliet for out-of-office networking, Cologne’s corporate types belong to one carnival guild or another. They dress up in the white stockings and colourful coats of medieval times for a good knees up at carnival, which takes place during the days leading up to Lent. Preparations go on all year and behind the dressing up and daftness, they network and deal.
Cologne wasn’t always so Catholic. In the 11th century, when its medieval walls were constructed, it had a substantial Jewish population and, at one stage, there were seven synagogues in the city. The markets of Cologne attracted Jewish traders to the city and it reportedly has the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps. Parts of the medieval wall still stand and can be seen on a tour of the city, although the Jewish community has diminished. A Jewish quarter is currently being excavated close to the Alter Market where half-timbered stalls set up for Christmas — a mere stroll from the Cathedral Market.
Central to all sightseeing in Cologne is the magnificent cathedral with its famous twin spires. If you arrive in the city by Rhine river cruise, it is only a short walk from the docks. If you come for the Christmas market, it towers right above you. There are eight Christmas markets in Cologne in total but the one beside the cathedral is the special one.
When Cologne was heavily bombed in the Second World War, the cathedral was spared — not because of any appreciation for its heritage on the part of the Allies but because it gave them a superb reference point in the night-flying of the time. Find the Rhine from the air, keep going until you see the cathedral and you know where you are.
The cathedral was built to give a fitting home to the bones of the Three Wise Men, which were brought to Cologne in 1164, ostensibly from Milan and, before that, from Constantinople. Pilgrims had been flocking to Santiago de Compostela in Spain since 813 to see the bones of St James and, when Cologne claimed to have the bones of the Magi, it too began to experience some religious tourism. Plans for the extraordinary endeavour of building a cathedral were drawn up on goat’s skin and it took until 1833 to complete the building. Today it costs over €5 million per annum to maintain the cathedral, which has a staff of 90, including 50 stonemasons.
Stepping into its mighty cavern induces a sense of awe and wonder. Place all scepticism about the relics of the Magi aside for a moment, and try visiting the gilded, triple sarcophagus — particularly in the run up to Christmas — without experiencing a sense of magic.
Look out too for the stained glass window de-signed by Gerhard Richter on the south transept. While the cathedral was not hit during the Allied bombing, this window was blown out. Richter spent five years creating a new window, which was unveiled in 2007. He was made an honorary citizen of Cologne and now lives and works there.
A hugely impressive collection of art is housed just a stone’s throw from the cathedral in the Museum Ludwig. Gathered over a lifetime by Peter and Irene Ludwig, the collection includes work by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, the German impressionists and Russian avant-garde artists.
Like so many cities on the water in the post-industrial era, Cologne is cleaning up its dock area. It now has new features to view from the Rhine, namely the three crane-shaped office and apartment buildings, which are built over a massive underground carpark. This is now the snazzy part of town in which to live or do business, as the number of Porsches in the carpark will attest. However, the entrance to this dock area, known as Rheinauhafen, is a chocolate factory, en-suring that no matter how urbane and sophisticated you like to think you are in Cologne, the city still has a childlike quality.
The chocolate factory area is home to the Medieval Christmas Market and the Cologne Harbour Christmas Market. Along with Floating Market, the Stadtgarten and the Rudolfplatz, they bring to eight the number of Christmas shopping options Cologne can offer you — and that’s not including regular shopping.
One of the great gifts or stocking-fillers from Cologne is a small bottle of its scented waters. 4711 is the famous one but even more historic are the scents is the House of Farina.
We now use the expression “Eau de Cologne” to cover all scented waters. The word Cologne comes originally from colony.
Like so many cities along the Rhine, it began its life as a Roman colony. Later it spent some 20 years within French territory, under Napoleon, as the borders of Europe shifted. Today it is decidedly German with a bit of dash thrown in.
There are daily flights from Dublin to Frankfurt, with rail connections from Frankfurt Airport direct to Cologne city centre. Flights are operated by Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com).
Aer Lingus also flies to Dusseldorf (43km away) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Frankfurt Hahn with connections to Frankfurt main station by bus.
Ama Waterways operates a Rhine Cruise, which takes you to Cologne and other charming German towns by boat from Amsterdam. For details contact Sunway Travel at www.sunway.ie or telephone (01) 2366 8000 for an Ama Waterways brochure.
Cologne is wonderfully compact in terms of city centre attractions. The main rail station is on one side of the cathedral and on the other side is the marvellous Museum Ludwig where you can wander for hours in this superb, purpose-built art space.
Stop for lunch at Gilden im Zims where you can have real German sausage and apple strudel, washed down with Kolsch, Cologne’s own beer, which is top fermented and served in small glasses to preserve the taste. You can walk to the rejuvenated harbour area with its chocolate factory and sports museum and the beautiful banks of the Rhine.
For more information on the Christmas markets, log on to: www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk
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