Cologne (Köln – Kölle in dialect) will always hold a special place in my heart being the birthplace of my father, but in many other ways it is truly a special place.
Gateway to the river Rhine
Below Cologne the river is less interesting in terms of scenery and history. The countryside has flattened out and we move in to the industrial heartland of western Germany. Above Cologne the river starts to move in to hilly areas, industrial areas become smaller and we start to move in to the historical Rhine. The view is now mainly of steep hillsides covered with vineyards most with a castle on top. Full of history and legend, stories of feuding brothers lobbing cannon balls from hilltop castle to hill top castle and beautiful maidens luring unwary river captains to destruction on rapids and shallows.
Cologne is full of history too. The first settlers – pre Roman – left just a little behind to tell the tale but from Roman times there is a wealth of evidence that Cologne ( Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium) was the pre-eminant city of the Roman Empire in the area. The Roman – German museum in the centre of the city is a must see (closed on Mondays by the way) and there are a number of semi hidden Roman ruins arounds the city that can be accessed via the basements of office blocks.
Moving on to later times the main historical monument of the city is Cologne Cathedral (Kӧlner Dom) a ‘World Heritage Site’. The Cathedral took hundreds of years to build (work started in 1248 and it was finally completed in 1880. Hit 14 times by bombs in the WWII the Cathedral survived – the only building in the central area to survive in a city that was more than 90% flattened. This is even more remarkable considering the proximity to the central rail station and the main Rhine bridges.
After the war Cologne has been rebuilt with many of the central areas having been restored in the former style thanks to forward thinking city planners.
The Cathedral precinct forms the centre of the city with the main museums and concert house. Leading from here in one direction is the city’s main shopping ‘drag’ and in the other the way opening to parks on both sides of the Rhine.
A long climb to the top of one of the Cathedrals twin towers may tax the muscles but will be worth the view of the city laid out before you. Get your bearings from here and make this area your base.
Accommodation and Food
There are many hotels to suite all budgets in the immediate city centre area, from the 5 star Excelsior Hotel Ernst and Dom Hotel though 4 and 3 star properties to budget hotels along the river front.
Restaurants abound with food styles reflecting Germanys multicultural present. However, a visit would not be the same without at least a drink in one of the city’s historical ‘brauhaus’ such as Früh. Serving the local beer, Kӧlsch, at stripped pine tables alongside decent pub food and some of the local traditional dishes. Around the corner from the Cathedral, Früh is open from breakfast till late at night.
Another pastime that you must not miss is the traditional Kaffee und Küchen, litteraly coffee and cake. Especially try Café Richard, again situated next to the Cathedral, it is a Cologne institution – watch the world go by and add a couple of inches to your waistline with a traditional German cream cake.
Christmas and Carnival
Cologne is famous for its Christmas markets. One of the best cities for Christmas markets in Germany they are spread around the main shopping area and in the various squares in the Altstadt (Old Town) culminating, once again, in the area around the Cathedral.
Carnival is another tradition that Cologne is famous for. The 6 day period running up to Lent is a time for celebrating starting on Carnival Thursday when the women of the city traditionaly seize control!. You will see many of the locals dressed in different uniforms representing the different Guilds of the Hanseatic period. Never ones to shy away from the odd Kӧlsch or three, the locals really celebrate in the run up to the main event of the period – the carnival procession through town.
Things to buy
In addition to taking a few bottles of Kӧlsch away with you there are a number of local products that always do well: Kӧlnisch Wasser, what we know of as Eau de Cologne started life here (the name gives it away!). The original with the brand name of 4711 gets its name from the number written on the wall of the factory by French soldiers of Napoleonic times when they were billeted in Cologne.
Chocolate is always a good bet. Go and visit the Chocolate Museum in the old Chocolate factory, now owned by Lindt, it is a great place to add to your stocks! (Or at least taste from the chocolate fountain at the end of the museum!)
You can fly in to Cologne Bonn airport or Dusseldorf Airport. Both airports have easy access straight to the centre of Cologne. The journey time from Dussledorf by train from Airport station to Cologne Central station being just 30 minutes or so.
Flights from the UK are from London and regional airports using British Airways, flybe, EasyJet and Lufthansa to name a few.