Friday, November 19, 2010

Cologne - the one with the cathedral

The Romans knew it as Colonia, the Germans know it as Koln, Americans know it as Cologne. By these and any other names, it is a beautiful city on the Rhine, full of good art, a beautiful cathedral, good beer and great fun. One of Germany's oldest cities, by the Middle Ages it was the most densely populated and most prosperous in the German-speaking region.

I didn't see nearly enough of it, but Levelers will like it because it's flat.

Romans established Colonia in 50 AD and it soon became one of the most influential trading centers in the Roman Empire. You can see the best of Roman artifacts - every time they dig down somewhere more are found in Romisch-Germanisches Museum, just to the right of the cathedral.

Tip: The large, comfortable and efficient Visitor Center is across the street from the cathedral. Warning: Watch out for the skateboarders who practice their skills on the cathedral square

You can't miss the cathedral - its Gothic spires tower over the city. That they do is a miracle. Cathedrals traditionally took a long time to build but Cologne's seemed to take so long that residents had a saying: "As soon as the cathedral is being completed there will be the end of the world."

Places of Christian worship have been on its site since the 4th century and before that the Romans had structures here although probably not the temple claimed by guide books. Ruins of a Roman house were uncovered during the building of an adjacent parking garage.

Tip: As you leave the cathedral, there is an elevator down to where you can look at the ruins through plate glass. Follow the sign to "toiletten" then to "Domturm Parkhaus". Better to do that than climb the 530-step spiral staircase to the tower although they tell me the view is spectacular.

The cornerstone for the current cathedral was laid in 1248; plans were for a cathedral worthy of housing the skulls and robes of the Magi that Frederick Barbarossa brought from Milan following the crusades. By 1517, the Reformation was underway, Vasco de Gama's discoveries were sending all the trade to Portugal and The Netherlands, the pope had his own cathedral to build in Rome (St. Peter's), Baroque style was all the rage and money had run out. Construction stopped.

Around 1800, the Romantics had made Gothic architecture the rage and the Protestant Prussian kings decided to complete the cathedral. They did but don't worry about the world ending because of it. Work continues today, repairing the damage of World War II, the poor choice of original materials and today's pollution.

Inside, don't miss the mosaic on the floor - it's not tile but ceramic from the workshops of Villeroy and Boch. The 1442 Steffan Lochner triptych The Three Kings in the Chapel of the Virgin is a gem, but the real gems - 3,000 by official count - are in the gold Sarcophagus of the Magi behind the altar, said to be the largest reliquary in the western world. The wooden Gero Cross near the sacristy was carved in 976 and is the oldest surviving large crucifix north of the Alps.

Surprise: In 1670 the choirmaster handed out sugar sticks bent like shepherds' crooks. The first candy canes?
Tip: Do take a walking tour of Cologne if you can; it's flat and fun, especially the one on Cologne females. There are a lot of surprises, too, that you'd never notice without a guide.

Art-wise, the Museum Ludwig is a not-to-be-missed. Its collection of 20th century and contemporary art is sublime, including the most significant collection of Pop Art outside the U.S., the world's third largest collection of Picassos covering all of his periods and genres and one of the world's largest collections of Russian avant-garde works.
Tip: Use the elevators, Levelers, and grab a folding chair to sit on when you tire, but do not miss this.

When the sun is over the yardarm and your tummy begins to grumble, make a beeline to the brewpub Suenner im Walfisch and hoist a Kolch beer (there are 24 brands; we had sunner).
The building dates from the Middle Ages, the clientele is native Kolners and the food is excellent. Finish your repast with an akrobar, a digestif that used to be an ancient medicine. You will have overeaten and it will settle your stomach.
Warning: The bathroom is up a winding staircase if you are seated on the ground floor.


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