The festive scent of Cologne

A relaxed and fun filled weekend in Köln spent gazing in absolute awe at the magnificent architecture of the Grand Cathedral, soaking in the atmosphere of the exciting Christmas markets, visiting the famous Imhoff chocolate museum and walking along the mighty river Rhein

Words & Photography: Rahul Basu; Year of visit: 2013

Considering how French ‘Eau de Cologne’ really does sound I always assumed it found its origins somewhere in Paris, where love and fashion are thicker than the oxygen in the air. But turns out I was wrong. Eau de Cologne or Kölnisch Wasser as it is locally called was in fact created in the early 1700’s in the very same city it has been named after. But that’s not why I visited Cologne (Köln). It’s one among many other fascinating facts, sights and sounds I was lucky to experience first-hand on my recent visit to Germany’s fourth-largest city.

Almost every big city in Germany is world famous as an ideal destination for some international event, important monument or in my case the headquarters for a German automobile company. The names just stick in your head and you can’t help but wonder what life there must really be like.

Well what better way to find out was what I was thinking over my six hour long train ride from the central to the western part of country. Travelling from Ilmenau, Thüringen to Köln is a rather relaxed and picturesque affair as one would expect; courtesy Deutsche Bahn and their timely connections.

Not surprisingly the first thing you will hear about Cologne is its Grand Cathedral, which on an average attracts 20,000 people daily. At 515 feet tall this World Heritage site’s spires are visible from almost anywhere in the city centre and if you ever happen to get lost just walk in its direction and you’ll end up right beside the train station where it is located.

If you are a fan of medieval Gothic architecture the Grand Cathedral will make you drool like a diabetic would on being gifted a box of his favourite sweets for Christmas. The sheer scale and dimensions of its facade makes even an atheist like me wonder if God had something to do with its construction, which incidentally began as far back as 1248 and continues to this very day.

After a quick tour of the Cathedral we decided to pay the 5 euro entry fee and go check out the Cologne Cathedral Treasure exhibit in the basement of the building. It’s what I call the Roman Catholic ‘bling’ gallery. The jewels, reliquaries and personal possessions of former Clergy on display here could quite easily be valued into the millions and then some. One relic that I was most interested in seeing here was the sarcophagus of the three wise men (magi) said to be present during the birth of Christ. The medieval inner wooden construction of the shrine of the magi with remains of its reconstruction from 1807 are on display at the Cologne Cathedral Treasure museum and shouldn’t be missed.

The plaza around the Cathedral is just teeming with life this time of the year, and you’ll find a few of the Christmas markets here. Christmas markets or Weinachtsmarkts this time of the year come to life all over Germany and in Cologne you are indeed spoilt for choice. It’s that time of the year when the most adorable Christmas decorations, freshly grilled sausages (bratwurst), piping hot glue wine (glühwein) and many other attractions all find place under the same roof. And every German wants to be a part of this special celebration. Queuing up behind the Germans and waiting for my 2.50 Euro Weinachtswurst didn’t make feel remotely awkward or out of place. Well maybe I was just that hungry at the time that I didn’t really care. But that’s the fun of being part of a Christmas market. There’s something in it for everybody.

The same evening my friend and I paid a visit to the famous Imhoff Chocolate museum in the city. Working in partnership with Swiss chocolate brand Lindt this self-supporting museum on the river Rhine traces the humble origins of Chocolate and houses primitive and modern day machinery responsible for producing the finished goods. Most people with a sweet tooth would probably have an epileptic attack seeing the liquid chocolate gushing in and out of the miniature versions of machines used for making chocolate, that are part of a special public exhibit inside the museum. I really like the temperature controlled tropicarium section of the museum, which though not very large houses actual cacao trees and vanilla planifolia (plants), which are the primary sources of raw material needed for the production of cocoa powder and vanilla essence.

You can’t really imagine how beautiful a city like Cologne could actually look until it gets dark and all the Christmas lights shine bright in every nook and corner of the city. The streets gets busier, the shops feel more alluring, alcohol appears omnipresent and people are all in their most joyous element. Walking along the massive river Rhine with carrier ships and luxury cruise liners sailing by and the Hohenzollern bridge dominating the horizon before you can best be described as a pretty postcard in your head.

I spent the night at Lülsdorf, a small village located southeast of Cologne and the location of a large industrial area on an island terrace. The suburban homes in Germany I’ve seen so far are just so pretty and nicely laid out with their sloping roofs, protruding attic windows, soft lighting and duplex style construction. You just wish you could peep into every house on every street, simply because they are in my mind the closest you can come to describing a spacious and cosy looking home for a family.

My final day in Cologne was as lazy as any Sunday ought to be and we couldn’t think of a better place to while away our time than at a local brew house called Cölner Hofbrau, located very close to the city centre. Famous for its locally brewed Kölsch beer, Früh Kölsch is one of many varieties of beer that can be found all over Cologne. This was my second visit to a local German brew house after Buttenheim a few weeks earlier and as is with most breweries located in big cities in Germany Cölner Hofbrau had plenty of room and stretches two floors below the city level.

However, it’s not just the beer that Germans come to local breweries for. The German pub culture unlike India isn’t an evening of inebriation and deafening rock music but more to do with good food, pleasant conversation and some beer for added company. I decided to take my friend’s suggestion and try some fried blood sausages (Blutwurst) for the very first time. Being the meat lover that I am I of course enjoyed every morsel , but much to my surprise a few Germans themselves were unfamiliar with the concept of blood sausages and from what I hear not all of them are exactly big fans of Blutwurst.

My final hours weren’t far from the city centre and the main train station, which incidentally is a great place to pass your time before your train finally arrives. Wifi hotspots, plenty of restaurants, coffee shops and cosy little bars can easily keep your mind occupied till you finally come to your departure time and have to say your final goodbyes. Cologne really lives up to that stereotypical big town atmosphere you could look forward to enjoying in Germany and if my first visit ended with so many wonderful memories I can only imagine what is in store for me when I re-visit early next year. The Ludwig museum and the cable car ride have already been added to my wish list.

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