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German destinations A-Z: Cologne

Cologne has so many faces it is difficult to characterise. How does a city become known for both beer and perfume, both carnival and culture? What matters to the traveller is that Cologne is an intriguing place to visit, a German city known to English-speakers by a French name that goes back to Roman times.

The city’s place on the Rhine and transport connections make it one of the first stops in Germany, which was part of its attraction for the French before Prussian expansion finally secured a German border west of the river. But the political story goes back much, much further.

Cologne was a creation of Rome’s power in the region about the time of Christ. From the plans of the emperor Augustus to dominate Germania a garrison town was born, elevated to city status at the petition of a native, the empress Agrippina the younger. That city, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, has left many remains for archaeologists and museums and today visitors can follow fragments of the still-standing Roman wall, including towers.

The plan of the Roman city is clear in the modern street plan and a surviving arch of its north gate stands before the cathedral. The surviving north-west tower of the Roman town wall is today incorporated into a building at the west end of Zeughausstraße between Am Römerturm and St-Apern-Straße. The stones of the tower, which was fought around during the last street battles of World War II, preserve their almost mosaic appearance. Parts of the Roman north wall stretch back toward the cathedral along Burgmauer, where remains of a fountain are at Appellhofplatz.

Successive medieval wall circuits also left their mark on Cologne’s street plan and remain in the form of preserved towers and gates.

Ecclesiastical power was also established early and by medieval times Cologne’s prince-archbishops were power brokers in a new German empire. Their cathedral’s shrine of the Three Magi became an essential part of the rituals of imperial coronation.

But Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral took more than 600 years to take shape, one of the world’s biggest churches with a vast interior space and treasures that require books of description. The first church buildings were from early in the 4th century, built over a Roman building. The towers today top out at 157m but in 1869, 11 years before completion, were still just over 50m high – meaning the cathedral is a mixture of Gothic and Neogothic. It took a great effort in the Prussian era to complete the towers. The view from the south-west tower at almost 100m is two-thirds of the way up, a prime perch for viewing the old town. The observation platform in the south-west tower is at the top of more than 500 steps.

The cathedral’s inner space is more than 400,000 cubic metres and the plan is about the same size as London’s St Paul’s. Much of the stained glass is from the 19th century, but the 14th century windows are the biggest of their period in Europe and the choir stalls and high altar are contemporary. The precious golden shrine (1225) is the central treasure and the floors commemorate the burials of centuries of bishops and archbishops. What seemed miraculous after World War II was the sight of the cathedral scarred but unbroken amid city ruins. What seems remarkable today is the gilt appearance it often takes on in photographs. Five or six masses take place daily as well as special events and the cathedral is closed to visitors during these. Tours in English meet inside the main west portal.

Less well known are Cologne’s 12 Romanesque churches, most on the sites of Roman buildings, some heavily restored after the bombing of World War II. Each is remarkable in itself but the ensemble is without parallel in Germany.

These churches go right back to the roots of Christianity in Germany. St Severin at Severinskirchplatz houses the relics of the saint, the late 4th century bishop of Cologne, where he founded a monastery in 376. Archaeology has revealed the original building. Parts of the present church (1237), including the crypt, are from a 10th century predecessor. The present tower reaches 73m. The present reliquary shrine of the saint is from early in the 19th century.

Of all the Romanesque churches, it would be a shame to miss the Basilika St Ursula with its Goldene Kammer, a macabre display of human bones in the roof vaulting that forms symbols and spells out Latin messages, connected by legend with the church’s saint and her 11,000 virgin handmaidens. But the chamber is kept under lock and key until visitors inquire and pay a small fee. The arched interior of St Maria im Kapitol is also a compelling sight, despite the loss of its vaulting to bombing.

Beneath Groß St Martin, largest of the Romanesque churches, are the remains of Roman warehousing that may also have been used as a sports complex. The site was part of the river port

Cologne is also a museum city. Near the cathedral is the Römisch-Germanisches Museum with its collections of Roman and post-Roman finds, built over the site of a Roman house with its intact floor mosaics.

But this is not the only archaeological interest, as the remains of the Praetorium and part of the Roman sewer are nearby. Recent old town excavations continued unravelling the story of the medieval city, including its Jewish baths, the mikveh, the medieval synagogue and the associated Jewish quarter. A museum has been planned around these, expected to open in 2019.

Above all this, the old town hall next to Alter Markt was extensively damaged in World War II and the early 15th century tower of 61m, with its many statues of historical figures including Agrippina and St Severin, was completely rebuilt. The facade of the Italian-influenced Renaissance portico (1573) at Rathausplatz survived with parts of the 14th century Hansasaal, used for Hanseatic League meetings.

The art museums present their own variety, an extraordinary array of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and treasures of ethnography. The collections of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum sweep from medieval works to the 19th century with many great masters in between. Museum Ludwig picks up the story in the 20th century and about 700 Käthe Kollwitz works have their own museum.

Strangely joined are the Museum Schnütgen in the shell of the Romanesque Cäcilienkirche, with its delicate devotional sculpture, and the extraordinary Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, a modern complex that combines precious cultural objects collected during the exotic travels of German adventurers in the late 19th century. The exhibits have been added to since to create a rare assemblage for anthropological curiosity.

Completely different, in true Cologne fashion, is a museum of chocolate, including both its history and manufacture.

The carnival period leading up to Ash Wednesday in February is the signal for street celebrations, a city parade and extended opening hours for bars and pubs.

An 11-page guide to Cologne is available for download at the Great Cities of Germany section below.

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Culture Encounters

Jewels of the Past


Great Cities of Germany


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The city’s Roman and medieval walls, cathedral and 12 Romanesque churches are features of this 11-page guide. Walks cover the historic city centre and the remains of the Roman wall. Summaries of 25 sites and 17 museums of art, history and culture including the Römisch-Germanisches Museum of Cologne’s Roman and medieval past and its associated archaeological sites. Information on all essential services, transport links and urban transit services including fares, accommodation, tours, parks and views, food and performing arts. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.


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