Before we share our visit to Cologne, we’d like to give a little background about our journey. As commented in the first posting, we’re spending the summer in Europe and Canada before returning to California in mid-October.
Why such extensive travel? Most importantly, is that we were blessed with two grandsons born last October, William Louis in London on October 2, and William Preston in Phoenix on October 29.
With two young grandsons living far away, we couldn’t enjoy grandparenthood if we remained in California and working. Over our 2010 – 2011 Holiday vacation to visit William and his extended family in Europe, we made the decision to transition from living and working in the Bay area to retiring and traveling to spend more time with the Williams and their parents and see parts of the world we hadn’t visited.
As soon as we returned to California in mid-January, we began moving furniture and belongings into storage in Monterey where we’ll eventually settle into a condo we own that’s rented.
Two important dates motivated us: our commitments to attend Preston’s baptism in Tucson March 27, and William’s baptism in Germany July 1.
Preston’s baptism was easier to plan; we spent a week with the family in March for his baptism, to baby sit, and relax a few days.
In March, we put our home on the market and I told my manager about our plans. We set a date for retirement and transitioning my clients to colleagues.
Our sold our home in a week, settled in early April, negotiated a rent-back with the new owner, moved out May 5, retired May 20, and flew to Düsseldorf May 24.
Lots of moving parts those two months. The experience was demanding, but we survived — tired and a bit stressed — but happy for the decision and what lie ahead. Almost before we knew it, May 24 was here and we were on our plane to Europe to attend William’s baptism and kick off an extended vacation.
Life on the Road
We travel lightly; one small suitcase each, a carry-on bag for incidentals, a camera case for me and purse for Marilyn. We knew from past travels that we move fast, a couple of nights in one location, pack up, take a train to the next destination, visit museums, galleries, historic places, enjoy good meals, meet interesting people, and on to the next destination.
We’re fortunate that we enjoy the same things when we travel. We love learning the history, culture, and lifestyle of foreign destinations. As you can tell from earlier posts, that means visiting cathedrals, museums, battlefields, castles, monuments and other interesting locations.
We research a little about each destination before we travel, but once we arrive, we grab maps and brochures from tourist offices, usually in train stations or convenient locations nearby.
We stay in B & B’s, pensiones, or small hotels near the city center. Which usually means these accommodations have been around a while, are comfortable, and close to places we want to visit near the city center.
We don’t shop much — except for essentials and postcards — and eat at sidewalk restaurants or pubs that have seen a few thousand people pass through their doors. We find them more homey and authentic than the flashy, modern restaurants with large glass windows, white table cloths, tuxedoed waiters, and slick menus behind glass with eye-popping prices.
That’s how we travel. It’s great fun with at least one adventure a day.
Ready to learn about our third stop, Cologne?
We arrived in Cologne after a brief 45 minute train ride from Essen. We had booked a downtown apartment through VRBO, Website that markets apartments or homes by the day or week. Our Cologne apartment was owned by a local woman who had three apartments, but was living with a boyfriend in Australia.
All contact with her was via email and reservation confirmed with a wire deposit to her bank. She told us to pick up the key from the Italian restaurant below her apartment. We arrived on schedule, mentioned her name, and the cafe owner pulled down a porcelain jar with the key.
We took a tiny elevator to the fourth floor, unlocked the door, and surveyed her quaint, slightly funky apartment with posters and knick knacks with a ’60’s flavor. Cute and homey, with posters of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and local rock groups, macrame, sea shells, New Age pottery, and a small kitchen where we enjoyed morning coffee and breakfast before hitting the road.
The cozy apartment was a convenient five-minute walk from a train station just one stop from the Hauptbahnhof (Main train station). Very convenient for touring the city.
Cologne Cathedral (Kohlner Dom)
Our first stop, was the Gothic Cologne Cathedral (Kohlner Dom), the most visited landmark in Germany with more than 20,000 visitors every day, next to the Hauptbahhnhof.
The Cologne Cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world and the largest Gothic church in Europe. Archeological evidence indicates early churches were built on the site near the Rhine River as early as the 4th century.
Construction on the cathedral begin in 1248 and took more than 600 years to complete. During the late Middle Ages, the cathedral was a major destination for pilgrimages paying respects to the relics of the Three Magi brought from Milan in the 12th century.
The cathedral’s 157 meter high twin spires dominate the Cologne landscape and are visible from all parts of the city. At the peak of both spires are 30 meter high blumenkross that portrays the cross as a blooming flower.
Because of it’s proximity to the Hauptbahnhof, we went into the cathedral several times during our three-day visit. The initial and lasting impression from our visits was that the interior was cavernous, dark, quiet, and almost gloomy. Lighting was very poor, coming from a few faintly glowing chandeliers and minimal sunlight coming through stained glass windows mounted high on the walls.
It was a bit unsettling, walking down the long aisles, past rows and rows of well-worn wooden pews, and peering in at dark side chapels with small altars, faded tapestries, old paintings, and dull marble sarcophagi of long dead cardinals and bishops laying in repose.
Another grim experience was climbing down worn stone steps into a cool, dark crypt where the remains of martyrs from 350 AD and medieval clergy are stored behind iron gates, with their names etched in Latin in marble with faded gold lettering.
Centuries of exposure to sun, wind, harsh weather, the effects of air pollution from smoke, carbon emissions, wind-blown dust and dirt, and possible neglect have all left the cathedrals’ facade in a dreary condition. From a distance it appears almost black and smudgy, up closer, patches of ugly black and brown crust are sadly evident. A historical and religious site deserves better care and attention that has received.
Brief History of Cologne
Cologne is the largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia, and traces it’s origins to Roman occupation in 50 AD. The Rhine River divides Cologne from the historical and cultural center on the west bank from the industrial Messe on the east bank.
Ruins from Rome’s first settlements are found around the area, including a 2000 year old boat discovered in 2007 near the wharf. Excavations are underway at the residence (praetorium) of the Roman governor when Cologne was the capitol of the Gallic Empire. The first bridge over the Rhine was built in 300 AD by the Romans during the reign of Emperor Constantine.
Today the city is a lively, modern, and a cultural center with many art galleries, the Cologne Philharmonic, impressive museums, and Romanesque churches, many within a short walk of the Dom.
The most efficient way to visit Cologne’s museums is with a two-day ticket. Our three favorite museums were the Roman German, the Stadtmuseum (City Museum), and the Wallraf-Richartz.
The modern Romano-Germanic (Romanisch-Germanisches Museum) behind the cathedral has three spacious floors with numerous marble statues and busts, artifacts, coins, gold and silver ornaments, jewelry, and articles from daily life in ancient Cologne.
Most impressive were room sized mosaic tiles of Roman and Greek mythological gods, colorful frescoes, jewelry, and classical pottery.
The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is a three-story modern structure that looks like a high-tech office in Silicon Valley. The lobby was spacious with a gift shop, small cafe, and kiosk with tour guides, books and maps.
We walked up three floors to see impressive collections of art from Renaissance panels and 13th century altar pieces, to Flemish paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, and Impressionist works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Gauguin and beautiful ceramics by Pablo Picasso.
The Cologne City Museum has an impressive collection of medieval and more contemporary artifacts, art, maps, and tools that span the two thousand-year history of the city.
A city law during the Middle Ages required ships that traveled down the Rhine from the Atlantic to dock and offer their goods for sale first in Cologne before sailing to other European ports. As a result, the city was an important trading and mercantile center for centuries. Many goods and artifacts from those times including tea, silverware, tobacco from colonial America, wine, and Chinese porcelain were displayed.
Several exhibits revealed daily life in Cologne during World War I and World War II, including school books, posters, newspapers, propaganda, uniforms, clothing, and photos. It was disheartening to see photos of the city before and after heavy Allied bombing that lasted from 1942 – 1945 and left most of the city in ruins, including the Roman Gothic churches. The Cologne Cathedral was largely spared due to a decision by Allies to spare the historic church.
Rhine River Cruise
No better way to see Cologne than a cruise down the Rhine river on a sunny afternoon. We took a river cruise from the main wharf to the resort village of Dornburn, about five kilometers to the south. Dornburn was once a sleepy village but is now a popular place with modern hotels and restaurants for tourists, and spacious traditional homes with river view.
Along the way, we watched river barges and tourist boats sail by. We passed under three of the city’s modern and well-constructed bridges that link the east and west banks of the Rhine.
An afternoon river cruise requires appropriate liquid refreshment along the way. Weizenbier (herby wheat beer) is the most soothing beverage on a hot summer day. One on the way to Dornburn, and another on the return. Thirst quenching, delicious, and a suitable preparation for evening dinner in Cologne.
Next destination: Aachen
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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The sequel, No One Sleeps, was published as an ebook in December. The paperback will be available in June at Amazon and at bookstores by ordering.
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