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The fifth season begins

"Cologne is a feeling"

semi-overcast 10 °C

The first leg of the journey to Cologne - a train to Hamburg - involves a short sea crossing where the entire train is loaded onto a ferry. The train passengers all have to disembark for the duration of the crossing. I'm staggered by the hordes of people who flock to the restaurant - why would anyone want to pay through the nose for inferior food in a soulless plastic canteen crammed with dozens of other travellers? The crossing is only 45 minutes long so it's not as if starvation can be imminent. A shouting crowd of gypsies surrounds the currency exchange booth for most of the voyage, another situation that confuses me as the exchange rates offered are nothing special. I visit the deck at regular intervals - for whatever reason, I worry more about boat trips than any other mode of transport and being on deck seems to offer the best shot at survival if anything goes wrong.

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I change at Hamburg and the train for the second half of the journey runs late, depositing me in Cologne in the evening. It's the 11th of November, or the 11th of the 11th, and earlier today - at 11:11AM to be precise - the Cologne Carnival season began. The festivities are already in full swing and I exit the train station with the towering spires of Cologne Cathedral above me and thousands of revellers decked in fancy dress around me.

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I'll only be in Cologne for a few days and the main reason for me being here is as much because it's a convenient place to break up the journey home as anything else. When I booked my trains a couple of months ago, I had absolutely no idea that I'd be arriving at the start of Carnival, and it was only when I found that hotel availability was low and the few choices very expensive that it dawned on me that I hadn't timed things well. Thus I have ended up paying more for my Cologne accommodation per night than either Stockholm or Copenhagen and the hotel, though possessing no major flaws, is vastly overpriced even for its central location.

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It's been a long day on the trains and I'm tempted by bed, but I figure that I should have a brief wander around the city centre to check out the atmosphere first. The booze has clearly been flowing. Though the carnival season may have begun today, it will be suspended through Advent and the Christmas period and not really start again in earnest until January, so there is an imperative to begin with a bang, as the next couple of months will be low key. Drunken people stagger along the streets, discarded bottles, cups, and glasses being crunched underfoot. Music blares out of pubs that are so full that there are queues outside to get in. Drummers and trumpeters hold their own impromptu concert in one of the squares.

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There's an old fairy tale about Cologne in which a race of gnomes used to do all of the city's work during the night so that the human inhabitants could laze around during the day. This continued until one night a tailor's wife scattered peas over the floor of the shop, in the hope that the gnomes would fall on them and she might be able to see one. This, of course, just cheesed off the gnomes, who disappeared and were never seen again. This tale is commemorated by a fountain in the city centre. And when I walk through the city centre the morning after the start of Carnival, I'm impressed by how the modern day gnomes, aka the city's street-cleaners, have already been doing sterling work. The rubbish from the night before has been substantially cleared up and the pavements all hosed down, and it's only here and there that lakes of garbage can still be found.

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At the heart of Cologne, and dominating the skyline to the extent that it can be used as a reference point wherever you are in the city, is its cathedral or, in German, Dom. Though Cologne suffered dreadful bombing damage during WWII, the cathedral was spared by bomber pilots because it was such a good landmark to aid their navigation. It is a truly astounding construction, being the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and possessing the largest facade of any church in the world - it's Germany's most visited building. The exterior is amazing, with gargoyles and statues in abundance, particularly around the entrances, and the two towers rise to vertiginous heights. I'm a big fan of York Minster and not just because I lived in York for several years, but from the outside I would say that Cologne Cathedral is a more impressive structure, even though it's filthy compared to the Minster.

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The interior is dominated by the various stained-glass windows, the oldest dating from about 1260AD (only 12 years after the foundation stone was laid), the most recent a decidedly modern offering from 2007 that resembles randomly coloured pixels and won't be to everyone's tastes. Behind the altar is a gilded sarcophagus supposedly containing the bones of the Three Wise Men - the original purpose of the cathedral was to house these relics. Not that there's any need to introduce an element of competition, but if the exterior of Cologne Cathedral surpasses that of the Minster, those positions are reversed when it comes to the interiors. Both buildings are worth going out of your way to see, though.

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The cathedral isn't the only religious construction of interest in Cologne - there are 12 Romanesque churches dotted around the city, the oldest dating from the late 4th century and most of them founded before 1000AD. The largest, St Maria im Kapitol, is perhaps the most interesting, though my visit there is greatly enhanced by the long conversation that I have with the chatty guardian. Now long retired from a career in the wallpaper industry, he reminisces fondly about his time in Oldham after the war, learning about English techniques in his particular domain. He gives me a tour of the church, pointing out the wooden door dating from 1065 that takes two people two weeks to clean each year. He thinks that Cologne as a city is in a bit of a trough at the moment, certainly when compared with places like Hamburg, but he seems inordinately happy to have the chance to practice his English. I'm amazed when I finally leave to see that we've been talking for the best part of an hour and a half. In fact I have more interesting interactions with local people in Cologne in three days than I managed in two weeks in Stockholm and Copenhagen - I'm not sure whether that speaks more about the relative sociability of the people in those cities, or that maybe I'm enjoying Cologne so much that I come across as more approachable.

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By a happy coincidence, Cologne possesses another of the few cat cafes in Europe - Cafe Schnurrke (schnurren means to purr). It's the smallest of the cafes that I've visited and, even though I pop in a couple of times, I only see two of the four cats in residence. They plod around showing little interest in the customers, but they'll submit to being stroked. The compactness of the room seems to force everyone into speaking in hushed tones and, with only a handful of other customers, the atmosphere is lacking. One of the waitresses tells me that the place is usually heaving at weekends, which I take as a positive sign for the future of the cafe, though I would have to say that it's the least exciting of the three that I've visited. A common theme of all three has been a similar demographic - predominantly women and groups of women, with a smattering of mixed-sex groups. I don't think I've seen any guys or groups of guys - except me.

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The lack of custom in Cafe Schnurrke though is by no means replicated elsewhere in the city. The evenings especially are very busy in the centre - I have a list of three recommended Japanese restaurants and I'm never able to get into any of them because there are literally no tables spare. I end up giving most of my dinner custom to a Chinese restaurant by the name of Big China, and it is there that I have my first taste of the local Kölsch beer.

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The furthest I venture from the city centre is to Melaten Cemetery, just to the west but still easily accessible on foot. It's generally quite restrained and in that sense not dissimilar to the cemeteries I visited in Stockholm and Copenhagen, but there are also several more florid and ornamental gravestones. In particular, I encounter a number of excellent angel sculptures. My eyebrows are raised by a grave dedicated to the King Size Dick family but further research indicates that this is the stage name of a German singer (Dick meaning fat in German and hence less alarming than it appears in English). There's also the strange image of a Grim Reaper - the only one that I see in the entire cemetery - being part of the same grave as a frog sculpture reclining on a stone. The best I can piece together from the web is that the parents of the young boy commemorated by the frog paid to have that added to the plot that already contained the Grim Reaper sculpture.

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One of Cologne's most famous exports is eau de cologne, a phrase that is now used in a more generic sense but which originated from a product created by a Cologne perfumier named Farina. That product is now called 4711 Eau de Cologne, referring to the street number of Farina's factory. The reason why Farina, an Italian, living in Cologne, a German city, gave the scent a French name was because at the time French was the language of high society. 4711 Eau de Cologne possesses a mild lemony smell and is cheap as scents go but, as a signature memento of the city, the 4711 Eau de Cologne shops do a constant trade. I buy a couple of small bottles and the saleswoman stresses that it's not a perfume and more just a refresher.

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The Rhine cuts through the middle of Cologne, with the city centre on the west bank. I make one trip to the east bank, crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge and its chain-link fence densely packed with love locks. The view back across to the cathedral is pleasing, especially as the day moves towards sunset. The sheer size of the cathedral's towers never fails to impress.

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In the north of the city I find a sculpture park and some Botanical Gardens which enable some pleasant strolling. Like in Stockholm and Copenhagen, overpasses and underpasses seem to be pretty much non-existent here, so if you want to cross the road then you have to wait at a crossing. So it's nice to find these green areas in which you can walk without those constant pauses.

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Throughout the city I see preparations for the Christmas markets, popular events for both locals and tourists, and I'm a little saddened that I'll miss them by a few days. I've really enjoyed Cologne and it's whetted my appetite for seeing more of Germany. I only speak very basic German but that hasn't been an issue, with almost everyone I've interacted with being able to speak at least some English. On my last night, I see a large Christmas tree being put up in the square next to the cathedral and it's a reminder that when I reach home it will only be a matter of weeks before Christmas is upon us.

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It's another day of travel to reach home, first an ICE train to Brussels, then the Eurostar to London, and finally a Grand Central to Northallerton. There's so much junk in my postbox that I can't even unlock it without pulling stuff out backwards through the slot, and I have to wonder why the deliverer of the free local rag thought that they had done the right thing by cramming their paper into the postbox instead of just leaving it on top. But I then realise that being irritated by this is a sign that I'm not glad to be home, which is itself a sign that I've enjoyed my time away. And that, strangely, makes me happy.

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[I have some logistical information about visiting Cologne that is too dull to put in here - I'll add a link to my other blog when I have detailed it there.]

[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]

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Posted by mohn 11:59 Archived in Germany Tagged germany europe köln cologne deutschland

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