Planning a trip to Europe in winter? Don't miss out on Cologne's shopping malls and Christmas markets.
On a recent evening we drove on an autobahn to reach a city variously known as Keulen, Colonia, Koln…but well-known around the world as the West Germany city that gifted it Eau de Cologne. The perfume originally blended in 1709 by an Italian-born immigrant Giovanni Maria Farina (1685-1766) has brought fame and fortune to Cologne. Though today there are hundreds of ‘generics' going by the name, the honour of the original scent belongs to Farina. The French moniker is attributed to the fact that in the 17th century French was Europe's lingua franca.
Cologne straddles both sides of the Rhine. And on the evening we reached the city, the river's cold winds swept through making us shiver as we got out and went by foot to discover the ancient Rhineland destination.
Our first destination was Altstadt, the old towne. This was once a very happening place where medieval merchants and bankers gathered to talk shop, eat, drink and make merry. Around us were charming old buildings and alleys, the celebrated Cologne Cathedral grandly illuminated, wide expanses of shopping centres and other artsy modern facades, and the white grandeur of Weihnachtsmarkt, a Christmas market. On entering the square we were delighted with the scene and the offerings. First stop was a stall offering hot delicious mulled wine. The fruity mix instantly warmed the frozen, protesting innards!
Such stalls and markets magically spring up all over cities, towns and villages at the end of November and carry the holiday spirit right till Christmas. By mid-December these traditional markets take on a warm, romantic look.
The square was festooned with strings of light bulbs, neon displays, and a huge decorated Christmas tree. All around were temporary kiosks with seasonal items: hand-crafted crib and tree figurines, toys, wood carvings, marionettes, candles, and such seasonal merchandise. To add to the festive ambience, there was the aroma of baked apples, gingerbread biscuits, cakes, marzipans and other sweets, hot chestnuts, grilled sausages and other yummy snacks. A bandstand in the centre of the square had rosy-cheeked singers and spirited musicians filling the air with Christmas carols.
While shoppers and revellers thronged the Christmas market, there was a different ambience in the Dom or the Cologne Cathedral. This Gothic masterpiece, built in 1248 and completed 642 years later, has been a must-see, must-do destination for more than six million devotees and tourists. The finely crafted facade and twin spires are synonymous with Cologne. During WWII, parts of the building were strafed by Brit fighter planes. But by and large the church was spared. “It was divine intervention,” whispered a tour guide, “Due to its historical and spiritual significance or perhaps as an orientation point, the Allied forces did not destroy it.”
The UNESCO world heritage site today hosts important architectural monuments with priceless, ancient works of art including stunning stained glass windows, the crowned skulls and clothes of the Three Magi, and an ancient oak carved crucifix known as the Gero Cross; ‘the oldest surviving crucifix north of the Alps'.
The cobbled streets of Cologne lead to a number of fun and entertainment venues. There are endless gourmet restaurants, brewpubs, shopping ops, fashion/trade fairs and carnivals. The city's night life includes hot live music and dance, cabaret and erotic, adult shows. For the connoisseurs of the performing arts operas and classical music concerts take place through out the year. The Kölner Philharmonie orchestra plays at the beautiful concert hall near the Dom.
Cologne has a high ratio of bars to people. There are pubs, taverns and beer gardens almost everywhere. On river cruises (€6.80) waiters serve platters of fresh French camembert and glasses of German Riesling. Upriver, crowds flock to boutiques featuring the latest designs. For dining, there is a huge selection of cuisine options from traditional German brauhauses and French bistros, Spanish bodegas and Italian trattorias to tastes of Asia and Indian restaurants.
Early next morning, even though it was dark and frightfully cold, I set out by foot starting from Marzellenstrasse to experience the riverside promenade, Frankenwerft. People were coming out from the train station, Köln Hauptbahnhof, and briskly heading out to coffeehouses and shops. At Cologne's famous river, there was little activity on the water. A solitary luxury cruise boat lay anchored; devoid of its late night revellers, it lay forlorn, lazily bobbing. In the distance the Koln-Dusseldorfer ferry chugged along on the blue-green water. I walked past beautiful buildings, age-old beer-halls and restaurants, universities, galleries and museums, and mansions.
The native smell
Around me, by the Rhine, were early morning strollers and bicyclists, all warmly clad in long jackets, gloves, beanies. I paused under a brown-leafed tree and took a long deep breath. The air was chilly but pleasant. And as a bevy of nattily dressed girls passed by, there was fragrance in the air. I thought of Eau de Cologne. As chance would have it, I came across a statue of its inventor. Giovanni Maria Farina stands proudly in the impressive town hall building. This building known as Rathaus dominates the skyline as much as the Dom. Well known to art lovers and historians, Rathaus has a bell tower with a charming glockenspiel. A grotesque wooden sculpture opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue when the tower clock strikes the hour. Built around the 14th century this 61m late Gothic style tower was another building hit during WWII. The restoration work on this landmark started soon after the war and took close to 50 years to complete.
Interestingly, during the civil work, excavators came across an age-old site that gave many clues to the birth of the city.
Archaeologists found a 2,000-year-old praetorium at the site, baths and such evidence to show that the intrepid Romans had come up the Rhine and founded the colony, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium where the great-grand-daughter of Caesar Augustus and the mother of Emperor Nero, Agrippina the Younger (15-59) was born. The colony eventually became Cologne, and a household name thanks to the Italian Farina and Eau de Cologne!