Ode to Cologne

Ode to Cologne

MAL ROGERS visits one of Europe’s great cities

THE Farina Fragrance Museum, just across from the rather impressive 14th century Cologne City Hall, tells the story of the world’s most astringent perfume. The manufacture of eau de Cologne began here in 1709 and today the museum provides a very detailed insight into what makes an exemplary eau.

As the study of perfumery has somewhat eluded me to date, I was keen to learn more. A quick tour of the Fragrance Museum possibly told me more than I needed to know — after all it occupies several floors. The focus is primarily on Eau de Cologne, obv, but the whole history of perfumery is gone into quite meticulously. I did the ground floor, then left the other several floors for you to discover on your own.

Because it was time for me to appraise the work of the likes of Captain Borderline, Huami, Rakaposhii and several others. You see, I was in Cologne because VisitKöln told me they’d created a new Urban Art Map that helps you discover Cologne's vibrant street art scene. Totally off the wall stuff, yes. Banksy. Inkie. Mr Brainwash. That genre.

There are many reasons to visit Cologne, and I have to say that street art wouldn’t have popped into my mind as top choice. But to be honest, these old streets do have some fine pieces. If you’re interested, fetch your hat and coat and head directly for the website:


OLD COLOGNE the Altstadt Köln (image by ©Lukas Schlösser, KölnTourismus)

FROM my hotel room in the centre of Cologne I could see no street art, no graffiti. My window at the Exclesior was filled with Cologne Cathedral. It’s only huge. It fills the window, the sky, the whole vista. The Kölner Dom, or Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, as it likes to be known when on official business, has been in the business of getting the burghers of Cologne to give up their oul’ sins since the 12th century.

Parts of the building still have scaffolding attached (not supplied by the original company from the 12th century, mind). The twin towers were only finished in the 19th century, and parts still need snagging. So this is arguably the longest running building project in the history of architecture. Never mind. It was worth it. Cologne Cathedral is, quite simply, one of the most splendid, most noble buildings in the world. And that’s just the outside. Within the cathedral walls, the chief pride is the reliquary of the Three Kings, the Magi, whose remains are reputed to lie within the huge triple sarcophagus.

These relics have turned Cologne Cathedral into a place of pilgrimage in Christendom since the Middle Ages. Funnily enough, just as I was leaving, the sun shone through one of the stained glass windows and lit up a cobweb that ran across the Magi. A spider scuttled its way across and clearly trussed up a passing fly. But I don’t think this was a sign, or anything.

Even if I can’t persuade you to go inside, stand beneath the west face of the cathedral on the hour to hear the very loud clangs of Catholicism — the mighty bells. Now these aren’t just loud and sonorous; they are shudderingly and all encompassingly loud. I would hazard a guess that in the Middle Ages these made the loudest noise in all Christenfdom, as Europe was called back then.

From matters spiritual, and it was time for a mooch, round the old city. The German word is Köln, but the French called it Cologne, and for complex reasons (but mostly to do with perfume) that more or less became the international name.

A short walk south from the cathedral will bring you to Hohe Street (High Street), a pedestrian thoroughfare with brightly painted shops and cafes, improbably tall buildings in a narrow mediaeval street. It is an extraordinary mixture of outlets — from multi-national fast food cafes to elegant boutiques shimmying till their garters break.

DIVINE BUILDING Cologne Cathedral (Photo by Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Rhine, wine and dine — then party

TOP tip for lunch is Max Stark on Unter Kahlenhausen, about a five-minute MY top tip for lunch is Max Stark on Unter Kahlenhausen, about a five-minute walk north of the cathedral, with the Rhine in full spate flowing by.

This traditional old café seemed to be full of locals, as far as I could tell. I inevitably took this as a good sign. I know that we don’t necessarily put any store by the obverse — just because we see a load of Americans filing into a McDonald’s, or a Witherspoon’s packed out with dining Brits, we seldom say, by jove, that must be a good, authentic place to eat. But here, amidst a cacophony of happy conversation and laughter, the food was indeed local, traditional and ace. My cheese and asparagus omelette came with rainbow carrots, chips made in goose fat, onion purée, sauerkraut and a mixed salad. Washed down with a couple of glasses of local brew Päffgen Kölsch fresh from the cask. This is Cologne's pale fermented beer, the city's local hooch. And very hoochy it is.

A meal at Brauhaus Früh am Dom, where wait staff — known as Köbes — bring you platefuls of cheap and filling food and small glasses of Kölsch is a Cologne tradition. Früh am Dom, in the shadow of the cathedral, is a warren of nooks and crannies, has wooden benches around massive oak tables, and is perfect for an evening meal and some refreshment. Hold on to your pint though when the bells start ringing.

Locals and visitors alike seem happy to while away the evening in Früh am Dom, but if you’re annoying enough to be young and up-for-it, Ehrenfeldgürtel is known for its alternative party scene. Speaking as someone who only dances if nobody really is watching, I gave this undoubted attraction of Cologne a body swerve.

Anyway, it was time for more of your actual culture. The Römisch-Germanisches Museum pays tribute to the city’s Roman heritage, including the Dionysus mosaic — an utterly impressive and traditional Byzantine mosaic from the 4th or 5th century, depicting the chariot of Dionysus. Quite extraordinary.

Museum Ludwig has art by Dalí, Lichtenstein, Kandinsky, Warhol and one of Europe’s largest collection of Picassos — if you’re into pop art, surrealism or abstract art, you’ve stumbled on the motherlode. Spoiler alert, or perhaps just a friendly warning — the pile of Brillo Pad boxes near the entrance is a Warhol exhibit, so please do not help yourself.

Even though it stands in the shadow of Cologne Cathedral, the exterior of the Ludwig itself is noteworthy, unashamed in all its Brutalist glory. This concrete tour de force was built in 1968, bankrolled by a chocolate magnate, Peter Ludwig (Germany remains one of the world’s chocolate superpowers) and the building remains somewhat unsung given its proximity to the architectural extravagance of the cathedral. To be honest, it’s not unlike Belfast’s Ulster Museum, another fine building. I mentioned this to one of the museum attendants (in Cologne), but she gave me a full shoulder shrug and walked away. So I left it at that.

For more traditional exhibits the Wallraf–Richartz Museum specialises in fine art from the medieval period to the early 20th century. This is one of Europe’s finest art museums.

Cologne is not strikingly beautiful like Heidelberg; it’s not a magnet for the wilfully edgy that makes Berlin über-cool; it’s without the backdrop of the Black Forest that makes Freiburg so special, and it doesn’t quite have the fash-and-dash of Munich. But it’s old and time-worn like Nuremberg and Würzburg, and has been through the mincing machine of European history, a history that has truly shaped it. Its timeline has progressed from the Roman era through various hostilities, including two World Wars, to arrive in the 21st century in relatively good fettle. It has a gothic vibe which is very enticing, is a city not run on behalf of tourists but doesn’t seem to mind them, and has a sophisticated nonchalance in its cafes and beer halls. If you’re into good Teutonic food, classical culture, music of every hue, excellent beer in laid-back surroundings, and of course street art, you’ll scarcely do better,

With thanks to



The Excelsior Hotel


DIVINE BUILDING Cologne Cathedral (Photo by Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images)