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Sunday, July 25, 1999
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Cologne: A vibrant city on the Rhine
By Shantanu Mohan Puri

MY four-hour rail journey from Gar de Nord, Paris came to an end with the Thalys entering the Cologne (spelt and pronounced as Koln in German) HaughBahnhof (Hbf), also known as the Dom because of the dome shaped cover over the platforms. The Koln Hbf is the central railway station where local and long distance trains from across Europe arrive, depart or transit far and wide across Europe, including the British Isles. With more than 30 platforms and trains arriving and departing every minute it gives the first impression of the active life which Cologne is so imbibed with, and which I was to discover and enjoy during my stay.

The cathedral of CologneMy first impressions of Cologne were formed as a child of four when I visited it with my parents, although these memories had more or less faded till I stepped out of the railway station and looked back at the enormous structure of the Dom which brought back vivid memories of 20 years back. This structure is a landmark across Europe and the world and many a visitor comming to this city by train does not call the station as Koln Hbf but simply as the Dom.

Out from one landmark another accosted me. The distinctive spires of the all-eclipsing Gothic cathedral welcomed me. The Cologne cathedral has been the destination of Christian pilgrimages for centuries. The stained glass inside narrates various events from the Bible. I learnt from a local that half million people visit the cathedral every year and that it is one of the important landmarks of this vibrant city.

Despite considerable damage during the World War II the Cologne cathedral, standing on the site of a church completed in 873 AD, is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe and houses art treasures that span more than a millennium.

This landmark was one of the few monuments, which were left untouched during the World War II. Cologne got its fair share of allied bombings and was devastated, but thanks to hard German labour and world-known German excellence in engineering, Cologne was restored to its original glory

A brief history of Cologne helped me understand this mix and match of the old with the new. Cologne is actually a French name for this German city, which is called Koln in German. This is the largest city, with a population of approximately 9,37,000, in the state of North Rhine — Westphalia — and is the cultural capital of the Rhineland. Situated on the left bank of the Rhine river, it is in western Germany, tucked between fellow cities of Bonn and Dusseldorf. It dates to the first century BC, when Roman invaders colonised it. The Franks and Prussians both ruled the city at one time.

As I stepped out of the Cologne cathedral, I saw what reminded me of a market square like our Sector 17. The Wallrafplatz is the beginning of the shopping and commercial area of Cologne. With its low, block shaped buildings miniatured by modern skyscrapers, at a few spots, it is a place where time flies. The Wallrafplatz is surrounded by various narrow streets, which are paved with modern shopping complexes, restaurants, cafes and commercial establishments. Designer stores, European and American, crystal, Wedgwood, jade and chinaware shops litter the surroundings. Walking through these streets is a window shopper’s delight but if done non-challantly can be a confusing affair as I soon realised. After every 20-50 yards the streets open into a different platz (square). For a visitor, especially one who has little knowledge of German it can be a like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle. With most signs in German it was not an easy task to find my way. Thanks to direction from the locals I was able to move around without really getting lost. Most Germans understand English and are also able to converse in comprehendible English. They are quite forthcoming and help if approached sensibly and politely.

I finally took a detour from my walk through the shopping complex to the promenade by the Rhine. The Rhine was beautiful and calm. It didn’t quite fit into the picture of the uncontrollable monster, which unleashes its wrath during the rains on the towns through which it passes. It was serene and calm, with its waters glimmering on this bright and warm winter day. With small boats, ferries and trawlers making up for the main traffic on the Rhine, it is quite a busy waterway. I had been recommended a ferry ride on the Rhine as one of the best ways to see Cologne from another perspective, one, which would be quite calm and slow, far away from the hustle and bustle. I took a ticket for the "Dusseldorfer", one of the many ferries, which ply on the Rhine. As I sat back and enjoyed the view of the cathedral from the boat, the ‘Dusseldorfer’ slowly picked up, yet maintained its 10 miles per hour pace and took me on this magnificent waterway called the Rhine.

The ferry ride quite reminded me of the one, which I took on the Thames from the foot of the Big Ben to Greenwich. Cologne has its fair share of bridges (Bruckes) like London. The most impressive being the Mulheimer Brucke, which is one of the longest suspension bridges in Germany. The Roden Kirchener and the Deutz are some of the other ones, which connect Koln with its suburbs. Warehouses and boat restaurants are lined all along the Rhine. The Rhine at places curves like a snake and at other places is straight as an arrow but in all meanders through the city. The main traffic on this waterway is of trawlers, which either ferry oil or perishable goods from towns on the Rhine. The ride was made more memorable especially because of the complementary bottle of ‘Kolsch’ which came alongwith the trip. What more could I have asked for — good German beer, the local brew, a bright sunny day, magnificent views and a slow laid back boatride, the makings of a blissful and peaceful existence. I am sure I would have turned Jerome K.Jerome’s three men in a boat green with envy! But this was soon to change.

I met a few British students who were on the ‘Dusseldorfer’ and like me were backpackers. We got off the ferry and made our way to a local "biergarten" (pub) to keep up the mellow effect of the complimentary ‘Kolsch’.

Cologne offers a very wide variety of cafes, pubs, restaurants and clubs. We, according to our budget, settled for a wayside German restaurant and relished German snitzell with mugs of beer over plans to see the local sights.

I was lucky to befriend like -minded people. As it turned out, all of us were students who were backpacking across Europe on shoe-sting budgets. This made things easier since certain things were not required to be spelt; they were understood. One such being to walk rather than prefer the local efficient train, tram, bus or taxi service.

The old town has its unique character interspersed amidst a touch of modernity. It has quite a few Romanesque churches alongside skyscrapers. While walking through this part of the city I soon learnt that Cologne has 12 Romanesque churches. The main one being St. Pantaleon’s, Engelbert-kirche (church), St. Coloumba’s and of course the Cologne cathedral.

A visit to the museum Ludwig was a fascinating experience. It houses the biggest collection of American pop art. In the same building as the museum is Cologne’s "Philharmonie", a concert hall, that has played host to the world famous composers like Zubin Mehta and Karajan, among a host of other, and is well worth seeing and hearing.

Cologne has more than 25 world famous museums. But one, which left an indelible mark on my memory, was the Imhoff-Stollwerck Museum better known as the Chocolate museum. The museum is located on the northern most point of a small peninsula which jets out into the Rhine and is a stone’s throw from Altstadt. The building itself portrays an unusual mixture of modern and historical architecture with glass walls interspread with steel railings, brick walls and a glass ceiling. The museum has hot houses where one can walk amongst cocoa trees and approximately 60 other exotic plant varieties. But the real treat is the chocolate fountain which oozes with warm mouth-watering chocolate. I did the invevitable, like many other visitors and took a peck at the chocolate fountain and ended up gorging on German "Schokolade" which was later washed down with South American coffee at the picturesque cafe overlooking the Rhine.

Cologne, being an important commercial centre, plays host to innumerable trade fairs conventions and exhibitions. Though it has approximately 16,500 hotel beds and 2,500 private rooms, sometimes the rush is so great that hotel ships are moored alongside the exhibition grounds. Though I had my aunt to stay with, my English friends had booked accommodation at one of the local youth hostels for as low as 35 DM. For sake of information I found out that accommodation of all kinds and varieties is available. It ranges from the friendly guesthouses to the Hyatt Regency, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, and the Maritin. These hotels benefit from the year round exhibitions, fairs and conventions organised by "Koln-Messe", the biggest of which is the, "Photokina", the largest photography film and video fair in the world.

After a long day I parted company from my friends and took the local train, which runs between the suburbs and neighbouring towns of Cologne, to my aunt’s house in Schildgen. I had spent a long, enjoyable and active day which daily life of Cologne is so characteristic of.

As the train went across the bridge, I could see the Cologne cathedral draped with strings of light bulbs shimmering in the night. While looking at the only material souvenir I had picked up, a bottle of Eau de Cologne, made in this city since the early 18th century and responsible for christening the city by the French as Cologne, I thought of vibrancy of this German town and the exuberance of life which I had witnessed during my brief stay. It invigorated my soul and prompted me to tell myself that my "Auf wieder sehn" was going to be short-lived, as I would some day return.Back

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