Experiencing the myriad wonders and novelty of a wintertime festive season was one of the constituent objectives of my six months in Europe. This revelation will come as no surprise to my family, who somewhat embarrassingly refers to me as “Mr Christmas” (I suspect their day was rather shit last year, characterised by inherent laziness and nonchalance in my absence). I visited several quaint Christmas markets, iconic features of European cityscapes in winter, in Stockholm and Riga. But I wanted to travel to the heartland of Christmas markets, where they perhaps even supersede the big day in revelry: Germany. So I ventured to Cologne on yet another weekend escapade from Stockholm, which hosts arguably Europe’s biggest and best markets. I was joined by Australian Liam McGuinness, a resident of the southern German city of Ulm. Liam provided somewhat entertaining company, though his efforts in “what would you rather?” questions failed to inspire (“What would you rather be, an elevator or escalator?”).
Cologne is located on the Rhine River within Germany’s largest urban area, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region. The city’s proximity to the French border alludes to an identity symptomatic of Western and Central European influences. Indeed, the French name for the city has been adopted for international use, rather than the German name (Koln). The Roman origins of Cologne distinguishes it from other major German cities, as Roman conquests extended only to the far west of the Germanic lands. Ruins and impressive mosaics of this initial settlement are consequently scattered throughout the city. During the Middle Ages, Cologne became a bastion of Catholicism north of the Alps and Protestantism failed to establish a foothold in the city during the Reformation. Cologne was designated as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire and became one of Europe’s richest cities as a key trading centre on the Rhine. It was eventually absorbed into the German Empire, after repeated French occupations. Cologne was one of the few German centres that resisted the electoral dominance of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, though this failed to prevent the Nazi takeover of the city. Since the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region has traditionally functioned as continental Europe’s most expansive industrial base, Cologne was particularly targeted by Allied bombing campaigns during World War Two, resulting in the destruction of 95% of the city’s buildings. Reconstruction of Cologne’s most prominent cultural treasures lasted through to the 1990s.
View from the Rhine
While Cologne is hardly one of Europe’s most enthralling destinations, I was certainly impressed by the obvious liveability of the city. The population of Cologne is approximately one million (avid readers would be aware of my ambivalence towards small cities), but its location within a polycentric megalopolis within three hours drive of five countries augers a sense of centrality, connection and busyness bereft in comparably sized cities (such as isolated Stockholm). The inner core is highly functional, atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing, despite the prevalence for modernist structures. The preservation of relatively narrow streets and an emphasis on refined, rather than bombastic and imposing, architecture during Cologne’s reconstruction has successfully created a bustling, integrated community. The city is enlivened by major festivals throughout the year and boasts unique cultural traditions, cuisine and beer.
Utterly dominating the cityscape and defining the urban landscape is the Koln Dom, one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals. Construction of the Dom commenced in the thirteenth century, but it was not finished until more than 600 years later in 1880. The completion of the Dom was celebrated throughout the German Empire as a monument to the newly formed nation and a direct connection between medieval and modern German societies. The Dom features two spires of epic proportions that belittle all other structures in the inner city. The bulk of the building is also remarkably high, cavernous and foreboding. The immensity of the Dom is totally awe-inspiring and surprises you with every glance. The size is grossly disproportionate to neighbouring buildings and constitutes the only distinguishable element of the city from afar. Cologne Station and the city’s two most prominent squares surround the Dom, while major thoroughfares radiate from all sides. The Dom is embellished with dense layers of Gothic ornamentation, which exhibit considerable decay from centuries of weathering. This effect amplifies the haunting sense the Dom exudes.
Another prized and iconic feature of Cologne is the collection of twelve Romanesque churches that dot the inner city. The Romanesque dominated architecture in Western Europe from the reign of Charlemagne to the rise of the Gothic. The Romanesque was intended project power through mimicking the Classical architecture of Ancient Rome, although the truly impressive feats of Roman structural engineering failed to be replicated through lack of knowledge. Cologne’s surviving Romanesque heritage is unique among European cities, because most Romanesque churches were converted to Gothic structures. The thousand year old churches form particularly prominent landmarks in the city, as they are mostly surrounded by modernist buildings. While all the churches are characteristically Romanesque with bulky, monolithic and platonic designs replete with arches and vaulted ceilings, they each feature distinctive appearances (some with soaring square-based bell-towers, others with fake domes above the altars (the ability to construct domes was lost from Christendom for a thousand years).
Basilicia of the Holy Apostles
On the last weekend of November each year, a dozen sprawling Christmas markets materialise throughout central Cologne to fill the city with unrivalled merriment for the duration of the festive season. Thousands of jubilant visitors and locals alike pour into the markets each day between 10am and 10pm. With characteristic German punctuality, all stalls suddenly close at precisely ten o’clock, even with excessive crowds still eager for food and beverages. The stalls sell a melange of handcrafted German products, Christmas decorations, traditional German food, gluwein and beer. At night, the markets are illuminated by dazzling Christmas lights hanging from stalls, overhead wires and festooned on enormous Christmas trees. Below the towering spires of Kolner Dom is the city’s most iconic market, Weihnachstmarkt am Dom. The market is embellished with kitsch decorations and bright Christmas colours, no doubt to satisfy the predominately touristic crowd. The nearby “house gnomes Christmas market” in the heart of the Old Town is far more spacious, relaxed and historical. The stalls that line the winding alleys of this market reflect the traditional occupations of residents in Cologne (i.e. butcher, tailor, baker). The nickname for the market is derived from the legend that house gnomes once assisted their masters with their daily jobs. The stalls in this market are constructed from heavy carved wood with refined and tasteful Christmas decorations. The market also boasts an ice-skating rink and an area for a game similar to lawn bowls on ice. We also visited a market by the river with a maritime theme, a market beside a medieval city gate and the Market of Angels where all the stalls were white chalets. The markets are busy throughout the day but are particularly atmospheric in the early evening when locals flood in for post-work drinks.
While Liam’s gauntness is perhaps suggestive of a diet similar to Sean’s, fortunately his enthusiasm for the meat-and-starch heavy cuisine of Germany almost matches mine. We sampled numerous specialties of the Rhine region at the Christmas markets, including crispy deep-fried potato pancakes with apple sauce and cranberry sauce (Liam repeatedly expressed his disapproval for mixing sweet and savoury components in a dish), button mushrooms in creamy garlic sauce and Alsatian pizza (thin crust with crème fraiche, onions and bacon). Liam identified that the markets were littered with stalls specialising in the the cuisines of other German-speaking regions (Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland). I gorged on a delicious Austrian dessert called kaiserschmarrn, which consists of chopped pancakes with apple sauce and cherry sauce. We enjoyed several mugs of gluwein at the markets, the heavenly Christmas concoction of warm spiced red wine. I kept a boot shaped mug from one of the stalls, but unfortunately it smashed in my luggage.
Liam McG with potato pancakes
Kolsch is a pale lager that is synonymous with Cologne. Kolsch is always served in thin 210 millilitre glasses, rather than the steins of Bavaria, to ensure the beer is drank cold. To compensate for the relatively small servings, waiters hover around tables with trays of Kolsch beer, ready to replace empty glasses. We dined at a traditional beerhall twice to indulge in hefty portions of German fare and try Kolsch (in my opinion, not a terribly exciting drop). We eagerly snacked on one of Cologne’s most unique dishes, mett on a bun. The meat in question was raw minced pork (I was not aware that this is safe to consume), served with sliced raw onion and caraway seeds on an open bread roll. I ordered arguably the Rhineland’s most famous dish, sauerbraten, a pot roast of beef or, more traditionally, horse. The meat is marinated for several days in red wine, vinegar and spices before cooking. To counter the sourness of the marinade, the roasted meat is served with a gravy that is sweetened by the addition of raisins and red beet syrup. I was surprised to discover that the sauerbraten presented before me was in fact horse, which I found notably less tender than beef. The complex sweet-and-sour flavour of the dish, served with potato dumplings and apple sauce, was rather delicious though. On our next evening in the beerhall, I ate roasted beef with brown sauce, onions and baked potato with an enormous dollop of sour cream and gherkins.
I enjoyed an excellent weekend trip to Cologne that certainly ignited my anticipation for the festive season. Cologne is a pleasant city to explore and indulge in a dose of artery-clogging German fare. Thank you to Liam McGuinness for joining me in Cologne and hopefully we’ll rendezvous in another Central European city in the future!
That’s all for now,