While I was waiting in the Hauptbahnhof for my train back to Dusseldorf from Cologne, I happened upon a postcard in a newspaper shop with a Google Earth-type photo of the city (Köln in German) in the days following World War II. The town lay in shambles except for the majestic Cologne Cathedral, rising out of the ruins as if saved only by the grace of God. (In fact, it was hit by 14 bombs during World War II, but somehow managed to escape collapse and was repaired in the 1950’s.) This centrally located station, built in 1889 and welcoming approximately 1,300 trains each day, provides a front door to the Kölner Dom, one of the world’s greatest churches.
As I do not speak German, I asked for directions to the cathedral at my hotel in Dusseldorf and was (almost dismissedly) told, “If you are arriving by train, you can’t miss it.” My first thought upon exiting the train station and seeing the 13th century Gothic behemoth looming before me was, “Wow, when they said you can’t miss it they really meant you can’t miss it.”
Known as Holy Cologne during the Middle Ages for its high number of churches and relics, the city became a pilgrimage of sorts and led Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden in 1248 to commission the building of a new structure worthy of these trips. To accomplish this, a momentous decision was made not to construct the new church in the Romanesque architecture of Germany, but to instead turn to the “modern” Gothic style of French cathedrals.
Centuries passed before the Cologne Cathedral, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, was complete. When work was halted in 1473, leaving the south tower halfway done with a construction crane still left on top, local citizens said they could hear creaks and groans at night as it moved in the wind. In 1842, citizens formed the Zentral-Dombau-Verein with the aim of completing construction and, when the final stone was laid in 1880 and celebrated by Kaiser Wilhelm I, the cathedral’s total cost came to the equivalent of approximately one billion Euros today.
At nearly 160 meters when finished, it was the tallest building in the world for four years, until it was beat out by the Washington Monument. It is still the tallest gothic building in the world and houses the world’s largest free-swinging bell, St. Peter’s Bell, weighing in at 24 tons. As is typical of Gothic churches, the north and south towers point toward the sky as if trying to reach up to heaven and the plot of the church is in the form of a cross.
To get an outstanding view of the Rhine River and surrounding city, I walked around the west entrance to climb the tower stairs. After paying my 50 Eurocents to use the restroom (it’s very common in Europe to have to pay a small amount to use a public restroom), I go below ground level past Roman ruins in the cellar and through a tunnel to the ticket window, where I fork over three Euros and begin my ascent.
The narrow, spiral stone staircase is dizzying but fascinating – about half the way up you can see the change in stonework, from rock used from Bonn quarries during medieval times to sandstone favored by nineteenth century builders. 533 steps later (I stopped once to catch my breath), I entered the windy viewing platform and encountered a gaggle of British school children while the smell of old stone and metal filled my nostrils. Upon seeing another adult, their chaperone turned to me and asked, “Is there a stretcher to take you back down?” No, there is no elevator here.
Back at ground level and feeling satisfied that I got my exercise for the day, I walked through one of the cathedral’s main doors where I was promptly admonished by a middle aged docent saying something in German and pointing to my stocking cap which I assumed meant take off your hat. (No, I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I was just cold- it was December after all.) My first stop was a large Christmas nativity scene to the left of the entrance which invited me to “join personally in the moment of God’s incarnation and to think about its significance in my own life.”
Along with the stunning stained glass windows (shimmering colors dot the church walls even on the darkest of winter days), as anyone who has visited the grand cathedrals of Europe knows, relics have an important place in preserving church history. In the Chapel of the Cross, an oak crucifix donated by Archbishop Gero around 965, said to be the oldest remaining monumental crucifix in the Western World, represents a lifeless Christ.
The remains of the Three Kings of the Magi are said to have found their final resting place here, located in a gold sarcophagus behind the altar. If you feel the need to see more church treasures and have a few Euros to spare, a visit to the cathedral’s treasury would delight. Re-opened in 2000, the treasury is located in underground vaults originally built in the 13th century. Divided into six exhibition rooms, visitors can see works of art made of gold, silver and ivory as well as relics and textiles dating as far back as the fourth century. As I am there during the Christmas season, I build in time to visit “Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom,” or the Christmas market at the Cologne Cathedral, where the smells of roasting chestnuts and Gluhwein (hot spiced red wine) fill the air amid a sea of vendors selling arts and crafts, scented soaps and, of course, holiday trinkets.
Standing on the steps of the west side of the cathedral and tightening my scarf to walk back to the train, I hear the church bells toll to designate the top of the hour while a woman behind me turns to her friend and says “Auf Wiedersehen.” Looking out at the snow gently falling on the town of Cologne I think to myself…this is one of those unforgettable travel moments.