Tag Archives: Cologne

COLOGNE, GERMANY – just Another Bloody Cathedral?

I’m sure I’m not the first tourist to suffer cathedral fatigue. I’ve heard about the ‘ABC’ of travel – ‘another bloody city – another bloody cathedral.’ I’ve never taken any interest in gothic architecture, so why should I suddenly find it fascinating just because I’m in Cologne?

But a tour of Cologne’s biggest attraction quickly becomes fascinating, because guide Franz’s stories help us reflect on the beliefs, endurance, ingenuity, and sometimes gullibility of those who constructed and used this cathedral through the centuries. Cologne Cathedral is not just about architecture, or Goths for that matter – it’s about people.

Secret church services were held on this site in the second or third centuries, when Christians were still persecuted, but things only really got going in 1164, when the bodies of the three Magi were transferred here from Milan. Pilgrims flocked to Cologne to see them, and still do.

It was St Helena who originally brought the Magi to Europe, along with other ‘holy’ relics she found conveniently lying around when she made her trip to the holy lands. She may not have been the first gullible tourist to be sold fake artefacts by local shysters, but Helena was Constantine the Great’s mum, so when she returned with her souvenirs, few dared challenge their authenticity.

Three Kings


The Magi were relabelled ‘Three Wise Kings’ to avoid any confusion with street magicians, and in 1248 the Cologners started work on a cathedral to accommodate them. The kings now lie in a gold, jewel-encrusted sarcophagus, behind bullet-proof glass, ‘to protect the jewels,’ says Franz, ‘rather than to preserve the relics.’

Once a year at Epiphany, the casket is opened and visitors can peer inside. The kings have been enhanced over the years. Crowns have been added to make the bones look more royal, but since they couldn’t be fitted on the recumbent skeletons, authorities removed the skulls for the coronation.

Scientific examination established that the bones belonged to gentlemen who died aged about 55, 35 and 15. No problem, said the cathedral authorities quickly; it’s perfectly possible that one of the kings could have been a boy.

Once the Kings were interred there, other customers wanted to RIP close to them, hoping it would somehow speed their passage to heaven. The honour was reserved for archbishops only, but in 1371 Duke Gottfried of Alsberg paid a fortune to get his place by the Kings. He was an unpopular inclusion, so his supine statue is covered with an iron cage to deter vandals.

Despite financial contributions from the likes of Gottfried, the money ran out in the sixteenth century, and the builders ran out soon afterwards. The ancient crane that had been used to haul stone to the tops of columns creaked to a halt, perhaps to the relief of the six convicts who’d had the unenviable job of operating it, running on a treadmill like human hamsters.

The crane stayed motionless for the next three hundred years. For centuries Cologne was known as the ‘city of the crane’. Then in 1824 more funds were found and work resumed on the twin towers. Thanks to the new technology, the spires and the cathedral façade were completed in a mere 38 years and the cathedral became the tallest building in the world.

The cathedral’s mosaic floor is also a 19th century addition. Prior to that, the floor was covered with the graves of noblemen. Unfortunately the stones covering them made imperfect seals, so recently buried bodies tended to emit an unpleasant odour, which according to Franz gave rise to the phrase ‘stinking rich’. I thought it could have given rise to the phrase ‘odour Cologne’, but I wisely kept that pun to myself. Until now.

Masochists can pay a small extra fee to climb the 509 steps up the south tower. Yes, of course I did it, and without oxygen too. The narrow spiral staircase is not recommended for the claustrophobic. It was a relief to pause halfway up to admire Fat Peter, the world’s biggest suspended bell, who is seldom rung and is naturally closed for Lent. Any more fun could be dangerous to us.

Fat Peter

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AACHEN KARNEVAL – Champagne and Charlemagne


So you thought ‘German humour’ was an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’, ‘fun run’ and ‘sporting shooter’? If you visited Aachen at Karneval time, you’d think again. The Germans of the Rhineland take their fun very seriously indeed.

Forty days before Easter, normally dour hard-working Teutonic types let their hair down, after first putting on an outrageous wig. Bank managers dress as bunny rabbits, police officers turn into pirates and demure housewives paint their faces with dripping blood and adjust their devil’s horns. The kids all love it of course.

Cologne is reputedly the centre of German Karneval festivities, and as my train approaches that town the atmosphere gets progressively crazier. By 8am my fellow train passengers are well into the champers. These are not young hoons; they’re middle-aged people who look as if they don’t do this sort of thing very often. Let’s hope not. Three women are dressed as convicts in striped jackets and caps, and a gentleman is a clown wearing a Cat in the Hat stovepipe.

Cologne Station is jam-packed with Napoleons, cowboys and skeletons. Indiana Jones links arms with a ladybug. A family of black and yellow bees buzzes past towards the mighty gothic cathedral. It’s going to be quite some party.

But I’ve arranged to meet friends in Aachen, over by the Dutch border, so I hop on the connecting train. Aachen has Karneval too, they’ve assured me, and Sunday is Children’s Day. Opposite me in my train compartment, two junior witches are doing sudokus.

The children’s parade is already in full swing when we reach Aachen’s lovely market square under the old town hall. Every school has decked out its students as Red Riding Hoods or garden gnomes. Parents must have worked long and hard to sew those Pied Piper and Smurf costumes.

The mums and dads are dressed for the occasion too. There’s an elephant drinking beer over his rubber trunk, a team of Minnie Mouses, and nuns in fishnet stockings – always good for a laugh. My friends have brought a jester’s hat for me, so I can blend into the throng.

As each float passes, the crowd shouts, ‘Oche alaaf!’ It means ‘Hooray for Aachen’ in the local dialect, but in this context it means ‘Throw some lollies over here.’ Passengers on the floats scoop up armfuls of chocolate bars, bonbons and lollipops to rain down on kids scrambling below, filling sacks and upturned umbrellas and stuffing their faces. I step back to line up a photo and get smacked on the head by a flying waffle.

This event is different from Rio’s famous Carnival; there is less flesh on view for a start, because it’s a cold, drizzly February day and frankly, the Germans don’t go in for that sort of thing. They have brass bands instead.

For a smallish town (250,000 people), Aachen has an awful lot of musicians. It seems that out of every ten Aacheners, three play the trumpet, two play the flute, one plays the trombone and the other four bang drums. They’re all on show today, blaring out Karneval songs; Oompah, oompah, Roll Out the Barrel sort of stuff.

The parade will take hours to pass, so we take a break from catching candy and stroll around the town in search of refreshments. Aachen has plenty going for it any time of year. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed in the heavy fighting as it became the first German town captured by the Americans in WWII, but as in so many German cities the rebuilding effort has been remarkable. Mediaeval streets look mediaeval again.

The old centre is dominated by the mighty dom, the cathedral founded in the 8th century by the Emperor Charlemagne, who visited for the thermal baths (the hottest in Europe, Aacheners claim). Charlemagne’s winter court was based here, and his mortal remains now reside in Aachen permanently, buried under the cathedral floor.

My local guides Knut and Ludgera show me how to feel around inside the brass door handle of the dom. The devil’s thumb is in there. The legend goes that the virtuous folk of Aachen once slammed the door on the devil, severing his thumb and making him understandably angry.

Finding sustenance other than trampled chocolate and bent waffles is no problem, since there are numerous cheap cafes catering to Aachen’s large student population. Its famous technology university draws students from all over the country, so the place has a rich cultural and social life.

Each year Aachen presents the serious Charlemagne Award to someone who has made a major contribution to European unity (German chancellor Angela Merkel is the current holder), but the Karneval committee also makes another important award – the Medal for Combatting Deadly Seriousness. Since 1950, it’s been presented to the public official adjudged to have brought the most humour and humanity to the job. There should be more of it.

The parade is coming to an end. The final float is a castle, bearing the Karneval Prince, along with his traditional attendants, the Farmer and the Virgin. The Virgin is always a man in drag, except for the few years following 1938, when the Nazis decreed that such behaviour did not befit the Master Race. She’s back in a frock in Aachen now, and most hilarious she is too.

It’s over for the day, but wait, there’s more! Tomorrow is Rosenmontag, Rose Monday, when there’s another parade, the main one of the festival, even bigger, better, longer and more professional than today’s affair. Then there’s Violet Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, before finally we bid ‘carne vale’ (farewell to meat) and get on with the serious business of Lent.

It’s been a great party. ‘Oche alaaf!’

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: The fast ICE train from Frankfurt to Aachen via Cologne takes about two and a half hours and costs EUR77.00 ($155). Cheaper, slower options are available. See website bahn.de.

Staying there and further information: aachen.de offers an accommodation booking service and also has advice on tours, events and attractions in the town.

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Filed under Germany, Travel, Travel- Europe