Beneath a canopy of snow-laden clouds, Cologne dazzles visitors annually with no less than five gorgeous Christmas markets, each selling finely-wrought handcrafts and delicious freshly-made eats.
Most popular of all is the market located in the shadow of the magnificent old cathedral. Here, clustered around a 25-meter high Christmas tree, more than 150 exhibitors sell their wares from red-awninged stalls. There is also entertainment for young and old alike: choirs singing carols, brass bands playing Christmas music and popular melodies, and an old-fashioned carousel for the children. The air is redolent with the scent of Lebkuchen (iced gingerbread cookies) and marzipan-laced stollen, caramelised nuts, and hot spicy gluwein – €5 deposit for a porcelain mug, or keep your mug for the same amount as a souvenir – which is what we did.
I had long wanted to enjoy the atmosphere, sights and wares of the famous Christmas markets in Germany, and, with a friend long resident in Cologne, a flight from Stockholm to Cape Town for Christmas with the family via Cologne was the obvious answer. Lufthansa offers daily flights from Stockholm Arlanda Airport to Frankfurt or Munich, and thence to South Africa, so this was the carrier of choice for our exciting new stopover. And we were not disappointed.
We landed in Frankfurt at noon, and spent the afternoon travelling the slower scenic route by train (booked in advance) along the River Rhine. The slopes on either side of the river harbour the vineyards of the Rhine Valley, and around each bend a small town centred by a church can be seen, or a castle atop a hill – magnificent chateaux, old fortifications, or a crumbling ruin.
It was wintertime, and the landscape bleak, but still picturesque. It must be beautiful during the warmer months when the rich European vegetation is in full bloom and the river alive with summer holiday traffic. The return trip to Frankfurt at the end of our long weekend was taken with the fast train on another inland route, by which time the landscape was blanketed in snow.
We chose the Hotel Ibis Köln next to the Cologne Central Station for its close proximity to the Old Town with the Cathedral, significant Romanesque churches, museums, and pedestrianised shopping avenues – and of course the Christmas markets – all easily reached on foot. This hotel is convenient, comfortable and adequately-equipped, with friendly staff and a surprisingly good buffet breakfast. Lunch was on-the-hop – usually something tasty from the markets, and on one decadent occasion, hot chocolate and gateau at Café Reichard near the Cathedral.
Never hail a tardy waitress at this illustrious establishment, it is an “insult” to her Germanic efficiency. When our busy waitress finally arrived at our table, she claimed she had noticed us, though of this we’d had no indication. The place was abuzz with locals, lunching and meeting for coffee, cake and animated conversation. But be prepared to wait, for an experience of a lifetime, in this popular Viennese-styled coffee shop-restaurant.
The Home of the Elves is another of the Christmas markets in the old town, on Alter Markt and Heumarkt. Located near the old Rathaus (Town Hall – completed in 1414), it is the largest of the markets. There are ten different themed aisles, including sweets, hot foods and toys, and an impressive range of performing artists and craftsmen from all over Europe. There is a skating “adventure world” – a space of around 2,400 square meters – where performances take place on the ice. It is beautifully illuminated and quite magical at night, and apparently open until two weeks after Christmas.
The Angels’ Market lies in the heart of the city, at the Neumarkt, surrounded by lovely old townhouses each with its own individually-designed gable.
Easier to navigate, with its broad isles, this market had an abundance of stalls selling beautifully-wrought glass objects and ornaments.
As with all the markets, there were wooden carved hanging decorations featuring the Dom or a Christmas theme, cathedral-shaped chocolates, giant loaves of home-made nougat, hand-made chocolates, soaps, candles and woolen goods. Workmen could be seen plying their ancient trades, such as this cobbler:
The St. Nicholas Village market stands on Rudolfplatz in the city centre, in front of the historic Hahnentorburg Gate.
This is where St. Nicholas and Santa Claus could be found, and children were busy writing letters to these legendary characters, enumerating their Christmas wish lists. There are a large Advent calendar, a village chapel, a children’s workshop, and a programme of performances to entertain the tourists. A meeting point for strolling, enjoying and feasting in homely cosiness. A place where traditional and modern meet – according to the excellent informative brochure.
There is also a market on the Rhine, the Cologne Harbour Christmas Market, where one can purchase high-quality goods, artisan handicrafts and fine culinary delicacies, and enjoy an extensive programme and a great atmosphere.
A toy train, the Christmas Market Express, transports tourists from one market to another: €10 for adults, €5 for children. There is also a Cologne Crib Trail – Follow the star! – presenting the international art of the nativity scene at more than 110 locations.
Explore the city of the Holy Magi with an informed guided tour through Christmas markets, churches and splendidly decorated Christmas shop windows! The food stores exhibit mouth-watering displays of gingerbread houses, deli-foods, baked goods, chocolates and expensive imports.
There are also river trips and coach tours around the city, and bus or train transport to neighbouring towns such as Düsseldorf and Bonn – where I made a visit to Beethoven’s birth house museum in 2005.
But Cologne has much more to offer than the annual Xmas markets; its 2 000-year-old history is a colourful narrative of legend, war, and restoration. Founded by the Romans during the 1st century as the Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, this metropolis spanning the River Rhine is the oldest city in Germany. It soon developed into one of the Empire’s most important trade and manufacturing centres north of the Alps. Conquered by the Franks during the 5th century, and established by Charlemagne as the seat of an Archbishopric in 785, it also became the seat of a Prince-Elector during the 14th century, and a significant member of the Hanseatic League. The citizens established the first municipal university in 1388. Most of the city was destroyed during the bombing in World War II – except for the Cathedral, and subsequently lovingly restored. Today Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany, after Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, and the largest city in the German federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia with a population of just over a million inhabitants.
At the heart of the old town is the primary tourist destination and symbol of the city, the Dom (Gothic Cathedral) – a World Heritage Site since 1998. The legends of St. Gereon and St. Ursula established Cologne as a pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages, for this is where the alleged remains of the Three Wise Men were brought in 1164. A shrine was needed for the bones, for which a beautiful golden casket was created in 1215, and a cathedral was needed to house the shrine.
The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid in 1248, but it was not completed at that time, with building ceasing altogether during 1560 due to an outbreak of the plague. Ironically it was the Protestant Prussians who completed it is 1880, at which point it became the tallest building in the world. There are magnificent stained glass windows, including a modern one designed by Gerhard Richter, and a wooden carved pulpit dating from 1544. Services take place regularly, halting the visitors’ progress through its magnificent hushed interior. But I did attend a mediocre guided tour which gave me some sense of the building’s history, art, and stories.
Gross St. Martin is one of the city’s celebrated Romanesque churches, built on the foundations of Roman warehouses. It was consecrated in 1172, and the tower completed in 1200, and was the city’s most famous landmark until upstaged by the Cathedral.
The Römisch-Germanisches Museum displays many interesting artifacts dating from the city’s first settlement in prehistoric and Roman times. The star attraction is the beautiful Dionysus mosaic which was lifted from the dining room of a 3rd century Roman villa.The Museum Ludwig houses the city’s entire modern art collection from the 20th and 21st centuries, while the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Foundation Corboud houses art from the medieval period to the 19th century Impressionists, beautifully exhibited in chronological order. I was particularly captivated by the miniature scenes painstakingly painted into the backgrounds of many of the late Medieval-early Renaissance “double-view” paintings:
We were disappointed to find the Zeughaus (Armoury) – Cologne City Museum – which explains the history of the city, closed for renovations due to a water leak, but were consoled to hear from our friends that we hadn’t missed very much.
For a magnificent view over the city, even in winter, it is worth taking the lift to the 28th floor of the Köln Triangle on the opposite bank, and a further 29 steps up to a viewing platform. The view must be truly exceptional on a fine day – apparently reaching as far as the distant hills.
This building is reached via the impressive Hohenzollernbrücke (bridge), which carries rail and road vehicles as well as pedestrians.
For beautiful medieval art, a visit to Museum Schnütgen is a rewarding experience: carved figures of saints in wood and ivory, gold and precious stone-encrusted reliquaries, embroidered textiles and exquisite stained-glass windows.
Most of these valuable pieces are displayed in one of Cologne’s oldest churches, the Romanesque Church of St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music), depicted in the window above. The ancient hushed interior engenders a sense of reverence and awe:
The House of Fragrances at number 4711 Glockengasse, is the place to buy the city’s most iconic product: eau de cologne. T
There is a fragrance fountain, the opportunity to create your own eau de cologne during an exclusive fragrance seminar, or an exquisite four-course fragrance menu at the wonderful fragrance museum. There are delightful souvenirs and gifts to purchase at this elegant emporium, with smaller outlets dotted around the old town.
The endearing Heinzelmännchen-Brunnen (fountain) depicts August Kopisch’s 1836 fairy-tale about the city’s elves. According to legend, these little folk worked hard during the night doing all the citizens’ work – until a tailor’s curious wife scattered peas on her stairs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the curious miracle-workers. The elves slipped on the peas, tumbled down the stairs, and disappeared forever. Thereafter Cologne’s inhabitants had to do all the work themselves! Situated on a peninsular in the Rhine is the Imhoff-Stollwerck Chocolate Museum.
This delightful museum was founded by Hans Imhoff in 1993, and exhibits an illustrated history of chocolate from its early beginnings with the Olmencs, Maya and Aztecs in South America to contemporary products and production methods. There is a small tropicarium housing cacao trees, a 3-metre-high chocolate fountain, and a shop selling a wide variety of chocolate products and pralines, mostly manufactured by Lindt and Sprüngli.
There was much taking place in the city during December, but unfortunately nothing to our taste during our three-night stay: concerts performed by the Cologne Philharmonie, a “Christmas dinner show”, Johan Strauss’s ever-popular operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat,) Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold – für Kinder (The Rhinegold – For Children), “improvisational theatre”, a Night of the Proms, the musical Die Schöne und das Biest (Beauty and the Beast) and a Sing-along concert in Cologne dialect. We had hoped to hear an organ or choral concert in the Dom, or the Philharmonie, but only Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was being performed, in a distant town. However we did enjoy the music of the street musicians, especially an excellent brass band that played not only Christmas music but arrangements of well-known classics as well.
The city offers shopping experiences for every taste, especially along Schildergasse and Hohe Strasse, the two busiest pedestrian streets that boast iconic department stores such as Galeria Kaufhof. This multi-floored emporium sells beautiful clothes, shoes, cosmetics, accessories, and below street level, a fabulous food hall with several eateries.
There are seven “passages” – or shopping arcades – in the city, harbouring exquisite boutiques, delicatessens, chocolatiers, and antiques, fabrics and shoe stores, florists, Villeroy & Bosch crockery, galleries, and the Bechstein piano store: Neumarkt-Galerie, Neumarkt Passage, Opern Passagen, DuMont-Carreé, Köln Arcaden, and WDR-Arkaden.
For a genuine German Brauhaus (brewery) meal experience with our friends, we chose Peter’s Brauhaus with its beautiful interior adorned with an art nouveau stained-glass ceiling, and friendly waiters. Each drinks order is jotted down on a cardboard coaster, and tallied at the end.
Eisbein, schnitzel, and fried potatoes, washed down with hearty beer, concluded a thoroughly enjoyable long-weekend in this festive and fascinating old city.
An old Roman saying goes: He who has not seen Cologne has not seen Germany. Because there is so much so see in this magnificent old city! Sources:
- Cologne city tourism office : brochures, maps and flyers