Cologne is a big city, the biggest on the Rhine at over a million residents. With one of the world's greatest cathedrals and more to offer, it's an obvious place for a stop on a river cruise—and that's how I got there.
It's also an obvious place to realize that while I've enjoyed both of my European river cruises on Viking immensely, the weakness of river cruising generally is that, in retrospect, we stopped by places rather than going to them. Each city allowed just a tiny taste of what was to be experienced, and that was even more obvious in a larger city.
A fairy-tale story of Cologne: Brownies did all the work, until the busy-body seen at the top of the stairs chased them away, leaving all the work for Kölners
Over the years, I've spent significant visiting time in some of the cities along the way—Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Basel—and in each one, the shore time seemed like a pleasant way to renew an old acquaintance. But where I hadn't been before, Cologne especially, I was left feeling I had just shaken hands and promised to make friends later.
Sometimes you're not the busker the crowd is watching!
That said, the central area of Cologne where our excursion focused, is a busy and animated mix of old buildings, the Cathedral included, and new, including new buildings going up behind facades being preserved from older buildings whose time is up.
The Cathedral itself I'll leave for another day; suffice it to say that it lives up to its reputation, and that in the central area around it, it's almost unavoidable, popping up behind one building, at the edge of another, never quite out of sight.
The reverence The Cathedral gets now was obviously not unmixed in the 19th century; a lot of money went into finally completing it in the 1880s after 632 years, the space immediately next to it became the site of an immense rail station (above) and the entrance to a huge bridge across the Rhine. From the front you don't notice. Around back, you couldn't miss.
Almost a rebuke: a characterless office block confronts a model of the top piece of the Cathedral towers.
There's a reason so many of the buildings surrounding the cathedral are modern; much of the city was flattened during World War 2. While the cathedral was damaged, it was never destroyed. Cynics say that's because Allied pilots found the tall steeples too good a navigational aid.
They're tall enough, by the way, that for four years they were the tallest in the world, until the Washington Monument was completed. And they are the reason for the relatively low scale of the buildings around them: UNESCO threatened to take the cathedral off the list in 2004 when plans were made for a nearby building to tower over them.
A few quiet moments nearby, with plants, ducks and a story waiting to be imagined about the man sitting on the fountain.
As one might imagine, In the blocks around the Cathedral, there are quite a few souvenir stores and places to buy...wait for it...cologne. But there's also quite a bit of food, including not only large beer-hall style restaurants but also a series of food shops including a bakery featuring wonderful 'krapfen,' known elsewhere as jelly donuts. Germany has eight or ten regional names for them, but a donut by any other name would taste so sweet.
The Hohenzollern Bridge, behind the Cathedral, was built just before World War I as a road and railway bridge, but since the 1980s only trains—over 1200 a day—and pedestrians cross the bridge. The bridge has four huge (can we say monumental?) statues of German emperors on horseback, two on each shore, including the only remaining equestrian statue of WW I Kaiser Wilhelm II.
And quite a few of the pedestrians have made it yet another site for 'love locks.'
And it is also the site of one of 23 locations in the city, including in front of the Cathedral, that mark the trail of a forced march of Roma and Sinti people to a station just across the river where they were forced onto trains bound for extermination camps. They were designed by Gunter Demnig, who originated the Stolpersteine project.
Like so many cities along the Rhine, Cologne has roots as a Roman camp and city; in many areas the river was the border at the edge of Rome's territory. And since the ancient city center is still at the center, the Roman-German museum is next-door neighbor to the Cathedral.
Unfortunately, it was another example of how much can be missed on a one-day stop: the Museum wasn't open that day, and we were limited to the outdoor exhibits on its walls.
Our ship was moored on the opposite side of the river, across from the Cathedral and bridge, giving us some very different views of the area, especially as light faded into evening.
All said: A brief stay that left me with so much more to go back for than I had any time to see on this trip!